In a genre that’s getting more crowded every month, survival sandbox New Dawn is hoping to carve out a niche. Set on a colonial-era South American Island, this early-access title has you taking on the role of native inhabitants trying to defend themselves against a sophisticated population of pirates and colonists. But, with the huge range of choice now available, is it worth exploring?
At the moment, it’s one for the sandbox fans. While the gorgeous scenery is certainly worth exploring, there’s nothing to make it feel like a living ecosystem that you’re stepping into. Crafting a camp is limited to pre-set items, putting a crimp on creativity. And, once you work out a few tricks, it becomes very easy to thrive.
Throw in several landscape glitches, occasional performance issues, and some very odd itemisation, and you’ve got a mix that’s clearly not ready for prime time. Even so, italian indie studio E-visualsoft are regularly adding new content, fixing bugs and providing updates in the two months since it arrived on Steam.
My first impressions of New Dawn ranged from mild frustration, to cringing discomfort, to outright boredom. It started with the setting and creating a Native character, and I couldn’t help but feel awkward as I clicked through the various choices without having a clue what they meant. I know that cultural appropriation is a loaded term, but that’s what I was feeling here.
Despite this, the South American island is beautiful, featuring rapid river canyons and dramatic cliffs, all liberally coated with lush and dense vegetation. Resources are abundant, and it’s easy to quickly start gathering armfuls of cotton, stone and iron. The dramatic twists and turns mean that it’s easy to lose your way, but there are plenty of distinctive landmarks (and a built-in compass) to help orient yourself.
Unfortunately, it’s not a jungle that’s teeming with life. Although birds can be heard calling constantly, there’s never a glimpse of them flying around, making me wonder if it’s just piped noise being pumped into a tourist attraction. I did encounter bears, wolves and elk while I explored, but no smaller critters or larger predators.
Making up for that lack of biodiversity are various pirate camps, which are conveniently scattered throughout the island. These musket-wielding invaders are quick to attack, but the holdouts can contain useful items and discoveries. But before I started attacking their base, I needed to build one of my own.
No Holiday Camp
Getting a new home going took a few attempts. This is partly because I respawned in a random location every time I died, making it tricky to get back to all my stuff sometimes - I even repeatedly killed myself at one point, just to respawn that little bit closer. Building a house is easy enough due to the abundance of materials, but making a bed (which acts as a valuable fixed respawn point) required leather. Which meant going hunting, getting eaten by bears, and starting over again.
Like many sandboxes, there’s a trick to surviving those first few nights. By building traps and scattering them around my hut, I could capture small creatures for meat and (sometimes) leather. But more importantly, I learned that chasing elk around the map and attracting every bear for miles was stupid. Instead, I loaded my bow for bear, stuffing them with arrows as they chased towards me. Staying on target was easier; I didn’t have to run everywhere and they’d usually die at my feet. Very convenient.
It also meant that I didn’t need to start exploring after establishing my base. Because resources are randomly scattered and wildlife seemed to have fixed spawn points, it only took a short walk to gather everything I needed. If anything, I quickly switched from hunter to farmer.
Crafting and construction also seemed to jump between confusing and disappointing at times. New Dawn’s buildings are all pre-formed - there’s no walls or windows or roof tiles you can drop down - which makes a camp look nicer but also limits creativity. But there’s also a huge range of tools and weapons available to craft, with no clear indication of their specialism or usefulness.
This is also where New Dawn’s pirate camps come in. The idea is that by defeating the invaders and stealing their stuff, you can gradually work out how to craft new items. This can involve travelling significant distances and risking a hefty amount of gear just to pull off a one-man-raid.
Which makes getting stuck on scenery, or glitched between two boulders, incredibly annoying. They say suicide is painless, but not when you’re wearing a set of armour and are armed to the teeth. Oh well, back to bears it is.
Ultimately, New Dawn is struggling to carve out a niche in a genre that’s already becoming crowded with options. Although gorgeous, the jungle island quickly loses its mystery as the various pirate camps are uncovered. There doesn’t feel like any reason to explore beyond that, where it would be great to uncover tribal secrets or forgotten history.
On top of the gameplay limitations, performance issues are also creeping in. Even on my high-end rig there are times where the framerate would tank, usually if I’d just respawned or was moving into a new area. That sudden drop to slide-show is virtually unplayable, which is the last thing you want when facing off a bear.
Even so, these are the early days of early access. As long as New Dawn manages to retain a passionate crowd of players that will keep providing feedback, and while Italian studio e-visualsoft keeps working on updates, there’s every chance this could grow into something more. For now, however, it’s difficult to recommend New Dawn to a larger crowd.