Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review – 80s are back
It’s weird to be writing this Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon review, especially as the game seemed like an elaborate joke at first. A humorously outdated website popped up, complete with a view counter, grainy GIFs, and a shop full of products you can’t actually purchase. Then there was a trailer, which looked like it was recorded on a much-used VHS tape. The narrator explains an outlandish storyline, and we saw glimpses of gameplay intermixed with animation that wouldn’t have been out of place in the late ‘80s. It’s all very neon and very dumb, a publisher having some fun.
Months later, surprise! Blood Dragon was a legitimate game, a standalone downloadable title, seemingly only connected to the critically acclaimed first-person shooter from 2012 by name. But what exactly is Blood Dragon, this ludicrous, crass, and phosphorescent anomaly that’s found its way onto our consoles and PC’s? As Ubisoft Montreal bluntly claims, it’s just plain stupid; but Blood Dragon’s intentional, retro-soaked stupidity is meticulously crafted and conveyed, and it manages to highlight some uncomfortable truths about contemporary shooters in the process.
Blood Dragon offers a vision of the “future,” one seemingly viewed through a set of vintage Wayfarers, tinted with cinematic and gaming excess. The year is 2007, and as the game states, “the apocalypse has had an apocalypse.” This is a future where nuclear warfare has devastated a majority of the planet, and elite, military cybernetic soldiers exist to preserve what little is left of the world. You are, of course, one of these soldiers, a technologically-enhanced killing machine named Sergeant Rex “Power” Colt. Colt is presented as an exaggerated stereotype of a hero, a super-soldier with an unwavering and extreme sense of patriotism, so when the Americans get word of a mysterious island being used as a research facility and base of operations for a rogue group of soldiers, Rex is obviously the man for the job.
Blood Dragon’s main storyline unfolds quickly; at face value it’s fairly straightforward, and heavily influenced by story arcs and characterizations popularized by ‘80s action movies. Colt is an extreme version of the one-man-army, complete with a rotating arsenal of one-liners, which range from groan-inducing and cheesy to nonsensical (“I’ll go to bed when everybody’s dead,” was one of my favorites). Blood Dragon is a well thought out parody at heart; while plenty of titles have embraced the aesthetic appeal of retro games, using it as a crutch or a gimmick, Blood Dragon seems to be more than simply an attempt to monetize on our sense of nostalgia.
References to various movies and games are constantly made, and sometimes layered within each other. The dialogue and gameplay offers shout outs to Robocop one minute, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the next. The cut scenes are pixilated and dated, calling to mind a generation of games many of us look back fondly upon. The loading screens are even delightful, as they display a tracking bar from a VCR, complete with static streaking across the screen. The various music featured is incredibly synth and base heavy, and always hits the right notes, setting the proper tone for each scene or encounter. Blood Dragon also has an endless supply of references, and it almost seems as if it’s constantly asking, “Hey, do you remember this?”
This is what Blood Dragon is going for. It asks us to look back at the clichés popularized by a genre, throwing everything it possibly can the players face. Truthfully, its self-aware stupidity does actually result in an enjoyable and sometimes funny experience. And while parody can be difficult to pull off, and humor in games can be just as tough, but Blood Dragon manages to succeed on both accounts. The game is so direct and conscious of itself, and so utterly immature, that you can’t help but laugh, or at least appreciate the effort.
The gameplay itself remains largely unchanged from Far Cry 3, but the experience is more streamlined; Blood Dragon isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just give it a flashier set of rims. The controls remain unchanged, and the variety of weapons is reduced and remixed to fit the new theme. Each weapon is easily upgraded to the point of being ludicrously overpowered, and again, many serve as references, such as the pistol that’s incredibly reminiscent of the one featured in Robocop. These little things matter, such as the updated tutorial, that explains the obvious, like that ammunition is needed to reload and fire your weapons or that money is required to purchase things.
There are also a number of skills that can be upgraded which have been recycled from Far Cry 3, but the game takes care of all the actual leveling up for you, without offering the player any choice as to how to invest their XP. Rex is already a nearly indestructible from the start, and it doesn’t take very long for him to become nearly invincible. Earning XP is easy, and while you’re still granted additional points for stealth kills and take-downs, the game seems to emphasize the most direct, explosive approach. This can prove troubling for those who enjoyed the stealth elements of Far Cry 3; there’s little incentive to sneak your way through any skirmish or encounter, and setting off alarms doesn’t matter as much. It’s a pared down experience, and though there’s some room for experimentation, the reward is minimal. In terms of skill and mentality, Rex is something like Jason Brody towards the end of Far Cry 3: overpowered and reckless.
You’re given a smaller island to explore, and optional missions are limited to assassinations and rescues. Outposts are now garrisons, and you’re liberating scientists, not rebels, from the clutches of Omega Force. Enemy variety remains about the same, and their behavior is seemingly unchanged. Blood Dragon isn’t necessarily trying to change the first-person shooter, elevate the medium, or offer a dramatic reimagining of the genre. Ubisoft has simply taken what they have and presented it in a new, outlandish light, having some fun in the process.
The most noticeable difference in gameplay is the addition of the titular blood dragons, hulking, glowing beasts that tower over enemies and wildlife, shooting lasers and charging the player. These behemoths dumbly prowl an island bathed in seemingly perpetual dusk and neon, feeding on the hearts of dead cyber soldiers. Scavenge an enemy body and you’ll rip out their heart, drenched in toxic-looking bright blue blood, which can be used as either a distraction or as a lure for the dragons. Throw a heart into an occupied garrison and let the dragon fight for you, clearing out the enemies before you take control of the compound. It’s a novel addition that provides a light sense of strategy, but it can feel cheap. Rex isn’t presented as the type of guy who has his someone else fight his battles for him.
In the end Blood Dragon just works because it addresses the tropes, the plot and character clichés that have become so prevalent in modern shooters and it embraces them. It doesn’t attempt to add any depth by making a moral or social statement; we can identify the villains and the heroes, and there isn’t any grey area provided for the sake of conflict. Each year franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield are given the “Michael Bay” label, and they’re deemed sensational, over-hyped throwaways by a very vocal group of players.
In truth these sorts of games do share some common traits: the inevitable one-liners, and maybe some attempt at shock through violence. We’ve seen the flamboyant explosions and the car chases with mounted turrets. Maybe a double cross, and if the game is daring it will kill off a prominent character in order to squeeze a bit of emotion out of the player. Some heavy-handed philosophizing is also necessary, and most importantly, you have got to be saving the world.
It’s refreshing that a game like Blood Dragon can recognize that maybe the mainstream FPS has become a little stale and deserves to be lampooned a little bit. It chooses to do so through an ‘80s pastiche and re-skinning an existing product, and it’s surprisingly effective. Blood Dragon also recognizes that sometimes there is something appealing about pure stupidity, and how a game can benefit from taking a step back and just not taking itself so seriously.