Pop-culture these days is a strange beast. The existence of the Internet has given rise to a sludgy mess of in-jokes, references and memes that frequently crop up in that most meme-friendly of media – games. Meanwhile, the power of nostalgia has seen games, movies and television executives trawling through back catalogues to reboot or revisit classic properties for one last money-spinning scheme. Usually these result in a knowing smirk at best or an affront to the original in worst-case scenarios. Ubisoft have thrown caution into the jaws of a chrome tiger and bundled every 80s nod – as well as more than a few contemporary jabs - they can find into standalone downloadable spinoff of the Far Cry franchise. Far Cry 3 was a highlight of 2013 and since the first neon-soaked teaser premiered on April Fools’ Day, Blood Dragon has stood out amongst the typically sparse release schedule.
When it comes to spoofing a particular genre there’s no better inspiration than the so-bad-they’re-awesome action movies of the most glamorous of decades – the 1980s. It’s a decision that pulls in gamers of a certain age who more than likely will have watched the pantheon of movies that Blood Dragon lovingly recalls. If you prefer your Ridley Scott movies to have a Vangelis score or consider the true Transformers credits song to be more Stan Bush and less Linkin Park then this is the game for you. As Sgt. Rex Power Colt, a Mark IV Cyber-Commando and the best soldier in the field, you are tasked with stopping the dastardly plans of Sloane – a badguy pulled right from an Arnie action film, complete with Bennett-esque British name. Between Colt and his ultimate goal lies an island infested by biker-helmeted henchmen, evil doctors, wildlife straight from a Judas Priest album cover and the titular blood dragons – Godzilla-like lizards that can fire lasers. That sentence alone should convince anyone to buy the game.
Despite being a separate standalone from Far Cry 3, Blood Dragon makes use of a similar gameplay style and environment structure to Ubisoft’s island-hopping adventure. Although the environment is substantially smaller it’s still packed with trinkets to collect, animals to hunt, enemy encampments to liberate and side-missions to shoot through. Gone is the sun-drenched foliage, replaced by a murky haze, muted vegetation and glowing highlights that recall Blade Runner’s grimy streets. There are still vehicles to be commandeered - although Colt begins the game with a breathtaking sprint, reducing the necessity to carjack – and later missions have mandatory driving sections that compare to the final part of Halo: Combat Evolved. Weapons, on the other (robotic) hand, are a trivia-spotter’s delight as well as a ludicrously fun arsenal of carnage. Almost every weapon has a movie connection, cleverly named or alluded to through their description in the inventory. Each has their own signature animation – as badass as badass can be – with a personal favourite being the minigun which, when fired for more than a few seconds, sees Colt launch into an endless macho scream of aggression.
From the hilarious tutorial, spoofing the hand-holding that’s become ever-present in this generation to the expectedly crazy denouement, Blood Dragon is a thrill to play and a real gem for the movie and game enthusiast. The main story – consisting of seven core missions – is a concise slice of intense action, although the freedom to pursue side objectives is available. The level of hilarious tongue-in-cheek references extend to the side missions, throwing off nods to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Predator and Aliens amongst many, many others. Cutscenes intersperse the main campaign, animated with graphics appropriate to the era. Seeing a cheesy sex scene in pixelated, Commodore 64 style glory remains one of this year’s most memorable – if ludicrous – moments.
Topping it all off comes one of the best soundtracks of the year, courtesy of artist Power Glove, that follows suit in generously nodding towards landmark 80s film scores. A few expertly chosen licensed songs reveal the developers (or at least the music director) has an ear tuned to tracks inexorably linked to iconic scenes. The end credits track almost deserves a full extra point on the review score by dint of sheer awesomeness, as well as a wonderful nod for purveyors of 80s cheese.
That’s not to mention the voice acting. Presumably reeling after the critical panning of Aliens: Colonial Marines, it’s great to see Michael Biehn in a role where he’s evidently having as much fun as the player. Riffing on his involvement with many of the films spoofed in the game, Biehn delivers the most gravelly snarl of a voice with a kiss-off line for every death. A button press is reserved for flipping the bird with his robotic arm – a little crude but still freaking awesome in context. All of the other actors ham it up and never feel too in on the joke.
Like wandering through a theme park dedicated to the excess of 80s blockbuster entertainment, Blood Dragon takes Far Cry’s proven gameplay formula and adds humour, a new coat of paint and a script free from qualms of narrative dissonance. Let off the leash Ubisoft have created a game that’s packed with fun. What’s especially gratifying is the feeling that the game celebrates those who grew up on a diet of films from the decade, be they classic, cringeworthy or plain bonkers. It’s inevitable that pipsqueak kids will get a hold of it – hell, I would have if I were still twelve – but it’s just as likely that all these references will fly over their heads. Players of a certain generation will get the in-jokes and smile, laughing and reminiscing safe in the knowledge that it’s not all mindless shooting. Kids will love the over-the-top, semi-gory action and giggle at the bad language. We’ll see the love-letter to a decade that’s already been mined for nostalgic purposes, but done well and for a price that can’t be faulted. It’s strange to say but there’s a real heart to Blood Dragon. Sign me up for the sequel.