Words really cannot do justice to this game; it must be seen to be understood. Its trailer captures and relates the spirit of the game:
It is the future! The year is 2007. The apocalypse has had an apocalypse. Remember those old trashy action movies that used to come on after dark on cable, that you taped and watched endlessly as a kid? This game is one of those movies. As the designers call it, Blood Dragon is an ’80s VHS vision of the future, a flashback to what action movies in the Reagan years depicted the future—err, our recent past. It’s overwrought, overflowing with ultraviolence, spewing forth one-liners and bad puns in every direction.
I think I’m in love.
Instead of loading screens, there are “tracking” screens; the draw-distance doesn’t have obscuring haze or fog, it has VHS scan lines. The in-game movies are straight out of the 16-bit console era. Protagonist Rex Powercolt (a gravelly voiced Michael Biehn) is influenced by Universal Soldier, with more than a little G.I. Joe thrown in; his nemesis Colonel Sloan wears the same kind of chainmail vest as the bad guy in Commando. The weapons are homages to such classics as Terminator 2 (shotgun), Predator (minigun), and Robocop (pistol, sniper rifle). The jeeps are straight out of every bad action movie ever, right down to their horrible off-road handling. And let’s not forget the eponymous blood dragons, giant neon lizards that shoot freakin’ laser beams from their eyes.
Actually, just about everything here is doused in neon—the bow glows blue neon, the hordes of cyber-goons glow red neon, the scenery is a sugar rush of colors. Compared to most shooters, which are drenched in a range of bland from “earth-tones” to “shit-covered,” Blood Dragon is almost seizure-inducing. It’s also got an impressive retro soundtrack from Australian music duo Power Glove that’s been on heavy rotation on my iPod since it released.
The gameplay is radically different from the other Far Crys; for the first time, I felt like a true badass in a video game. You can run faster than those crappy jeeps, you have stealthy takedowns for enemies, and while your level-up path is linear, you get plenty of excellent upgrades. The blend of action and stealth is excellent, and it’s equally possible to run in guns blazing, or sneak around killing enemies with your bow and stealth takedowns. Though, the game takes a perverse pleasure in having those stealth scenarios go awry, and there’s a chaotic exuberance to fucking up at being stealthy and getting into a prolonged firefight where reinforcements (and blood dragons) are called in.
At first, I thought of another major franchise combining comedy and violence, the Saints Row series. The two are very different flavors. Saints Row has increasingly been approaching comedy like a baseball-bat-sized floppy purple dildo to the face—an over-the-top assault of crazy. Blood Dragon is much more tongue in cheek, only where the tongue is protruding through the gaping hole in said cheek, and more than occasionally turns into a leering grimace. Some of its lines are drop-dead hilarious; others, like Rex arguing with his internal A.I. over tutorials, and some of the oft-recycled one-liners when he kills a cyber-goon, can come off as grimly glib, even forced. After all, this is the game where you rip out the enemy’s glowing blue cyber-hearts and use them to lure neon dinosaurs around the map.
About halfway through the game I realized that, underneath its candy-colored shell and assortment of ’80s references, this is still a Far Cry game, and living in a post-Far Cry 2 world means a lot of cycling enemy patrols, assaulting cookie-cutter bases, doing three types of similar side-quest to unlock upgrades, and finding hidden “secrets” scattered across the map. I’m not a huge fan of repetitive grind, especially when it feels like filler to pad a short single-player campaign; thankfully Blood Dragon ended up being about the right length. If you only completed the story missions, you could probably complete it in 5-6 hours. Giving in to my OCD-ness and completing all the content, along with a bit of wandering around for shits and giggles, took me a grand total of 11 hours.
About the only thing I can complain about—besides my dislike for the series’ devolution into repetitive gameplay—is that it requires Uplay, Ubisoft’s new proprietary game hub. (“But everyone else was doing it!”) While it’s no Steam, and it’s frustrating to boot into yet another platform from Steam, at least Uplay is leaps and bounds ahead of Origin. It doesn’t transfer achievements (which is why Steam doesn’t have any), but it does have an interesting system where getting achievements and accomplishments gives you Uplay points, to unlock content like wallpapers and music files. (Yippie.)
What really impresses me is that someone at Ubi came up with a risky idea, and then management let them run with it—using one of their cornerstone triple-A brands, to boot. I applaud them for taking the risks; some of the game elements feel like baby steps, like the devs could have expanded on an idea or pushed a boundary, but for the price I got more than I expected. (MSRP is $15, I picked it up during the Steam summer sale for $8.99. You can get the digital soundtrack for $7.99 at Amazon.) Also, it’s worth pointing out that the game is a standalone DLC title and doesn’t require Far Cry 3, despite its branding.
Commentators have wondered if the same nostalgic magic will work for other Ubisoft properties; “Watch Dogs: Pound Puppies edition” was one suggestion thrown out there. But I don’t think it’s the flashback of ’80s nostalgia that made Blood Dragon work. I think it was stepping outside the box, taking risks, and coming up with something radically different from anything else out there that made such a splash. When you compare the lineup of first-person shooters coming out in recent years, you have a few outliers (Bioshock for example), but most fall into the modern military “bro shooter” category. In that sea of games with coffee-stained graphics, whose gameplay elements tend to revolve around linear corridors and cover-based-shooting, the neon-infused homage/loving satire of ’80s action movie stands out like a sore thumb. Or a glorious beacon of hope, who knows.