I’ll be reviewing Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon this week. There’s no shortage of reviews and articles about this masterful reworking of an already acclaimed game, but I think there’s a lot of depth in this insane romp that has gone unnoticed due to the insanity floating on the surface.
Gimme a second to explain why I don’t want to just tell you this is a fun, playable game and be done with it, ok?
If you ever feel like getting really angry, go ahead and Google around to try and find out whether or not video games are art. It’s the sort of argument that makes me hate other people who like the stuff that I like. One set of dorks is like “Video games can’t be art!” and forgets that these things were said about movies, television, fictional novels, and all the other things that we now consider art. The other, equally annoying, set of dorks is like “Video games are so art!” and then get really angry when someone tries to apply an actual critical lens, like the shitbirds who flagged down Anita Sarkeesian’s videos from YouTube. Infuriating!
I personally hold the sort of broad definition of art that has let me off the hook in various cases of public nudity that would otherwise have me starting this article with court-ordered sentences of explanation, but when it comes to reviewing games the basic code has to be this: if games are going to be art they need to be reviewed like art, and if that’s how we’re playing, then being pretty and being fun can’t be the whole shebang.
I recently moved to New York and in the process of unpacking I found that the same box that had my latent alcoholism also contained a copy of Skyrim for the PS3 and hooboy if I haven’t found the new peanut butter and jelly, nahmean?
Anyway, Skyrim is like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Grand Theft Auto with all the tediousness that implies. It’s a humorless and meandering slog through an ill-paced story and racial politics that would make even the black robots from Transformers 2 say things that a civilized publication couldn’t print. But it’s also got gorgeous scenery and addictive gameplay. I play Skyrim the way most people watch Teen Mom: with a sense of detached disgust. For these reasons, many not directly related to gameplay, it is a bad game.
So what makes Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon a good piece of art AND a good game? A clear, perfectly executed vision with a great sense of humor and an investment commensurate with play time & enjoyment (15 bucks). It’s the most succinct and inclusive love letter to science fiction VHS schlock of the 1980’s. It’s the Black Dynamite of video game action movie parodies.
The plot is ultimately too ludicrous and full of too many fun surprises to spoil, so I’ll recount the basic pitch that first pricked up my ears:
It is the future, the year 2007. You are cybernetic commando Sergeant Rex Powercolt (Michael Biehn) and you have been tasked with stopping Colonel Sloan and his villainous Omega Force from unleashing a chemical weapon on a still-devastated world. Armed with your laser katana and cybernetic arm, you must stop Sloan and his robotic legions with the help of Dr. Elizabeth Darling and a seemingly bottomless well of incredibly classless one-liners.
If that doesn’t draw you in then there’s the door.
First revealed as an April Fool’s joke that looked too good to be true and then was actually true, Blood Dragon is built on the basic bones of Far Cry 3 with the major difference being that I wouldn’t bother to fart into Far Cry 3’s mouth if its scuba tank ran out. This is probably because Blood Dragon is an all-encompassing everything-and-the-kitchen-sink send-up of action movies, first person shooters, and Michael Biehn’s career, while Far Cry 3 is that game where you have to shoot all the brown people to save your dumb friends. While it seems like Duke Nukem was the premier parody of other first person shooters, the backwards-ass gender stuff and generally puerile humor usually turned me away pretty quickly.
The gameplay in BD is standard FPS stuff: here’s your grenade button, here’s your switch weapons button, use this to sneak attack.Like a shark, the first person shooter genre has evolved little since it found the perfect control scheme in the early 2000s. As I found out from Skyrim and the Arkham games, I really really love nothing better than sneaking up behind dudes and wrecking them, and Blood Dragon definitely filled my quota for quiet homicide.
It’s just so satisfying to see a plan come together; the kind of plan where a perfectly executed silent jump off a catwalk lands you on a robot with a flamethrower, and then before the blood on your laser katana has even had time to cool, you’ve already buried it in the chest of another robot and pulled the pins on his grenade belt before pushing him into a crowd of his friends.
