Blood Dragon can best be described as the power fantasy of a 13-year-old in 1987 who’s just watched RoboCop, The Terminator, and Predator back to back to back. As odd as it may sound, this is when the game shines. Unleashing the quad-barrel shotgun on cyber baddies, popping their heads like neon blue Gallagher watermelons, then reaching into their robo-chests to rip out their cyber hearts tickles a very peculiar part of the psyche. This tickle, deep in the lizard part of brain, is magical like when you first figured out how to masturbate. A little guilty, a lot of fun.
But when Blood Dragon attempts to be self-aware, it fails. Like someone walking in on you, self-awareness completely breaks the nostalgiabation™ this game is going for.
Blood Dragon differs from Far Cry 3 in every way except the island locale. The game’s premise is best explained by this marketing copy from Ubisoft’s website:
You are Sergeant Rex Colt: Mark IV Cyber Commando. The year is 2007 and Earth has been ravaged by a nuclear war which erupted in the ’90s. The east vs. west conflict has raged for generations, and humanity continues to struggle to progress after a disastrous decade.
This retrofuturistic dystopia perfectly encapsulates all of the “how cool would it be?” discussions held around nerdy tables of late ’80s and early ’90s middle school lunchrooms.
Blood Dragon, for the most part, holds to this tone in earnest throughout its roughly six-hour campaign. Most of the dialogue and one-liners emanating from Rex, voiced by none other than Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese in The Terminator), are funny in their adherence to the straight-to-VHS-style scriptwriting Blood Dragon pays homage to. While those get old too quickly due to a lack of time in the sound booth, their first-take feel is right at home with the theme.
Unfortunately, the game is bookended by two perfect examples of self-awareness jokes that fall flat, completely breaking the fantasy.
In the beginning, the tutorial attempts a commentary on how stupid most tutorials are. You’re locked in place, reading instructions like, “Press A to prove that you can read.” This might have been funny just once, but the bit runs on for nearly 20 minutes. I am not going to ruin this review by describing it any more. Had, say, your AI partner been trapped in the tutorial while you went off killing bad guys, the joke would have landed easier.
During a turret sequence near the end the game tries self-awareness again, and fails—again . While the setup for the sequence is pure awesome, the dialogue goes meta. The turret has a built-in Cortana-esque AI that gives a sort of ironically gung-ho voiceover to your unbridled bullet storm. This unnecessary distraction peaks with the line, “Genocide is fun!” In the attempt to jolt the player into an empathetic epiphany, the game intrudes on an otherwise safe place to explore and enjoy the fantasy of saving the world from the bad guys.
This leads to the bigger point. I have the same advice for the designers who added these winks as I do for the 13-year -old inside them: just be yourself. Had Blood Dragon stayed true to its refreshingly unironic commitment to being a fun, over-the-top shooter experience, I would have no reservations calling it a game of the year contender.
Because, missteps aside, creative director Dean Evans has given us a glorious love letter to his childhood, and it allows us into his brain as only games can. Every person on the team deserves recognition for coming together behind such an outrageous idea. My hope is that it inspires other publishers to greenlight similar creative expansions.
The nostalgiabation™ alone warrants my wholehearted recommendation to go buy Blood Dragon. Far Cry 3‘s near-perfect Predator-sim mechanics ground the game in fun, while the neon glow and synth beats take you back to a future that never happened. It’s sophomoric fun that, despite winking at the camera too often, exemplifies how much we all just want to blow shit up—with lasers.