Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a standalone expansion to 2012’s tropical island survival romp, Far Cry 3. But beyond the name and a few core mechanics, Blood Dragon shares almost nothing else with its namesake. Instead of following a group of angsty, privileged white kids through hell and high water, this set of missions puts players in the role of Rex Power Colt. Rex spits the same kind of one-liners that you’d expect from Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and the world around him is bathed in CRT scan lines, nuclear fallout, and explosions. Blood Dragon is just the kind of unexpected project that I want to see more of in gaming, but it could have been much more focused and impressive with more development time.

In an alternate 2007 that could only come from a B-film of the 1980s, cyber soldier Rex is sent to an unnamed island to stop his former commander and his army of cyborgs from launching a host of nuclear warheads on the United States. But really, who gives a damn? This is action flick schlock; full of awful dialogue, cheesy synth-rock, and absurd humor. The aesthetic, while ridiculous, is Blood Dragon’s greatest strength. Jamming out to a bumping beat in an underground base, mowing down dozens of cyborg enemies with RoboCop’s pistol while Rex’s partner Spider yells, “Fuck yeah!” works surprisingly well. You can’t take any of it seriously, or else you’ll see just how nonsensical it all really is.

That is sort of a double-edged sword though, as examining any individual design choice or joke too closely threatens to fold the entire facade. Why exactly does Rex throw a D20 to distract guards? Why did the female lead just try to make an acronym for the word “fuck”? Why is Rex seemingly confused about everything anyone ever tells him? And what about the titular Blood Dragons? Why in the world did the designers decide that laser shooting cyber-T-Rexes would really mesh with a 1980s action theme? I just don’t know. The sense of humor present in Blood Dragon feels half baked at its best, completely unfunny at its worst.

Despite the particulars of the story and characters not really gelling with the overall premise, Blood Dragon iterates on enough of the core Far Cry 3 mechanics to make the 6 hour experience interesting. Now instead of unleashing Bengal Tigers on unsuspecting pirates, you can lure Blood Dragons to enemy encampments to do the dirty work for you. Or you can waltz in the front door with a minigun and mow everything down in a hale of hot lead and explosions. Oh, but you’re not the explosive type? Well you can always use the fantastic stealth takedown system that Far Cry 3 so ingeniously introduced. Having this many ways to interact with encounters reinforces just how much variety the folks at Ubisoft Montreal packed into both the original game and Blood Dragon.

As long as you don’t question Blood Dragon’s schizoid sense of humor, you’ll find plenty to like in this homage to 1980s home VHS action. I just wish the developers had taken a few more months to revise and edit some of the questionable dialogue and humor. But I can’t complain too much when I consider the fact that this could have been a crappy multiplayer expansion that required the original game to run. More big developers and publishers should learn from the risks taken here, and improve with just a bit more time and consideration.

All image credits go to the respective Giantbomb community members who posted them to Giantbomb.com. 

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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review: Ain’t No Fortunate One

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune strikes me as Naughty Dog’s coming of age project. Though the Santa Monica based studio has been around for over 20 years, most of their games have been cartoony, lighthearted platformers with little in the way of story. So it is sort of weird playing a serious action-adventure game in the vein of Indiana Jones from the same folks who brought us Crash Bandicoot.

That doesn’t mean that Uncharted is completely different from the studio’s earlier efforts; the DNA strands of Naughty Dog’s PS1 and PS2 classics are clearly here. But the game struggles to find a good balance of combat and character throughout. Uncharted ends up as a good launchpad for a series of globe trotting adventures, despite being a mess in terms of gameplay.

We open with treasure hunting protagonist Nathan Drake and broadcast reporter Elena Fisher reeling in a coffin from the Panamanian Coast floor. The box supposedly holds Sir Francis Drake’s remains, and Nate believes himself to be one of the Elizabethan privateer’s descendants. But when Nate and Elena crack open the casket, there is nothing but Sir Francis’s diary. Drake is elated, for this diary records all of Sir Francis’s adventures and treasures; namely, the location of El Dorado. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark however, there is another faction vying for Drake’s diary. A competing treasure hunter named Gabriel Roman sends a legion of pirates after Nate, Elena, and their money obsessed partner Sully to capture the diary and find El Dorado.

