The difference between clever and cunning.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review

Do you remember the 80s? I don’t. But I tell you, the 80s live. 

Blood Dragon is both a love letter too and an affectionate parody of 80’s action films, in all their ridiculousness and excess. The game is packed with homage’s to the iconic films of the era, from Robocop’s gun to an opening helicopter sequence ripped from the script of Predator. With a “Mark IV Cyber Commando” named Rex Power Colt as the protagonist (voiced by Michael Biehn of Terminator and Aliens fame!) Blood Dragon wastes no time in embracing the explosive and ludicrous nature of its source material.

You see Blood Dragon never tries to be smart. Blood Dragon does try it’s damndest to be fun, funny, and unrelentingly true to its deliberately chosen style and feel. It succeeds from start to finish.

The cyber-apocalyptic future.  2007

The tropical paradise of Far Cry 3 returns, but this time around the island is soaked in TRON style neon and chrome. A heavy sky crackles with dramatic lightning and the horizon is a skyline of ruined cities backlit by mushroom clouds. Nearby explosions send VHS scan lines tracking across your vision. The synthesizer heavy soundtrack, almost worth the cost of purchase alone, has to be heard to be believed.

For some reason my screenshot program made all blue colors red and vice-versa.
This Blood Dragon is actually really angry and warming up his laser beam eyes.

All creatures and enemies have received an overhaul that leaves them right at home in their new surroundings. Cobra commandos with computerized voices and convincingly low budget costumes replace pirates and privateers. Cyborg sharks and gorgeous Black Velvet tigers replace their real world counterparts. Blood Dragon adds a delicious layer of 80’s flavor, spray cheese style, atop of the rock solid FC3 engine. You can almost feel the muggy Miami humidity on the atomic breeze.

The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense (something about missiles and your former commander gone rogue) but then it doesn’t really need to. No part of Blood Dragon, from the deliberately intrusive and tongue-in-cheek tutorial to the cheesy dialog to the ridiculous weapon and creature descriptions, takes itself in any way seriously. Rex growls out groan worthy one-liners with every kill. At one point your mission objective becomes, quite literally, to jump the shark. The developers worked hard to make every aspect of the game so bad it’s good. 

No Fate

The FC3 engine allows for a seamless flow between tactical stealth and balls-to-the wall action. Either is an equally viable, rewarding, and fun approach. Enemy cyborgs are easy to sneak up on or pick off with the bow, but when alerted aggressively search the area and home in on gunfire. You always have a good sense of how close to being detected you are. When you get spotted it doesn’t feel like a reason to re-load the game, just an excuse to break out the heavy weapons. 

Sneaking up on and knife-tickling hapless goons remains a joy.

Roaming the island and preying on your Omega Force foes is both entertaining and profitable. Stealth takedowns return from FC3 and can be chained together to silently wipe out an entire squad. Patrolling jeeps and all the soldiers inside can be eliminated with a well placed mine in the road or a single explosive round. You can hang back and tag a garrison full of guards with your “Cyber Eye” to see them through walls. Or you can kick down the front door, blazing away with the classic shotgun from the Terminator films and reenacting the police station scene.

The major gameplay addition is the titular Blood Dragons themselves. These massive, glowing neon dinosaurs roam the island, devouring everything within reach and blasting everything else with their mighty laser-beam eyes. Immune to fire and extraordinarily resistant to conventional weapons each encounter with a Blood Dragon is a mini-boss fight in itself.

One Blood Dragon can usually clear an enemy garrison on it's own.
Of course then you have a Blood Dragon sitting in your new base.

Fortunately Blood Dragons can be manipulated to your advantage. If you destroy or deactivate the barriers protecting enemy garrisons then the Dragons will rush in, doing most of your work for you amid a chorus of cyborg screams and weapons fire. The beasts also have an appetite for cybernetic hearts, which can be harvested from your enemies and thrown to distract attacking Blood Dragons or sic them on Omega Force patrols. The dynamic encounters between Omega Force, the friendly scientist faction, the cybernetic wildlife, and the almost unstoppable Blood Dragons makes the island a lively and dangerous place.

