When we look back on Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, the only remarkable thing about the entire episode may well prove to be that trailer: a delirious portmanteau of woozy Eighties TV ads, Saturday morning cartoons and the sort of B-grade action movies that bolstered the careers of Van Damme, Lundgren and early-period Schwarzenegger. Blood Dragon's trailer was a masterful example of the power of suggestion, tapping into so much vivid nostalgia that few stopped to consider how it might all fit together - and what in the world any of it had to do with Far Cry 3.
Well, the scores are now in, and the link between the downloadable Blood Dragon and its AAA antecedent remains obscure. Ubisoft Montreal's (largely unsuccessful) attempt to infuse Far Cry 3 with a little caustic satire is well documented, and it might be the case that this naked tribute to brainless destruction is another piece of that puzzle. But it's a puzzle that nobody cared to solve in the first place, and the strength of Blood Dragon's premise and the confidence of its execution seem to be enough for most critics to judge it on its own merits.
"Blood Dragon shows how publishers can squeeze further wealth from their most costly games. Could this be the era of the video game remix?"
Simon Parkin, The Guardian
The Guardian's Simon Parkin suggests that Blood Dragon's relationship to Far Cry 3 is purely logistical, and in being so, could be a pioneering work with, "future-facing ramifications."
"It is, perhaps, the first blockbuster-scale download title," Parkin says in his three-star review. "It seizes and repaints Far Cry 3's ample world and engine, borrowing the multimillion-dollar bulk of a game created over years by a team of hundreds, thereby delivering the sort of scope and value no download game build from scratch could possibly match. In this way Blood Dragon shows how game publishers can squeeze further wealth from their most costly games. Could this be the era of the video game remix, in which best-selling games are re-clothed and re-sold mere months after launch?
The pedants among you might well remind Parkin that Rockstar pulled just this trick several years ago with its brilliant GTA IV episodes, The Lost And Damned and The Ballad Of Gay Tony, and then again with Red Dead Redemption's Undead Nightmare. Regardless, Ubisoft is certainly the first major publisher to pick up that gauntlet, treating its surprise blockbuster to what amounts to a 'total conversion mod'. It's an intriguing idea that demands exploration, but Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker believes that Ubisoft has wasted Blood Dragon's considerable potential.
"It's hard not to wish whoever created that first, excellent Blood Dragon trailer hadn't been in charge of writing the whole game," Walker says in his review, which features no score, but is perhaps the most damning available critique of the game.
"It's hard to get precisely what it is that Blood Dragon thinks it's spoofing. It seems to set out to be something of every 80s Saturday morning action cartoon, but then in a flurry of swearing, violence and sex scenes, veers into mocking straight-to-video 80s action movies. But the disconnect between the two is weirdly jarring.
"It's hard not to wish whoever created that first, excellent Blood Dragon trailer hadn't been in charge of writing the whole game"
John Walker, Rock Paper Shotgun
"The writing is abysmal, and not because it's trying to be. It ultimately feels like a dismal Peter Kay routine, with someone shrieking 'DO YOU REMEMBER THE EIGHTIES?!?!!' at you as if saying that alone is the funniest thing imaginable. Yes, I remember them. And that's rather the issue - I remember that what it contained, even at its worst, was a lot more entertaining than the drivel this game puts out as story. That classic rule of spoofing - that you must actually be better than the target of your mockery - is not followed at all. Instead they've opted for that so much easier route of just being bad, and saying, 'Seeeeeeee?'"
The result, Walker concedes, is still a good game, but it's strengths are largely those of Far Cry 3, the template and structure of which is the basis for Blood Dragon. For Edge magazine, this familiarity is a dubious advantage: it's a virtual guarantee of fun for millions of Ubisoft's satisfied customers, but it leaves the Blood Dragon team with the unenviable task of judging where play it safe and where to add something new. Ultimately, the game's Eighties makeover amounts to a "disguise" to obscure the fact that, for the most part, we've done this all before.
"Blood Dragon offers a fresh map filled with familiar tasks. You still capture Outposts (only now they're called Garrisons) by killing everyone inside. You still hunt animals for upgrades (only now they're cybernetic freaks with glowing green eyes). You still speed along on jet-skis (and occasionally wrestle sharks). But Ubisoft has stripped Far Cry 3 to its skeleton and redressed it so outrageously that it's hard not to get dragged along for the wise-cracking, ass-kicking ride."
And the experimentation, while scant, is not always successful. Edge notes clear differences between the open, emergent battles in Far Cry 3's campaign and Blood Dragon's, "preoccupation with interiors and set-piece battles that fits the high-concept nature of Blood Dragon like a tightly knotted bandana, but shuns Far Cry 3′s core strengths." Ultimately, Edge describes Blood Dragon as a mechanically impoverished version of its parent, albeit a version with charisma to spare.
And that's a problem. Because no matter how dependable you feel the basic mechanics and systems of Far Cry 3 to be, Blood Dragon is an exercise in surface - it has to be, or why else would anyone consider buying it? The game's "charisma" will be either its making or its destruction depending on your point-of-view. Not everyone will agree with Walker's apparent sense of irritation, but not everyone will disagree, either.
"This is not a game with any room for nuance or subtlety. It's gaming as catharsis, and in that sense Blood Dragon is more successful than the game that spawned it"
Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer
Indeed, even Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead, one of Blood Dragon's most enthusiastic admirers, reminds readers of his 9 out of 10 review that, "if the game's lunk-headed sense of humour rubs you the wrong way, you may struggle to make it through." There are some mechanical elaborations in Blood Dragon but they are also in service to its personality: a streamlined progression system, endless sprinting, near indestructibility from falls, gills; a litany of badass traits to further elevate protagonist Rex Powercolt's badass-ness. By the close, those rampaging laser-eyed dinosaurs will be just another weapon in your arsenal.
"This is not a game with any room for nuance or subtlety," Whitehead says. "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.
"Blood Dragon is a dumb game that probably couldn't even spell "satire", and no criticism can dent its lowbrow armour... 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."