And so opens the 8-10 hour adventure wherein you’ll shoot countless pirates, navigate through swamps, jungles, and ancient ruins, and watch some of the best cutscenes in the business. For a game released in 2007, Uncharted still looks good, with some great facial and motion captured animation. There are tons of little effects on display like Nate’s shirt only getting wet up to the point where water actually touches it instead of a binary wet or not wet state. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s visual artists and programmers that this game still holds up in purely graphical terms.

But, as the old nerd’s proverb tells time and time again, graphics do not a good game make. Back when it was originally released, Uncharted dropped right in the middle of the post-Gears of War boom of third-person, cover based shooters that altered the course of the genre. And at least it tries to hit all mechanics that Gears did. Hit a button to stick to cover? Check. Two weapon slots plus a grenade? Yep. Rolling dodge move and ability to vault over cover points to the next cover point? Done and done.

Beyond the initial layer of imitation, Uncharted’s gameplay fails to capitalize on anything further. Enemy encounters are stacked stupidly against the player; dozens of pirates will flood from a single point, and when they are all taken care of, another wave comes out to beleaguer the player to the point of frustration. These enemies start easy enough, perhaps taking more shots than you’d like, but it isn’t too hard to get the upper hand. But somewhere around the second half of the game, enemies become Herculean in their ability to take and deal punishment. Ammo becomes scarce at the same time, making any missed shot a severe blow to your progression.

These factors aren’t insurmountable individually, but the last third of the game starts to join them in a sort of perverse concert. A late game encounter in a cathedral stacks nearly a dozen enemies with one-shot-kill weapons against Nate and Sully. Banish any notion from your head that Sully may support you; like so many other games, his AI doesn’t include being able to do anything other than wisecrack occasionally. It has been a long time since I’ve had to put the game on “Easy” difficulty because I could not progress through some fights. But no matter how conservatively I played, the pirates nearly always had an advantage. I seriously contemplated putting the game down for good at many points.

There is also a startling amount of ludonarrative dissonance in Uncharted. Nate is supposed to be the flawed, but good-hearted protagonist, but he also kills hundreds of people in order to plunder ruins and temples. The mechanical ability that the player has at their fingertips is in stark contrast to Nate’s everyman image that the story conveys. He is always on the cusp of danger, but never incurs any damage or consequences. This wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable if the characters weren’t so well written and acted. As it is though, It felt strange killing every brown person in sight and then segueing into a cutscene where Nate is cracking wise.

Despite this, I found myself compelled to finish Uncharted because of the characters and the popcorn flick, action-adventure vibe; Elena and Sully are great supporting characters, and Nate is as charming a rogue as any. Elena is particularly noteworthy for being a really strong female lead. At no point did she feel like a damsel in distress or a hopeless fawn; she knows how to take care of herself, and tells the player as much. The game’s story did start to lose me in the final chapters due to an ill conceived supernatural twist. The game forces you to fight against mutated Nazi-Gollums for nearly two hours, and it just feels out of place. Not only are those enemies overpowered, but they break down what was up to that point a semi-believable storyline.

Another area of Uncharted that just doesn’t have quite enough polish is the climbing and platforming elements. Sure, I got a little rush of nostalgia when the camera pulled in front of Nate and forced a Crash Bandicoot-esque running sequence. But I also found myself frequently missing jumps even when I was squared exactly in front of a ledge. It is also difficult to differentiate what is a grabbable ledge and what isn’t. It isn’t always an issue, but it happens enough to add just a hint more annoyance on top of the gunplay.

Uncharted is definitely a product of the early years of this console generation, and has not aged well. So many other games have done gunplay and linear platforming better in recent years that it is hard to make it through. Everything but the story and characters could’ve used just a few more months of refinement and attention. To be fair, this game is dirt cheap now, but bad gameplay is bad gameplay regardless of price. I would recommend just watching this edited version of the game’s cutscenes and skip to Uncharted 2. You’ll save yourself about six hours time and lots of frustration if you do.

Journey Review: One Way Trip

With thatgamecompany’s first two games, the Los Angeles based developer established some serious arthouse cred. Both flOw (2007) and Flower (2009) used the Playstation’s Sixaxis motion control to create some minimal, ethereal experiences. Their latest game Journey doesn’t follow suit with motion controls, but it does continue the developer’s goal of creating airy, emotionally driven games. What Journey lacks in substance, it makes up for with pure feeling.