Ain’t got time to bleed

Blood Dragon is a shorter, sleeker, more focused game than its parent. It trims out a lot of the Far-Cry 3 fat, like crafting and vehicle challenges. You’re given access to a potent suite of weapons, explosives, and abilities right out of the gate. As a Mark IV series cyborg Rex can run as fast as a jeep, leap from any height without injury, and breathe underwater. This isn’t a game about going from a spoiled thrill seeker to a badass warrior. Rex starts as a badass able to bail out of a hang-glider from 100 feet up, shank the hapless cyber-goon he lands on, and then mow down a dozen of said goon’s friends with a chain-gun. 

The Mini-Gun. Old Painless. Hold down the trigger and roar along!

There is still a basic XP and level-up system in place, but it’s entirely linear with no assigning of points. More difficult kills, like stealth takedowns and headshots, award generous dollops of XP. Rex is a bit fragile at the start of the game but each level adds extra bars of health and other perks, many adapted from the FC3 skill trees.  

Blood Dragon’s campaign is quite short and can be polished off in a few hours if you rush straight through the handful of missions. Side content takes the form of liberating garrisons, converting them into friendly bases that function as re-supply and fast travel points and allowing access to hunting and hostage rescue missions. There are also VHS tapes (each with descriptions parodying a popular 80’s film genre) and other collectables scattered around the island, along with a scavenger hunt of various animals to kill.

Big cats are even more majestic with full chrome bodies.

The point of all this is to unlock attachments and upgrades for your weapons.  The assault rifle gains laser bullets, while the sniper rifle upgrades to explosive rounds that can one-shot a light vehicle (turning it into essentially a hit-scan rocket launcher with a scope). The shotgun eventually evolves into an amazing quad-barreled semi-automatic monster that sets enemies on fire. 

Blood Dragon’s core gameplay is so much fun I found myself finishing all the side missions and still hungry for more. Even if you 100% everything gameplay clocks in at a modest 8-10 hours. Perhaps it’s for the best that Blood Dragon doesn’t overstay its welcome. The game builds to a finale that manages to start at utterly ludicrous and yet somehow keep topping itself, piling excess atop excess on the way to complete sensory overload.

Game Over Man!

Blood Dragon is tremendous fun from both a gameplay and stylistic perspective, but it does have a few rough spots. The dark color scheme, scan line filter, and heavy use of neon can start to tire the eye after a few hours. There’s no “New Game +” mode or way to reset the island’s garrisons, so by the time you’ve leveled up Rex and unlocked all the upgrades for your guns you’ve finished all of Blood Dragon’s content. Ubisoft also deserves a slap on the wrist for forcing the instillation of their Uplay digital distribution system when I’ve already bought the game on Steam.

Blood Dragon features frantic pitched battles over traditional boss encounters.

Blood Dragon’s lower budget means that many climactic moments, including your final showdown with your traitorous commander, are done in deliberately low-rez cutscenes that would feel at home on an NES cartridge rather than via gameplay. This is likely a necessary trade-off to keep the cost of the game and production time down, but it’s still slightly disappointing. To be fair it’s not like the original FC3 had great boss fights either.

These minor complaints aside Blood Dragon is a perfect example of the way DLC should be done. Rather than just delivering a mission pack of more of the same the developers took their already polished and playable engine and took it in a different direction, taking a real risk they probably couldn’t have gotten away with in a $60 core game. The game sets out to achieve a very deliberate stylistic vision and it succeeds brilliantly. Other developers with finished engines and an interest in producing DLC should take note.

Winners don't charge $10 for 2 hours of re-hashed content. Blood Dragon is a Winner.

Reasons to Play: Hilarious tribute to everything awesome and excessive about 80’s entertainment. Kicking synthesizer soundtrack. Seamless blend of tactical stealth and explosive action. Roam the island harvesting cyborg hearts and battling giant lizards with laser-eyes. 

Reasons to Pass: Life threatening allergy to synthesizers and neon.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.