Version tested: Xbox 360
What is Blood Dragon and what has it got to do with Far Cry 3? Those were the questions that buzzed around once news of this game "accidentally" leaked, and it's a question that remains even once you've downloaded, played and completed the thing.
This isn't an expansion or DLC pack. It's a standalone game that borrows the title and code of Ubisoft's 2012 hit, but doesn't require the original game to play. Nor is it a spin-off. There's no tangible connection between the clumsy warrior's yarn of the original and the gaudy '80s action movie being sold here. This isn't Jason Brody's fever dream, a tatty VHS tape being watched in Vaas' hideout or any similar metatextual narrative twist. Blood Dragon is what it is: gloriously, deliberately stupid and outrageously cathartic.
Where Far Cry 3 was a gradual hero's journey, as Brody went from soft tourist to hardened killer, Blood Dragon starts you at a pretty badass level and escalates relentlessly from there. Brody had to earn the ability to sprint and slide to safety. As "cyber commando" Rex Colt, superpowers come as standard.
You start the game with the ability to sprint at top speed endlessly. You can hold your breath forever and can fall from any height without dying. Colt's arsenal, too, isn't hanging around. You begin with sniper rifle, machine gun and other tools already in your possession, and before long the game has decided you should probably have a minigun as well. You've already had a sample of what these can do, since the game opens with a wantonly destructive turret section in which you sweep past an enemy compound, finger on the trigger of a mounted minigun, decimating a bad guy fortress conveniently filled with exploding fuel tanks.
That's the tone Blood Dragon is aiming for: top speed, maximum carnage, no prisoners. Amazingly, it manages to sustain that hell-for-leather momentum for its playing time. This isn't a game that outstays its welcome, but nor is it one that feels indecently rushed. There are seven story missions, plus 13 enemy garrisons to take over, as well as sundry collectibles scattered across the map. The island is smaller than the sprawling location of Far Cry 3, and even when they're on opposite coasts you can still easily sprint from one marker to the next in just a few minutes, but everything has been very well paced. You'll reach the peak of your powers just in time to enjoy near godlike advantages for the last bits of mopping up.
Despite Blood Dragon's manic exterior, there's some shrewd interconnected design going on under the surface. There are no skill trees here - just a constant escalation driven by the accumulation of Cyber Points. When you rank up, you gain whatever skill or bonus comes with the next level. Most of the time it'll be an additional health bar, but the designers have held back some of Brody's better moves and tied them to this simplified system. The ability to do stealth takedowns on heavy enemies is one such skill, and even with Colt's ludicrously overpowered starting point, there are still useful tricks to earn.
This is not a game with any room for nuance or subtlety. It's gaming as catharsis, and in that sense this curious offshoot is actually more successful than the game that spawned it
This encourages you to be more creative in the way you play, since you earn more Cyber Points for takedowns than for simply shooting someone to death, and it also encourages you to explore. VHS tapes, CRT TV sets and research notes are hidden across the island, and there are also hostage rescues and mutated versions of Rook Island's fauna to hunt. Finding and tackling these secondary tasks will earn you upgrades for your weapons, so an already substantial arsenal is soon evolving into something even more deadly. Explosive rounds for your sniper rifle transform a precision tool into a long-range grenade launcher capable of detonating a Jeep from 600 metres away. The standard pump-action shotgun quickly pales alongside its evolved form as a quad-barrelled, napalm-spraying horror show.
Clearly, with this sort of armoury at your disposal, your journey through Blood Dragon's neon-splattered dystopia will not be a tricky one. The emphasis on relentless progression means that this is one of those topsy-turvy games that is at its hardest when you start and incredibly easy by the end. That's clearly deliberate - all the better to sell the 1980s action movie excess - but it does mean that you finish the game purely for the amusement rather than any meaningful challenge.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Blood Dragons themselves. When first introduced, these giant beasts are utterly terrifying, their skin laced with glowing colours and laser beams exploding from their eyes. Sneaking past them and lobbing cyber-hearts ripped from your enemies as distractions is your only hope. Once you get the minigun, things level out. A full clip from this weapon, directed at the soft spot on a Blood Dragon's belly, will finish it off in a gory - but clunkily animated - geyser of purple viscera. The more levels you rise through, the longer your health bar becomes and the easier it is to simply shrug off attacks from these behemoths. Ultimately they become more interesting as allies, lured to attack your foes, than as a threat to yourself.
But to criticise this constant escalation would be to miss the point. This is not a game with any room for nuance or subtlety. It's gaming as catharsis, and in that sense this curious offshoot is actually more successful than the game that spawned it.
In story terms, Far Cry 3 was a dumb game trying to be clever, and it couldn't help but trip over its own feet as its climax approached. For all the sophomoric Lewis Carroll quotes about madness, and for all the talk of Brody's rebirth as a native warrior being a sideways jab at the trope of the Great White Saviour, the game itself was very unambiguously making you the ultimate badass. When you took down an enemy outpost without being seen, there was no sly commentary on the warrior fantasy. You really were that good, therefore so was Brody, and no cry of "satire!" could change that.
Blood Dragon is a dumb game that probably couldn't even spell "satire", and no criticism can dent its lowbrow armour. If the joke wears a little thin over the course of the game, it's not for lack of effort. The game is at its strongest when it's simply being a big, bollocking old-school shooter, while its weakest gags come when it tries to be glib and meta about its silliness. Spoofing elongated, patronising tutorials doesn't really work if you're actually delivering an elongated, patronising tutorial.
If the game's lunk-headed sense of humour rubs you the wrong way, you may struggle to make it through. Loading screen tips are glib to the point of irritating, while Michael Biehn growls and snarls his way through the game as the voice of Rex Colt, delivering some clunky nods to 1980s action movies and calling his enemies "d**ksh**ters" and, at one point, what sounds like "c***buckets". The joke at the core of Blood Dragon is never much more sophisticated than "The Eighties! LOL!" - but take it in the spirit it's intended and there are belly laughs to be had. Fans of Duke Nukem will feel very much at home, but the game knows when to be cheeky and when to pull back from just being gross. If you must have a pixel-art sex scene, in other words, it should probably be as tasteful as the one you get here.
Blood Dragon wears its idiocy like a shield. With its mechanisms borrowed from a bona fide blockbuster and its cornball retro swagger rendering any artistic criticism surplus to requirements, all that's left is to have fun, and that's in plentiful supply. Blood Dragon condenses all the best bits of Far Cry 3, sprinkles them with cheesy nonsense and blazes its way through to a finale that will leave you grinning like a loon.
I still don't really know what Blood Dragon is, or how it relates to Far Cry 3, but more to the point: I don't care. If only more blockbusters had this much fun with their legacy.
9 / 10