The Eighties was definitely the best decade for action movies. This ten-year stretch saw the release of The Terminator, First Blood, Die Hard, Predator and hundreds more. Some were good, most were bad, almost all were fun. This was a time when action movies meant cheap one-liners, dodgy neon lighting and unsullied, excessive violence. It’s therefore surprising there aren’t more video game homages to this period of time when action and explosions trumped story and acting.
Enter Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Priced on Steam at a modest £11.99, Blood Dragon is a completely standalone expansion of last year’s Far Cry 3, meaning you don’t need the original to play it. A tongue-in-cheek FPS, Ubisoft Montreal promises players a violent rampage through a “VHS-era vision of the future”. Blood Dragon features neon cyborgs, laser-eyed cyber dragons and more explosions than you can shake a Killstar at. As a big fan of 80’s schlock, Blood Dragon‘s premise is very fucking exciting. I mean just look at the game’s poster. Glorious.
Blood Dragon looks and sounds the part. Right from the get go, players are greeted with a retrofied version of the Ubisoft logo before the homebrew-looking main menu pops up. Little touches like this are great for player immersion, and I can appreciate the time and effort from the art team in making this game feel like a trashy release from thirty years ago. The very start of the game is also good, as players assault a cyborg base in an on-rails helicopter sequence. Lasers fill the skies, everything you shoot seems to explode and lightbulbs are completely supplanted by neon strips. This is all topped off by Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally‘ drowning out even the excessive gunfire. It’s a great introduction, and really sets the tone for what you hope is to come. The rest of the game, while never quite matching the aesthetic high of the first few minutes, continues to pull off its chosen look very well. Most importantly, it never looks like a cheap re-skin of Far Cry 3, and is always more Tron than sci-fi shooter #98712. On a technical level, the game suffers the same draw distance problems that plagued the original game, but this is made less noticeable by the striking art direction. A scan-line filter is used for the entirety of the game, which I hated and found distracting. Most people probably won’t feel the same, but it would have been nice to have the option to turn it off, like the grain filter in the Mass Effect series. I’m probably just being nitpicky though.
The story of Blood Dragon is told both in-game and through the use of 2D cut scenes. These cut scenes generally look pretty good, with some nice art throughout. They also feature some of the funniest moments in the game. The plot of the game is a nonsensical and convoluted mess, involving a disfigured ex-army Colonel leading a cyborg army so that he can bring the world back to the prehistoric period or something. It is badly told and takes a complete back seat to the action. This perfectly emulates the movies and games it pokes fun at, so 10/10 for that.
The humour in Blood Dragon is generally derived from parodying old action movies, retro games and modern military shooters. While often funny, it can be a bit hit and miss. For example, in the first level there is a sequence that parodies the hand holding and pointless tutorials often found in modern games. A ‘tutorial module’ is loaded, and the player character must stand still while dozens of messages pop up, all while protagonist Rex Colt grumbles about it. It’s pretty funny at first, but after five minutes, it gets a bit grating. When Blood Dragon nudges and winks at a player while doing something, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s doing exactly what it’s making fun of. I also don’t need to be reminded that I need to press F to execute an enemy every single time, or that I’m leaving the mission area if I dare sneak to a different vantage point. In fact, Blood Dragon pretty much holds the player’s hand and tries to force them down a certain path the whole game. This leaves a particularly sour taste when just moments before it was so obviously criticising this aspect of video games. Talk about having your cake and eating it.
Ok, so to backtrack a bit, I’ve just killed a thousand enemies from a helicopter, then stealthily backstabbed a few cyborgs and ripped out their robotic hearts. This isn’t half bad so far! What’s next? Oh, I’ve just walked into an area filled with waist-high obstacles and the game’s telling me to aim down the sights of the gun and take cover while being fired upon! Great, this is something I’m tired of in modern shooters, this should be a good bit of parody! Hmm, that was about twenty minutes of gameplay identical to every other modern cover based shooter. That took a while, but I wonder what they’ll parody next? Oh, another level focussed on cover based shooting, but this time in corridors? Fuck.
The gameplay in Blood Dragon completely lets down the rest of the game. Every level follows the ‘shoot, duck, shoot, duck, regenerate health, shoot duck’ formula seen in many modern shooters. Oh, and every other level it switches to an on-rails shooter with some variation of a mini-gun. This completely detracts from what the game set up for in the aesthetics, humour and plot. I feel that a game set in a “VHS-era vision of the future” should feature full throttle run and gun action as opposed to the careful, methodical gameplay found in a cover based shooter. The gameplay isn’t bad, but it’s way too familiar and unexciting. In most games this wouldn’t be so jarring, but this is a game that features something called a “Titanium Plated Cyber-Dragon”. It just feels like such a missed opportunity. Admittedly, the final level is very fun, but it’s too little, too late. I won’t ruin it, but it’s in some ways reminiscient of the final level of Half-Life 2. Minus an outstanding game to back it up.
Occasionally, through the cloud of stale gameplay, you do see a glimpse of what Blood Dragon could have been. You might be sprinting down a hillside, dodging lasts blasts from three charging dragons and thinking that the game has finally broken through the safe, familiar formula. But then along comes two chain gun wielding bullet sponges, forcing you to hide behind cover, regenerate some health, aim down sights, rinse, repeat. The guns themselves are also pretty unimaginative, bar one that you get to use for about ten minutes at the end. You’ve got your standard pistol, shotgun, assault rifle and sniper rifle. Remember what we said about the graphics not just being a reskin? Yeah, that doesn’t apply to anything else. It’s just another example of the cheesy, over-the-top setting not being effectively utilised. Ubisoft Montreal could have benefitted from looking at the imaginative weapon and gameplay design seen in early first-person shooters like Doom or Marathon. Y’know, the games that it is supposedly paying homage to. It’s perfectly happy to poke fun at the classics, but Blood Dragon is never intelligent enough to actually learn anything from them.
Something that deserves special mention is the music. Recorded by electronica group Power Glove especially for Blood Dragon, it is absolutely brilliant, with countless musical homages to movies like Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner and The Terminator. Unfortunately, there are still moments where this is completely undermined by the gameplay. In one level a parody of the Mortal Kombat theme is played, while the player is cued to ‘Fight!’ and ‘Finish Him!’. So how does Blood Dragon handle this great sendoff? By giving the player a minigun so that they can hide behind cover and shoot at enemies. I’m not suggesting it turns the level into a 2D beat ‘em up or something, but was that really the most imaginative thing they could think of? It’s just such a shame that so much care and love have gone into so many aspects of the game, only to be brought down by the insipid gameplay. In fact, I found the soundtrack on YouTube, I’m listening to it now, and it’s great. Put that on in the background and play something like Painkiller, I’m sure it will be a brilliant experience.
Blood Dragon will take most players around 6-8 hours to complete, which is fairly long for an £11.99 first-person shooter expansion pack. Unfortunately, other than revisiting the humour and music, most players won’t find much replay value.
Blood Dragon is a missed opportunity. The art direction is great. The music is perfect. The humour is fun. It’s just a shame that the people who were working on those things happened to be working on a video game, because in the land of video games, gameplay is king. If you really love the Eighties, buy the soundtrack. If you aren’t tired of cover based shooters yet, then get this game only when it comes on sale. This is by no means a completely awful game. But if the gameplay is a turd, then the aesthetics are a diamond, and they only serve to make the turd look shittier.