It’s as joyous as it sounds.
But Blood Dragon’s real strength comes from the way everything is dressed up. Each of the guns is a deep-cut reference you would need a corkboard, pins, and string to figure out. For example, the shotgun is called the Galleria 1991, a reference to the way that Arnold Schwarzenegger used a shotgun in the 1991 film Terminator 2 while trying to find John Connor in a mall called “The Galleria.” Or the AJM 9, a Robocop-style machine pistol whose initials stand for (what else) but Alex J. Murphy, the idealistic cop who ends up the subject of Omni Consumer Products’ plan to destroy/rebuild Detroit. He even holsters the gun with a stylish spin, just like TJ Laser. It’s pretty Inside Baseball.
I could go on all day about the references crammed in this game. Much like The Venture Bros., it’s a gorgeous result of throwing a bunch of nerds in a room and letting them talk about the stuff that they like. If you like what you hear so far then you can probably guess how much of a delight the rest of the game is, and I won’t spoil the surprises for you, that’s half the fun. It’s a testament to the ability of the writers that the bits made up whole-cloth all fit the bill as well. Biehn is a god-damn sexual tyrannosaurus as Powercolt, exuding stubbly gruffness as if he has some kind of previous experience fighting robots.
The story is barely thick enough to wear to a European beach, but all its elements are evocative enough to let your mind create the rest of Blood Dragon’s neon-and-synthesizers future. I remember seeing Powercolt’s robot eye in a cutscene and thinking “Ha! Wouldn’t it be great if he had terminator vision?” Only to be rewarded moments later with a red-filtered cyber-overlay to help identify enemies. Ask Blood Dragon and ye shall receive. You get to recreate several classic movie scenes over the course of the game, taking either the “sneaky sneak” or the “Fire all of the guns at once and explode into space” route, depending on your personal proclivities.
Special exemplary marks need to be doled out for the sound design. Retroelectro metal group Power Glove performed the soundtrack and they absolutely knocked it out of the park. Shades of John Carpenter’s work in Escape from New York dominate, but Brad Friedel’s (Terminator) and Alan Silvestri’s (Predator) venerable work gets its due as well. It’s rare to play a game that deserves headphones, but wow. It’s driving, it’s ambient, and the ending theme is absolutely not to be missed. Like a much more muscular version of “Still Alive” from Portal.
Layered on top of the score are the sound effects. Oh, the delicious sound effects. I will perform whatever repetitive video game action you want as many times as you want so long as the sound effects involved press my joy buzzer, and the makers of Blood Dragon cranked it all the way up to Tim & Eric levels of squishy, crunchy foley art. They’re the sort of noises that if your main man made them close to your ear in the dark it would maybe end your friendship.
Potential for ruining interpersonal relationships is irrelevant in the sealed world of video games, and the blorpsquirchblop sound of ripping a cyber-heart out of an omega force commando is full-bodied enough that it has sustained my frail frame since the last of my money went out the window tied to the ankle of a pigeon named 24 Hour Gyro Delivery. That’s not a metaphor.
Blood Dragon is fifteen bucks for approximately six or seven hours of play. That’s three times your average Hollywood movie length for about the price of seeing it in theaters. Based on that value ALONE that’s a great deal. Is Blood Dragon 3 game of the year? No. But it’s about time somebody took a risk and made a game that acknowledged the inherent ridiculousness of first person shooters and drove all their inane conventions right over the top, and in many ways it’s the ultimate FPS. We don’t play Call of Duty because we want to be soldiers on a team, we play because we want to be Rambo and kill everyone in a jungle by ourselves.
It’s art because it’s not obvious. I had fun, it made me think about the dumb things that I like, and it kept surprising me around every corner. Definitely grab it if you’ve got fifteen bucks that you don’t feel like mailing me so I can stop windowshopping at pizza places.