In downtown Tulsa, there’s a bar called The Max where the 1980s came back with just enough time to vomit nostalgia in a warehouse-like building. Arcade cabinets line up along the walls, and static-filled boxy televisions play VHS copies of Top Gun, Revenge of the Nerds II, and episodes of Double Dare. Everything appears lit in a vulgar, bluish haze as people who never even breathed during that decade file in to “remember the ’80s” in some simulated pantomime. Sometimes I’m fascinated with it, and at others I’m utterly repulsed. I cannot, however, deny that the place has an obnoxious charm about it, though, and I find myself inextricably drawn into its gaudiness whenever I find myself there with friends. It stands to reason, then, that when I booted up Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, I was met with something akin to a booze-soaked evening at The Max: a bit of anachronism, a smattering of vulgarity, and a damn good time.
I don’t exactly now how Blood Dragon came about, so I’m going to make one up. After the long development of Far Cry 3 was over and the game met with considerable praise and sexy sales numbers, one team member was unable to sleep. Still reeling from the caffeine-fueled past few months, the insomniac decided to watch Robocop, and, in that lucid stage between a punch drunk exhaustion and actual sleep, he/she decided to re-skin the world as a neon-saturate cyber hell. He/she showed the work to the boss as a goof, the higher-ups loved it, and the result is the fantastically weird thing sitting in games folder right now.
The game stars Michael Biehn of Terminator an Aliens fame as Rex Powercolt, the cyborg with a code of honor, on the hunt for rogue cyber-soldier Colonal Sloan in the neon-lit irradiated future (brought on by America’s nuclear war with Russia) of 2007. The setup, with its 16-bit graphic cutscenes and over-the-top voice acting-falls somewhere between low-hanging fruit humor and hilarious pastiche. There’s a lovable obviousness in the game’s opening segment when you fly over the irradiated island while mounting a helicopter turret and commence to destroying an enemy base all to the tune of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” It tells the player everything he/she needs to know about the game in the first five minutes of gameplay, and, except for a mildly disappointing ending sequence that needed a blowout boss fight, it never lets up.
The game’s structure is more or less a copy and paste of Far Cry 3‘s with very subtle (and smart) tweaks. You begin with a set of skills already unlocked, and leveling up automatically unlocks newer perks instead of allowing you to choose between branching paths. Capturing enemy bases and finishing side missions makes gun upgrades available for purchase. These small changes fit perfectly for the smaller plays pace (now just one island) and makes for a very compact and defined experience. The quippy one-liners and Rex’s healing animations also go a long way in setting the game apart from its larger parent title.
Blood Dragon controls exactly like Far Cry 3, so expect the same polished combat and stealth mechanics (although the cyber-soldier can run without getting tired and fall from any height…because it’s the future). The only real big change is the addition of the titular Blood Dragons themselves. These massive dayglo monsters wander the jungle and provide a fun challenge should you stumble across them and get noticed. Much like the tigers and bears of Far Cry 3, you can lure these lumbering dinosaurs into enemy camps, but unlike the fauna of Far Cry 3, you can be a bit more direct with the dragons by baiting them with cyber hearts which you acquire by looting (read “ripping them out of”) the bodies of fallen enemies. It’s pretty satisfying to knock out the shields of an enemy base and watch a dragon fry soldiers with its laser vision or just bite them in half.
There are some issues with aping Far Cry 3’s design that are not problems, per se, but fill a bit off. For instance, Rex travels from one side of the island to the other through the same methods used in the previous game when it would make more sense to give him some kind of hover-board or flying car or something that’s not a re-skinned jeep–thank God for fast travel. The jungle setting, too, feels a bit off in the way that it’s hazy, burnt out yet colorful aesthetic just seem to clash in a way that can, at times, be a bit hard on the eyes. Still, these are minor, personal gripes that quickly evaporate once I impale a guy with a cyber katana and throw a shuriken in the jugular of his unsuspecting patrol buddy. That never gets old.
The game unabashedly wears its humor on its titanium sleeve as everything from the visuals to the music revels in its own ironic anachronism, almost cloyingly so. Sometimes I wonder if this cynical type of irony is symptomatic of a zeitgeist that can’t react to any other form of humor, but at least Blood Dragon is funny. And I mean genuinely funny. When Rex proclaims his love for Lady Liberty and refuses performance enhancing chemicals, I laughed because I remember when those warnings flashed across arcade cabinet screens–“Real Winners Don’t Do Drugs”–while local owners sold a number of substances behind the employee exit. It makes fun of its own retro-coolness and modern games at the same time by essentially being a retro-cool modern game. Maybe it’s going for the easy punches, but it’s hard to deny that it works.
And that’s the ultimate lesson here: Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon just works. A team of people just off the success of its last title decided to make something that they just got a kick out of, and lo and behold, it’s a riot. At a time when games are becoming more complex and serious, this game comes along like an audible fart during an art lecture. It relishes its own vulgarity at just the right time, and, while I won’t pretend to deny my love for artistic provocative games, I’m never above indulging in something loud and ridiculous. Blood Dragon is a concentrated shot of old and new–referential without being tired, over-the-top without being overbearing, dumb without being sloppy–and I couldn’t find a better way to unwind.