Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon review: Neon Genesis Elation

The year is 20xx, and the world is starved ... of imagination. An evil army of soulless game clones is hell-bent on taking over The Industry. No one is brave enough or mad enough to stop them from reshaping the gaming landscape into their drab, browny-grey vision.

No one ... except one spin-off game, a retro-fueled standalone commando powered by the twin suns of Parody and Crazy. That game is Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

And it is most excellent.%Gallery-186721%

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon takes the open-world island of Ubisoft's 2012 shooter, squashes it into a single-player game (you don't need Far Cry 3 to play it) that takes around eight hours to rinse 100 percent, and gives it a 1980s overlay. While there are references and parallels, there's no narrative tie to Far Cry 3 beyond a sense of the real "definition of insanity."

Blood Dragon's new hero is Sgt. Rex "Power" Colt, a cyborg commando from the post-apocalyptic near future of 2007. Colt's mission is to eliminate a rogue cyber-army led by Sloan, a Reds-hating, peace-loathing maniac, complete with beret and mustache.

The game lovingly mocks the awkward sci-fi and testosterone-fueled action that dominated films from in and around the 80s, stuff like The Terminator, Die Hard, and Predator. Parody is a tricky tightrope to walk, and games often struggle with it; Blood Dragon itself missteps with a tutorial that, while amusingly poor, is still poor. Thankfully it's not an omen, because Blood Dragon does what Far Cry 3 didn't: combine crazy ideas with classy writing.

At the heart of this is Colt, who is what Duke Nukem should've been in Forever. In Michael Biehn's gravelly tones, Colt is a crass, bloodthirsty egomaniac, spewing post-frag maxims like "I'm on fire. Now so are you" and "That's the moneyshot!" Biehn carefully measures lines that bathe in machismo, while Colt's bemoaning of being forced to find collectibles is gold: "I hope I don't have to collect any fucking flags."

Along with the neon-drenched re-skin and Power Glove's comprehensively authentic soundtrack, which is a masterpiece by itself, Biehn's performance is the platform for a campaign that stuffs a veritable cavalcade of styles, themes, and clichés into just three or so hours. One moment it's aping the glorified genocide of Commando, the next it's chucking out references to the likes of WarGames and "Thriller" – there are a lot of references.

The game's lasting imprint, though, comes from a few standout sequences. It's hard to go into them without spoiling what are the very best moments of a short campaign. Suffice it to say that the intro sequence which has you, via a helicopter turret, wreaking TNT-charged fireworks on an enemy base decked out in neon-lit explosives, all to the backdrop of "Long Tall Sally" a la Predator, is a mere teaser of what's to come. And yes, there's a montage.

The outlandish, excessive stylistics of the 80s are intrinsically tied to a ridiculousness that still colors gaming. In those sequences, Blood Dragon plays up that genetic link, and the end result is something that has you shouting at anyone nearby to bask in it with you.

There's an initial fear, outside of those moments, Blood Dragon won't be more than Far Cry 3 with a neon tint. The re-skin seems superficial at first. The bandits become cyber-scum, the natives scientists, and your weaponry a similar range, albeit glowing, lazer-firing, etc. Collectibles, like VHS tapes and old TVs, and side quests distract from missions again.

Fortunately, Blood Dragon changes things up enough, particularly in those missions and the outpost captures. Developer Ubisoft Montreal takes advantage of the spin-off's sci-fi setting, as opposed to Far Cry 3's less sophisticated tropics, to beef up the island's 13 outposts and its mission locations. Outposts in particular offer scale through ladders, walkways, tunnels, and ziplines, and captures feel more unique than they did in Far Cry 3.

Meanwhile, the missions range from compact dens with varieties of cover, routes, and hiding spots, to surprisingly complex areas, including a great big GoldenEye-like dam to negotiate from bottom to top. There's a variety and grandeur across the short campaign, and it provides balance, helping to keep the game from feeling too samey.

Regarding Colt's approach, the stealth shifts from the meticulous planning of Far Cry 3 to something more off-the-cuff. The outposts feel faster and less tricky on Normal difficulty, especially once you've upgraded both Colt and his weaponry. There's always Hard difficulty, but Blood Dragon clearly wants you to take on and enjoy Colt's preposterous cyber-power. Across the game's short length, it's easy to accept the challenge-breaking but mayhem-inducing support of an explosives-powered sniper rifle, a quadruple-barreled shotgun, and a laser that instantly evaporates enemies – fired from a ninja star, of course.

The disappointing casualties of this approach are the roaming blood dragons themselves, who have a touch of Skyrim about them. While they're brilliantly designed, from the neon lining their giant dinosaur bodies to the lasers fired from their eyes, they're not daunting. Luring them away with cyberhearts – pilfered from dead cyber-soldiers, obviously – before shooting their huge weak spots with your supercharged weapons, then repeat, is not as wild as it should be. It's more interesting when there's more than one, but this happens rarely.

Having said that, their propensity to interfere with outpost captures, both deliberately and accidentally on your part, is a fun quirk. Their presence also adds to the atmosphere. After all, it was always interesting in Far Cry 3 to encounter natural skirmishes between natives, bandits, and wildlife. In Blood Dragon it's the same, but with scientists, cyber-soldiers, and huge, neon-coated dinosaur things.

It'd be wrong to say Blood Dragon is simply dumb, 80s-inspired fun, even if that's largely what it provides. Parody's a thorny thing, tricky to execute and often limited in appeal. It's to Ubisoft Montreal's credit that Blood Dragon broadens the appeal of its source, thanks to a hilarious, accessible dollop of nostalgia, coated in the mechanics that made Far Cry 3 great. This easily could've been a great idea greenlit into something terrible. We do love it when a plan comes together.

This review is based on an Xbox 360 download of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, provided by Ubisoft.

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