Great 1980s movie montages featured plucky underdogs, perhaps played by Sylvester Stallone, or maybe Ralph Macchio, demonstrating their determination to triumph over the forces of communism, bullying, or stodgy adults who don't believe in the power of young love. They were accompanied by properly cheesy pop hits, possibly performed by Joe Esposito, or maybe Deniece Williams, creating a wonderful audiovisual time capsule that could have only originated in that fabulous decade. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon understands the power of the '80s. When its inevitable montage comes, you probably won't know the music, but you'll know the type. It's the kind that would have been sung by Michael Sembello, or Kenny Loggins, or Foreigner. If you're a child of the decade, you'll be glad that Blood Dragon knows you so well.
Don't worry, though: if the 1980s are before your time, or if you don't retain any nostalgia for the decade of parachute pants and the Brat Pack, Blood Dragon stands on its own without relying on references, though it packs in plenty of them. This downloadable spin-off of 2012's Far Cry 3 is a fantastically entertaining first-person shooter with more clever dialogue and action-packed hours than most full-priced games. At $15, it's a better deal than every Cabbage Patch Kid you ever loved, every Tears for Fears record you ever spun, and every Muppet Babies episode you ever viewed. Combined.
Well, perhaps Blood Dragon isn't quite that valuable. Nevertheless, it's hard not to be charmed from the moment it begins. Low-resolution cutscenes introduce you to Rex Colt, cybercommando. Rex is voiced by '80s mainstay Michael Biehn, better known for appearing in films like The Terminator (as Kyle Reese) and Aliens (as Dwayne Hicks). Biehn's forced rasp is the perfect complement to Rex's nationalist badassery, and his sincere line delivery makes several scenes all the more hysterical. Consider this dialogue: "I swore an oath to a special lady. Lady Liberty. She taught me that winners don't use drugs." It's a corny line right out of a War on Drugs-era public service announcement, but in the context of an offer to have dragon blood injected into Rex's veins. Meanwhile, you "rent" (that is, collect) VHS tapes of movies with titles like Bourne to Dance; this particular film features a special teacher showing his student "the kind of love he's never known before…the love of dance."
You don't need to know the '80s to get Rex's repeated oral sex gags, of which there are far too many. Nor do you need to know the past to understand that calls of "no" during a consensual sex scene would have been inappropriate in any decade. Luckily, most of the jokes aren't so juvenile, including video game cracks that make fun of red exploding barrels, game-violence controversies, and even Ubisoft's own games, like Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed. (Listen for bits of throwaway dialogue about girls with tribal tattoos and feather collecting.) The tutorial sets the tone straight away, telling you to press a button "to demonstrate your ability to read," and loading screens helpfully inform you that if you need a hint, perhaps the next loading screen will have one for you. Not every joke is so obvious--you may not notice or get nods to erotic artists and prison documentaries--but the gags are there, making Blood Dragon one of the funniest games in recent memory.
Of course, an '80s-focused game wouldn't be complete if it didn't look the part, and Blood Dragon certainly makes proper homage to its inspiration. Cutscenes look as if they could have been ripped right out of the original Metal Gear, or Shadow of the Beast, complete with the muddy reds, purples, and blues that characterized them. The same color scheme, in turn, infuses the first-person gameplay, as if you're traversing the game's medium-size island while wearing dark magenta sunglasses. Small audiovisual touches, such as the way Rex sometimes takes a blowtorch to his cybernetic arm when healing, and buzzing sounds to indicate Rex's part-mechanical nature, enthusiastically sell the roboapocalyptic setting. And by the final hour, which lends a sly twist to common action-game power trips, you'll appreciate how Blood Dragon uses nostalgia and humor to say something about the state of modern shooters.
Blood Dragon isn't just an homage to great memories, however, but a terrific game in its own right. If you played Far Cry 3, you will recognize the structure. Enemy bases are strewn about the island you explore, and by annihilating all of the enemies that patrol them, either silently or forcefully, you convert them to your cybernetic cause. Meanwhile, you move from mission to mission, infiltrating dams and rescuing endangered trash-talking scientists, using semi-futuristic variants of familiar weapons--a sniper rifle, an assault rifle, a bow, and so forth--that handle like their standard Far Cry 3 counterparts. In time, you upgrade most of these weapons; your sniper rifle's bullets gain an explosive charge, your shotgun gets a flaming kick, and so on. You earn access to weapon upgrades by finding collectibles and performing side missions, and you earn other enhancements, such as the ability to perform silent takedowns on heavies wielding flamethrowers, by leveling up. There is no skill tree or anything like that: when you cross the necessary level threshold, you gain new skills automatically.
You'll be glad of those enhancements, too, particularly when coming face-to-face with one of the game's titular blood dragons. These beasts are dinosaurs that shoot laser beams from their eyes, and they're a wonder to behold in action. As it turns out, it's not as difficult as you might think to take one down, but the first time you learn of the dragons, you sneak by a trio of them and then witness one zap a bunch of enemy combatants into dust. You might be engulfed by terror the first time you go head-to-head with one, but dragons are only major threats on hard difficulty.
They're still fun to face as you roam the open-air island, though, even on medium difficulty. They charge toward you when you make your presence known and give you a powerful swat, and then they rear up before firing their eye-lasers at you, giving you a chance to sprint out of the way. Several story missions have you facing one or two of them in closer quarters than usual, which ramps up the tension. The only downside to facing a blood dragon is the actual act of defeating it: the dragon simply disappears into thin air and an explosion of goo follows, but without any animations or effects tying the two events together. It's an anticlimactic end to a hectic battle.
Such battles are made more hectic when you simultaneously confront gunners and snipers, but in this case, you can toss the gooey hearts you collect from downed foes to direct the dragon's attention toward your enemies. It's a distinct pleasure to watch dragons scoop up adversaries with their mouths and chomp away, and in the case of a facility takeover, you might get a dragon to do all the legwork for you. You're just as likely to charge into battle yourself, however, if for no other reason than to enjoy the solid shooting, or to take an entirely stealthy approach. Just like its forebears, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon makes any approach viable and fun.
In fact, getting all sneaky is more satisfying here than in the original Far Cry 3, in part because you can perform chained takedowns from the very beginning. It's a gruesome delight to stab multiple enemies in a row, and then finish off one final soldier with the throw of a shuriken. Blood Dragon's multilevel bases are larger than Far Cry 3's outposts, and enemies are spaced out in sensible ways, allowing you to move in for the silent kill using a number of different approaches. In a few levels, enemy animations can go missing, or a hulking soldier might unnaturally zoom into a different location, which can trip up your plans. Thankfully, such instances are rare, and aren't likely to dilute the stealthy satisfaction.
You could charge through Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon in four hours or so if you are determined, but why rush such a great thing? There's joy in the discovery. Finding all those videotapes isn't busywork for busywork's sake, after all: there's a hysterical film description in it for you, and maybe a weapon upgrade to boot. You could easily double those hours if you go in search of every collectible, perform every side mission, and take down a few dozen dragons along the way. You don't have to love the decade of Rubik's Cubes and Pac-Man Fever to get a kick out of Blood Dragon. But if you do, then all the better: this action-packed shooter will strike all the right synth-pop power chords.