Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - Thoughts

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon was the first Far Cry game I played, as strange as that may sound. During the Steam Summer Sale I saw it priced low and was hungry for a light-hearted FPS that I could finish in a handful of hours. The prospect of running around an open island to do primarily whatever I wanted was perhaps the biggest selling point of the series to me, and I reasoned that this little chunk of stylized DLC could handle that fix. Though the opening hour was somewhat underwhelming, once I got into the groove of the game I was thoroughly impressed—rare few shooters can compare to the sense of satisfaction you get when everything goes right during a mission.

First though, I'll touch upon the most notable aspect of this content—the distinctive 1980's aesthetic.

Boiled down, Blood Dragon contains a superb idea—take an intentionally niche and goofy remembrance of a single decade and mix it with the AAA production of a Ubisoft franchise, baking it until it forms bite-sized DLC. Thankfully the game is a standalone entry so people apathetic towards Far Cry 3's plot and setting can jump right into the neon paradise (though at its core it remains a tropical island entrenched in gorilla warfare). There's a variety of stupidly awesome details added to the game to accentuate the mood: the main character is a cyborg equipped with glowing shurikens, enemy mobs speak in bitcrushed tones and are decked out in futuristic biker gear, and there's wild Tyrannosaurus-like beasts called "dragons" that fire explosive optical lasers. One of my favorite flourishes is the way the the screen shakes and the visuals become chromatically distorted when the shotgun fires, giving the weapon a really satisfying kick (and the reload animation for each armament is hilariously flashy).

Despite the noteworthy effort the designers and animators put into making the game as radical as possible, Blood Dragon doesn't always hit its mark. This problem is exemplified best during the cutscenes—long discourses that slow down the action for lengths at a time, containing only a few good laughs here and there. I think the core issue is that the dialogue aims for a serious satire that comes across as mostly haphazard, rather than a bombastic display that hits you fast and hard with dumb 80's jokes. If you watch the opening cutscene I think it'll give you a good idea of what I mean, and how the writing drains the fun out of the ridiculous premise.

But the greatest offender is the opening tutorials—they're given as splash screens of text accompanied by a robotic voice over, which pokes fun at the hand-holdy nature of modern games but unfortunately succumbs to its own mockery by putting you through an extremely boring process. When I started the game I just wanted to run around a wreak havoc, and the length of the first few tasks alone, combined with the plodding pace, linearity, and constant reminders on "how to do side missions and buy stuff" made me question my purchase... but luckily my fears were alleviated.

When the game gets going, it really hits the spot. Perhaps Blood Dragon's greatest appeal is the variability in the encounters; there were a few times where I would jump into enemy territory and the operation would go terribly wrong, forcing me to camp a doorway and mow through any living creature that takes one wrong step across my shotgun-guarded rubicon. After the carnage settled and I could explore the base freely, I realized how many options I had open to me before they had all been squandered on a noisy approach: perhaps I could've slid in via a cable overhead, or lured the nearby dragon in for a frantic feast, or taken an underground path to slowly chip away at my opponents one by one from the shadows. This is especially prevalent during the main missions, where entire concrete playgrounds can be wasted if you don't proceed patiently.

Of course the mechanics are far from perfect—there's a handful of irksome design choices, like certain hostage rescue assignments where enemies tightly patrol an open area, meaning stealth becomes far less viable than running in guns blazing. This is further compounded by the inability to quietly take out heavy troops until you reach a certain level, meaning you have to use loud, lethal force to subdue them (unless you enjoy plunking arrows playfully against their armor). Other issues are small but remain prevalent, like the pointlessness of the island's non-dragon wildlife and the cost of supplies often outgrossing the reward you get at the end of each mission. All of the main missions are pretty long too, so if your game crashes mid-level (as it happened once in my case), expect to spend another twenty minutes or so trekking over familiar territory just to get to the spot you were previously at.

Luckily the game is so much fun that I didn't mind redoing most missions from scratch; each replay provided an opportunity to make sure I performed flawlessly this time around. One of my favorite memories was during the northwest base infiltration, where I sniped the pilot of a standing helicopter only to draw everyone in the compound over to that position. I snuck around the back and stabbed a guard, which was yet another reckless move on my behalf as it caught the attention of his nearby cohort. I planted a mine beside the corpse as I backed out the door and once it triggered on his curious companion, three more enemies were pulled into the corridor. A quick toss of C-4 and an instant detonation later, the base was all but taken care of—and no one knew where I was the entire time. It's these situations, where your impromptu reactions are put to the test during a sudden kink in the plan, that feel so fulfilling, as your success is entirely due to your crafty thinking and not merely left up to some lame QTE that you passively mashed X through. Essentially, it went well because you played well.

Early on it was quite apparent that I wasn't interested in what the story had to offer; the lively locale was my true calling. I drew much entertainment from the adaptive insanity that ensued as I attempted to save each hostage and dismantle every stronghold. Player creativity in each situation isn't just Blood Dragon's greatest strength from what I gathered, but the Far Cry series itself. In that sense I came to understand the draw of the franchise, and I decided to purchase Far Cry 3 after the credits rolled... but not before the techno resort was free of biker mooks. Boy howdy it was one hell of a vacation while it lasted.

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