Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon: Two Versions of the Same Problem
Ask 10 game critics about Far Cry 3 and you’ll get 10 different opinions, and one point of agreement: the gameplay was great. Ubisoft’s title offers state-of-the-art graphics, a huge open world, a wealth of vehicles and weapons, and a wide variety of different ways to combine them into emergent, free-wheeling fun; you can swoop in on a hang-glider, stab a pirate, and unleash the starving panther his friends were keeping in that rickety cage.
On the other hand, no one was quite sure what to make of the game’s narrative and tone — what I’ll call the game’s “presentation.” The story of Jason Brody and his tribal tattoos is inconsistent at times, inscrutable at others, and sometimes downright offensive. In my own review of Far Cry 3, I called it “crude” and “exploitative.” Though writer Jeffrey Yohalem launched a dogged defense of the game’s story as a kind of meta-commentary, I didn’t buy this explanation, and neither did Game Front writer Phil Hornshaw.
As much as gamers and critics enjoyed the gameplay in Far Cry 3, they did so despite the presentation. Critic Brad Shoemaker, in his review for Giant Bomb, said that “it’s a good thing Far Cry 3 gets so much mileage out of just about every aspect of its gameplay, because by the time the credits rolled I felt extremely let down by the squandered potential of the plot.” He still gave the game five out of five stars. Arthur Gies, in his 9/10 review for Polygon, mentioned “major tonal issues,” and opined that “Far Cry 3’s systems and mechanics are so well intertwined that a story that might otherwise be glossed over is instead a glaring problem.”
Game writers tend to be a little generous with their scores, but I think it is fair to say that Far Cry 3 is a good game that could have been truly excellent, if only the presentation had lived up to the gameplay. Contrast it, then, with Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Blood Dragon is a game dripping with presentation, a hyperbolic neon fantasia cooked up by Ubisoft in six months and announced to the public on April Fool’s Day with this incredible trailer:
It’s not strictly a parody. Not strictly a homage. It’s not always funny, though it is often quite funny indeed. But critics and gamers, for the most part, ate it up. The presentation — all cheesy one liners, dragons with laser eyes, and gooey blue headshots — works. On the one hand, it’s a collection of things that people who play games already like. On the other, it feels new, and different — bolder and weirder than the kind of thing a big publisher like Ubisoft would usually attempt.
There’s only one problem: when it comes to the actual gameplay, Blood Dragon comes up short, with fewer mechanics, a smaller area to explore, and a shorter story than its predecessor. John Walker at Rock, Paper, Shotgun calls it “an oddly stripped down version of Far Cry 3.” You can blame that problem on the short development cycle, or the bargain-basement price, but in the end, it’s simply a missed opportunity — an opportunity to support Blood Dragon’s crazy presentation with appropriately crazy weapons, vehicles, and mechanics. As I put it in my own review, “there’s only one strong example of the game’s over-the-top sensibilities working in tandem with the gameplay: the Blood Dragons themselves.”
In the end, Ubisoft’s downloadable hit is a strange mirror image of its predecessor: Far Cry 3 had great gameplay and lackluster presentation, whereas Blood Dragon has the opposite. The Edge review, under the byline “Edge Staff,” delivers a similar verdict: “This isn’t Far Cry 3 at its best mechanically, but it’s definitely the game at its most charismatic.” Or take Jim Sterling, writing for Destructoid: “the result of all this is a deep and well-crafted premise in a somewhat shallow game. Blood Dragon is well-made, and thoroughly entertaining to lovers of the eighties, but in many ways, it becomes a victim of its own success — the core ideas are so fun, so lavishly crafted, one aches to see them in a game equal to their quality.”
That may yet happen. Blood Dragon voice actor Michael Biehn is already talking up a sequel. Whether it’s in Blood Dragon 2, in a new Far Cry game, or in The Mighty Quest For Epic Loot, a tongue-in-cheek action-RPG that I’ll be seeing today, let’s hope Ubisoft delivers a game whose gameplay lives up to its presentation, and vice versa. The results will be worth playing.