In a world...
While Far Cry 3 was a tremendous amount of fun to play, its supporting narrative was both bewildering and ineffective. A few hours in I thought it was arranging a cerebral twist ala Fight Club, but then it unraveled into another aimless male power fantasy. Shortly after I rolled credits I read a story at Penny Arcade where Far Cry 3's creative director speculated his game meant something else entirely, the likes of which I still don't completely understand. Either way, Far Cry 3 was a game with damaging identity issues.
In contrast, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon knows exactly the kind of game, the sort of experience it wants to be; a showcase best parts of the worst parts of 80's action entertainment. It's a game that opts to embrace genre tropes rather dodge them, a celebration of the neon nightmare of future-obsessed, techno-geek media exposed through frayed paperbacks of Neuromancer, scuffed up carts of Cyborg Justice, and worn out VHS tapes of Terminator. Blood Dragon seeks to epitomize its influence through interactive entertainment, and the question wasn't whether it could accurately broadcast the sentiment demonstrated in that amazing trailer, but rather if its appeal could last beyond its obvious homage.
Blood Dragon's premise is amazing. At the end of the 20th century most of the planet was nuked and cyber commandos rose to prominence. Rex Power Colt, a Mark IV Cyber Commando, is presently concerned with wiping out an entire island of Omega Force henchmen and their leader, Sloan. Rex is thrust into the action by operating a chaingun mounted to a helicopter and told to unleash hell. In this sequence cyborgs are positioned next to volatile barrels, everything's exploding into an electric blue mess, and the art direction is awash in gross neon. It's a beautiful opening and an absorbing, contextually appropriate power fantasy. Rex seems to be invincible, and in an under a minute every symbol of 80's cinematic excess is recognized and obliged.
For all its gifts upfront, Blood Dragon’s first real mission doesn't start out with its best foot forward. A deluge of cut-scenes, a string of tutorials, and a task unrepresentative of the proper game births an obtuse first impression. Look at the bigger picture, however, and Blood Dragon seems to be getting its obligations out of the way. Dialogue exchanges are long, but they're austere to the point of hilarity and rendered through single frame, 16-bit art. The tutorials are self mocked at every instance, suggesting an acknowledgement of what's required from a game set loose upon a mass market. The actual mission, a linear escort riddled with death by way of unfamiliarity, isn't suggestive of Blood Dragon's eventual open-world, but it successfully props up the neon cyber jungle aesthetic.
After the opening mission Blood Dragon expectantly and effectively morphs into an abridged version of Far Cry 3. A photo-realistic paradise is repurposed and reskinned as a neon nightmareland. Generic henchmen with modern day weapons are replaced by the Omega Force, an endless squad of cyber soldiers who talk like Cats from the All Your Base video. Select representatives of Far Cry 3's aggressive wildlife are even retouched as cybernetic versions of their previous incarnations. Aesthetically, Blood Dragon is a professional total conversion mod of Far Cry 3. Even the areas where Blood Dragon seemingly phones it in, like the geometrically simple computers lining every interior, feel accurate to the intended time and place because, well, that's what we all thought 2007 computers would look like back in 1985.
Blood Dragon's player mechanics are also modified from its forbearer. It takes place on a smaller island ripe with enemy bases, referred to as garrisons, and it's optionally up to the player as to whether or not they want to take garrisons over or leave them be. Likewise, Rex's arsenal is composed of absurd future versions of familiar weapons, including a hyper-neon blue bow. Player progression has been condensed into 30 straight levels with defined upgrades, i.e. at level 3 your health goes up, or at level 29 you can draw and fire your bow faster. Each of the Blood Dragon's seven story missions are more linear and focused than its open world implies, but such is the language it speaks; you can either have your nostalgia administered directly and quickly via the intended path, or spread it out and absorb the extraneous on your own terms.
One of the more dramatic changes to Far Cry 3's artifice lies with the titular blood dragons that roam the land. These monsters are ruthless killing machines with an insane amount of health and laser-eyes that blast through walls, but they're also addicted to eating cyborg hearts. Cyborg hearts, as one might expect, can be pilfered from every downed foe, granting Rex a near infinite supply of dragon bait. Every enemy garrison is protected by an anti-dragon force field, but if Rex either blows up the generator or sneaks inside and switches it off, a dragon or two will quickly bust in and wreck shop. While it may seem like an alternate version of Far Cry 3's "free the animal from the cage" chaos-induction mechanic, the strategy of manipulating and dealing with dragons goes a bit deeper. Or, you know, not at all. Technically you can opt to take over garrisons guns blazing or under pure stealth, but, just like Far Cry 3, the fun is in the myriad of ways one could conceivably tackle a challenge - dragons are just another variable in the mix.