As a robed Bedouin figure in a vast desert, your goal in Journey is, well, to make a journey. It starts simple and remains so for the entire two-and-a-half hour pilgrimage. A large mountain in the distance soon becomes your goal, as it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the endless dunes. This becomes the crux of the narrative as you weave through ruined highways and grand halls. What will happen when you get to the mountain? Well the game doesn’t give up any sort of answer before the very end, and only conveys story through intermittent cutscenes that feature absolutely no dialogue.

As you make your way forward, the loneliness of the desert can be a little harrowing. If you are playing online however, you’ll occasionally run into other players making their own way to the mountain. It is random, there is no way to contact the other person besides a chirping sound that you can make, and there is no guarantee that the other player will stay with you. But when they do, it adds a sense of companionship that changes the entire dynamic of the game. You’re sharing this experience with another person in a very restricted, yet powerful way.

Besides walking rather slowly forward, sliding down dunes, and chirping incessantly, players are given a kind of gliding ability that can only be used when charged up via magical pieces of cloth. These little scraps of cloth often serve as markers for which way you’re supposed to go, and also lead to some of the more impressive moments in the game. An early puzzle has you reconstruct a bridge made entirely of the stuff, and then lets you fly over it in a wide arc. These moments of elation pop up between much solemnity, and give the game much of its emotional appeal.

At all times, Journey is a beautiful game despite not pushing a huge amount of polygons. Sand blows across the land like a golden ocean, and the entire aesthetic is sort of like a mosque drawn in a cel shaded style. The game makes liberal use of pink, maroon, gold, and even cooler tones as you move through the world. The soundtrack supports this style even further, with long, buzzing cello pulls that reinforce the isolated vastness of the desert. But in moments of joy and excitement a full orchestral ensemble blends in naturally.

You aren’t likely to spend more than a few hours at most playing Journey, but if you’re into the minimalist indie scene, you’ll be very glad to have spent that time with it. I can see how it would be too barren for some to appreciate; I fully admit that what story is here isn’t well explained. But the point is to feel your way through the game. To get caught up in the moments that the designers have carefully crafted. If you can’t get into it, then I don’t know what would pierce your cynical soul.

Journey is available only on the PSN for PS3. All screenshot credit goes to thatgamecompany’s own selection of screenshots available via their website.

Dishonored Review: Curing Regicide with Tyrannicide

It seems only fitting that the latter years of this console generation would foster a resurgence of the stealth genre. Bellyaching about the Call of Duty and Battlefield style of extremely strict gunplay has only increased in recent times, giving titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mark of the Ninja, and Hitman: Absolution the chance to show that there is still plenty of interest in more open game design.

Dishonored is one of the more anticipated titles to ride this new wave of RPG, stealth hybrids, and it is by far one of the most ambitious. Arkane Studios has succeeded in crafting a great bunch of meticulously designed missions set in an intriguing setting that is equal parts steampunk and Victorian-era England.

They wisely focus on giving players incentive to fully explore the wildly original city of Dunwall using a trim selection of weapons, powers, and collectables. It is sad that some of the surrounding systems and the storyline aren’t nearly as supportive to this end, instead creating dissonance and dragging down what could have easily been a classic of this generation.

In Dishonored, players inhabit the silent royal protector Corvo Attano just after he returns from an important mission to find a cure to a rat plague that has nearly crippled Dunwall. Just as Corvo reports to the Empress, a group of mysterious assassins kill her and take her daughter Emily hostage. Corvo is conveniently blamed for the murder and sent to jail to await execution.

Corvo gets sprung out of the big house by a group of Loyalists soon after, and a plot of betrayal and the thirst for power becomes clear. The Loyalists enlist Corvo to become an assassin himself and eliminate the new government leaders that seized the empire in the absence of the rightful heir to the throne.

After setting up this initial conflict, the writers are in the perfect place to spin a great narrative as they play with themes involving the relationship between corruption and power, spirituality and superstition, and mercy and cruelty. Plenty of books and other readable texts expand on the culture of Dunwall, delving most often into whale oil harvesting, bourgeois extravagance, and religious superstition.

This builds Dunwall as a simultaneously artistic, yet scientifically crude place; its inhabitants well cultured, yet credulous people. The city itself is beautifully rendered, with bold, geometric architecture that shows it was built by a strong people. The sense of setting is amazing and sometimes a little overwhelming. The dozens and dozens of books are interesting, but delve into almost too much minutia.

