Let us first applaud the very concept of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. A standalone, downloadable expansion of last year’s excellent Far Cry 3, it transfers that game’s underlying mechanics to a new game world, with a new story, new characters and a new look. It streamlines much of what worked so well in the previous game, while adding a couple of ambitious wrinkles. Far Cry 3 fans can scratch the itch they’ve felt since completing that game, and non-fans have reason to take a second look. All in all, Blood Dragon is a satisfying and complete experience, comparing favorably to retail releases at a fraction of the price. More publishers should follow this model.
Oh, when I said “the very concept of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon,” you thought I meant something else? You thought I was going to laud its neon-drenched retro sci-fi aesthetic, its corny catchphrases, and its willingness to poke fun at classic gaming tropes? Well, yes, Blood Dragon poaches dialogue and scenarios from movies like Predator and Aliens, and its hero, Sgt. Rex “Power” Colt, fires off one-liners almost as quickly as rounds from his pulse rifle. The whole thing seems to have sprung, fully formed, from the imagination of a kid who spent too much time in the 1980s watching third-generation VHS tapes of R-rated movies.
In other words, it’s exactly like every other shooter that comes out these days.
Sure, a story about a cybernetic soldier single-handedly invading a secret military facility that is experimenting with the DNA of “Blood Dragons” in order to create a race of super-soldiers and ensure perpetual global war is silly. But is it any sillier than—to pick a random example—the story of a trust-fund kid who gets kidnapped by South Pacific pirates and discovers that he is a mystical warrior who can gain super powers by getting tribal tattoos? Almost all shooters traffic in the ridiculous. Blood Dragon may be more self-aware than most games, but I still wanted to skip past the cutscenes and get back to the action.
While Blood Dragon’s aesthetic is intended to be a throwback, right down to the moody synth soundtrack by Power Glove, the action is cutting edge. The map contains 13 enemy garrisons that the player must take over, and each one requires a meticulous blend of tactical planning, stealth infiltration and seat-of-your-pants firefights. The installations have numerous entry points and weaknesses. You can summon Blood Dragons—essentially, roving electrical T-rexes—to serve as a distraction. Stay at a distance and try to pick off your enemies with a sniper rifle, or sneak around and take them down silently. Hell, just plow through the gates in a jeep and try to run everyone over. Your call!
For as much fun as the game is, and as brash as the presentation initially seems, Blood Dragon seems oddly unsure of itself. At best, it turns gaming tropes on their head. One mission has Colt planting explosives on a dam—standard stuff. Once they’re in place, Colt idly wonders if the new model explosives are as good as the older kind. As they fizzle out like wet birthday candles, he grumbles, “Nope.” The moment works because the script doesn’t just congratulate itself on spotting the cliché and then move on. It follows through.
At worst, though, Blood Dragon is guilty of the same things it criticizes, and I’m not sure if that’s intentional. Besides the main objectives, the island is crammed full of side missions, including dozens of hidden items to collect, the acquisition of which will unlock weapon upgrades for purchase. Colt never misses an opportunity to remind the player how contrived collectible missions are. “I find shit, so I can unlock shit, so I can get shit,” he grouses, more than once. “Got it.” Maybe we can give the developers points for acknowledging what a lot of players believe to be true, but in that case, wouldn’t the really clever thing have been to come up with something better?
I don’t even accept the premise. True, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the island is littered with staticky television sets and spare VHS tapes, or that picking them up makes you more powerful. But one of the things that made the trip intact from Far Cry 3 proper to Blood Dragon is a varied open world that is an absolute blast to explore. You can run (or drive) from one side of the island to the other, discovering mountains, ravines, rushing rivers and hidden caves—not to mention mutated wildlife, enemy bases and spontaneous roadside firefights. Traversing the game world is such a joy that it would be fun even without objectives to complete, but the collectibles are as good an excuse as any. Whenever I crested a mountain or plunged into an underwater cave in order to pick up a new collectible, my avatar basically called me an idiot for enjoying myself. After a while, it started to chafe.
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a good game that’s pretending to be bad. The irony is that pretending to be bad is about the only thing it doesn’t succeed at. Far from pointing out the deficiencies of other shooters, it underlines what we already know about them: Even the dumbest story in the world doesn’t matter once the shooting starts.
Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata and on his blog Insult Swordfighting.