Rex's abilities, while mechanically similar to Jason Brody's, actually make more sense in Blood Dragon than they did in Far Cry 3, respectively. Of course Rex's cyber eye can scope cyborgs out at a distance, mark them, and allow Rex to see them through walls. Why wouldn't Rex be able to repair his cyborg parts with random injections or blowtorch his robot arm back into place? Rex is always angry so why shouldn't there but a button to extend his robot hand's middle finger? Upgrades, the ability to run and swim as fast as cars drive, not suffering fall damage - whatever the case, it's both hilarious, easy, and completely appropriate to write off mechanical concessions with, "Well, he's a cyborg."
At this stage Blood Dragon qualifies as an abridged remix of Far Cry 3, a relationship similar to that of Dead Rising: Case Zero to Dead Rising 2. What sets it apart, obviously, is the strength of its sublime presentation. The greatest and most effective influence is the Power Glove’s awesome soundtrack, which employs every signature 80's era synth mix with modern, “videogame music,” for lack of a better term, sensibilities. For every Terminator drum blast there's an arrangement of keys and electronic percussion dynamically consistent with what's happening around Rex. There are the tender, somber extended synths to support low-key traversal or a Top Gun style love scene, and it always escalates into a high energy blast at the slightest infliction of tension.
It's fitting that the Blood Dragon's music is consistent with an 80's aesthetic, but not since Vice City has a game's soundtrack been so important and connected to its experience. Without any appreciation for that decade's media (or hell, that entire decade) this sentiment may be lost on some players, but those that get it, those that understand the national prominence exhibited by those cheesy beats and insane and yet deathly serious cold-war era themes, Blood Dragon’s presentation is speaking a perfect language.
Blood Dragon's voice cast goes a long way too. Michael Biehn is an obvious choice for Rex, and also a perfect one. I'm in the camp that doesn't view Biehn’s post Terminator and Aliens roles as a joke, but rather a master having fun with his craft, and I firmly support any of Biehn’s acting endeavors. His work in Blood Dragon occasionally lacks a certain enthusiasm, like he's just a guy in a sound booth, but more often than not he speaks with the detached sincerity necessary to express genuine regret over Canada's nuclear sacrifice one moment and then engage in an off-the-wall, psychotically serious conversation with his on-board AI the next.
Biehn's effective delivery of rapid fire one liners ("We all go to bed when everyone's dead") is nice, but honestly his role hit a crescendo the first time I operated the Terror 4000, Blood Dragon's heavy machine gun equivalent. I was blasting away everything in sight, soldiers, bombs, and buildings, whatever - and after a solid five seconds on the trigger I set my sights on a helicopter and continued to unload. At that point Rex/Biehn just started screaming, and so did I until I let my finger off the trigger because I was collapsing with laughter. That single event was a signature handshake, a mutual acknowledgment of Blood Dragon's commitment to its big, dumb, phenomenal presence.
Blood Dragon only loses its way when it doesn't take itself seriously. Wheels that look like testicles when a silhouetted helicopter makes its landing is funny on a sophomoric level, but it feels out of place in Blood Dragon's declared level of camp. It never ventures toward the weirdly homophobic Duke Nukem garbage, but not every vignette or joke is in service to its concept. When the basic operating principle is a constant series of bigger explosions and insane plot twists, that was bound to happen, but Blood Dragon might have been a better game with a bit more restraint.
It does make a tremendous case for value. It would have been understandable if Blood Dragon were add-on content that required the Far Cry 3 disc, but that Ubisoft allowed it to be a standalone product for a normal downloadable-content price shows enormous confidence in its quality. It's part of the same reason why Case Zero was embraced and BioShock 2's Minerva's Den was criminally ignored. Blood Dragon is a post-script celebration of Far Cry 3 with a layer of madness that would never be risked on a $60 product. I completed every garrison, sidequest, collectible, and the main quest in just six hours, but the quality of the experience, the strength at which Blood Dragon consistently impressed me, made it a tremendous value. It's an intentional b-movie experience with an AAA attention to detail.
Blood Dragon is also uniquely qualified to focus a seemingly big-budget presentation through a relatively narrow window. With titles like Hotline Miami and Retro City Rampage, the indie scene is wrought with requisite odes to 80's excess and style. We're not used to that on an AAA level because it's a considerable risk for a major publisher to fund anyone with the amount of money required to translate that sentiment to a graphically and mechanically competitive game. By leveraging Far Cry 3 as its base, Blood Dragon's risk is absolved because it's still very much a critically and commercially successful game. Blood Dragon obliges its core and then runs away screaming crazy ideas without anyone getting in its way. Ubisoft wins, Blood Dragon's creative team wins, the Far Cry 3 team probably wins, and, most importantly, the consumer wins. Why can't all games be like this?