Dishonored gets much more mileage out of its art style–full of exaggerated features, almost visible oil-paint brush marks, and a wide color palette–than any technical proficiency. In fact, much of the texture work on buildings and landscapes is flat and bland. At least on the Xbox 360 everything is kept at 30 fps even when a dozen guards, a pack of plague rats, and a few explosions are on screen at one time.

The focus on setting seems to have taken time away from the actual story and main characters of Dishonored. Small little tidbits of character work are sprinkled amidst a sparse, poorly acted script. This is particularly surprising considering how star studded this cast is: Brad Dourif, Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moritz, and Lena Headey all lend their voices to the game. Perhaps it’s just that these actors didn’t have enough to work with, or perhaps they just didn’t fully invest in their characters; either way, most of the dialogue is delivered in a stiff, “I’m just reading a script here, guys,” sort of way.

This is further compounded by a lack of characterization in general. Exploring the Loyalists’ rooms gives plenty of insight to their quirks and some underlying vulnerabilities and vices, but its never connected into the main story. The Loyalists simply exist to dole out assassination targets to the player and move the story along. They don’t make themselves out as very likeable people, and ultimately their motivations aren’t known either. Why are they loyal to the dead Empress? What were her political ideals? What do they plan to do after reinstating Emily on the throne? Most of these questions are never answered, or kept vague for a late game twist that isn’t telegraphed in a reasonable way.

The developers also made a grave mistake when they decided to make Corvo a silent protagonist. Without any sort of personality, it is hard to connect to Emily or any of the other characters. The game tries to make you feel compassion and companionship for these people, but you have literally no reason to feel these things without a voice in the narrative. If you need reason to put the mute-hero trope out to pasture, look no further than Dishonored.

Even without a great cast or storyline, Dishonored manages to be one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences this year. As Corvo, I felt powerful even without using lethal means–though there are plenty of those. The toolset at your disposal isn’t very large, but each and every power, trap, and weapon can be used in multiple creative ways and in tandem to create amazing chain reactions.

You could take out a hallway of guards by carefully sneaking up behind each one and either knocking them out or slitting their throats, or you could stick a razor-wire mine at the end of hallway, lure one guard through it, slow down time and teleport behind the other two and tranquilize them both. Or perhaps just circumvent the entire area by possessing a rat and running past them all. And if all else fails, just throw a grenade around the corner while using the time-stop power and watch the bodies fly.

These are just simple examples of the variety of ways encounters can be managed. The different levels that you explore in Dishonored are never very large, but they are dense with pathways and secrets. The verticality of Dunwall is impressive, and easily traversed by the teleporting ability, Blink. Mastering that ability in particular is enough to make the game almost unfair. Enemies are not the brightest bunch on Normal difficulty, and effective Blink maneuvering outsmarts them nearly every time.

Still, it’s hard to deny the tactical joy that comes with outfoxing enemies by pure stealth and clever exploitation of the level design. Arkane really stacks the deck in the player’s favor, giving plenty of options at every point of the 6-10 hour story. Going in with reckless abandon, or just incredible Blink utilization, will definitely make your experience shorter and less impressive.

No, the way to play Dishonored is much more methodical. This is a game that begs you to turn off several of the user interface elements and waypoints and play on Hard. Feeling your way through the city, watching guards complete patrol paths before acting, and really planning out traps and attacks is the way to get the most out of the gameplay systems.

Oddly enough, Arkane created a morality system for the game that appears to limit the very openness of the gameplay. Killing creates “Chaos” around Dunwall; the more guards you kill, the more plague victims and reinforcements you’ll have to deal with. Other characters will also talk to you curtly and generally act rude towards you. The problem with this system is that it limits you to an even smaller amount of weapons and powers than you already have. If you want the good ending, you can probably get away with using lethal means every once in awhile, but don’t expect to be regularly setting up razor-wire traps.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were more non-lethal options, but there are literally only three: tranquilizers, sleeper holds, and possession. Meanwhile, there are easily over half a dozen lethal choices. I didn’t feel held back by other games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution nearly as much as I did by Dishonored.

That was my unfortunate final impression when I finished the game. I felt restricted despite a wealth of options, unconnected to all the characters, and unimpressed with the narrative as a whole. Dunwall is an amazing set dressing, but without a great story to support it, Dishonored ends up feeling half baked in many ways. If you loved the Thief, Deus Ex, or stealth heavy games in general, then you’ll find something to like here. But you’ll have to deal with a host of caveats in order to find the core embedded within.