Friday, July 5, 2013

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review - This Is How You Make a Fun Shooter

To understand why Blood Dragon is so great, we have to go back to the 1980s, where most of its influences came from. This was the Age of the Action Movie, power fantasies where a lone hero fights his way through waves of evil enemies and single-handedly saves the day. The peak of this glorious age was the early 90s when, incidentally, video games were beginning to come into their own. No longer limited to squares fighting other, differently colored squares, games could render actual characters and 3D spaces. It was during this time that someone had the brilliant idea of making a game inspired by these action movie ideas. The earliest shooters were about lone badasses fighting their way through legions of inhuman monsters, usually Nazis or demons. They were violent, but in an over-the-top fantasy way.

This trend continued as shooters became more complex. There was Duke Nukem, who parodied these tropes and could flush toilets and turn off light switches. Goldeneye, the father of all modern FPSs, was based on James Bond, the original action hero. The first Call of Duty and Battlefield games were all based around World War Two, basically the only war in history where there were sorta good guys and bad guys. All of these games followed the classic Action Movie Tropes: the Hero was tough, grizzled dude; the villain and his henchmen were unequivocally evil; and things that had gasoline in them exploded when you shot them.

And bitchin' sunglasses were mandatory.

Shortly after 9/11, however, action movies changed. They began to favor the Bourne style - realistic, brutal, and murky. "Heroes" didn't really seem like the good guys anymore, and it was rarely clear who the bad guy even was. Video games followed this trend and attempted to become more realistic, as well. Unfortunately, they only changed the surface details. The settings changed from supervillain lairs to dusty Middle Eastern battlegrounds; the heroes became modern US soldiers; and the villains became terrorists. The gameplay, however, remained largely the same. It was still, essentially, a story of one dude killing a whole lot of other dudes to reach a goal.

So much realism.

The basic mechanics of the first person shooter as we know it were designed to tell one type of story - the traditional Action Hero story. This is the problem most modern shooters run into, because they are trying to tell a different type of story. You can't tell the story of a modern soldier with '80s action movie mechanics; you end up with a ton of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Soldiers are not action heroes, they are professionals trained to work together as a part of a much larger team. The US military isn't really the traditional good guy in most conflicts; its goals rarely seem moral or ethical, and it is vastly more powerful than its enemies. Terrorists are not unambiguously evil. The classic action movie story is about a good guy fighting his way out of a bad situation. Most modern shooters feel like the story of an overpowered dude murdering his way through impoverished freedom fighters to promote American interests abroad. Even non-military shooters, like Bioshock Infinite, have this issue.

I bet you can't even tell what game this is from.

This is why Blood Dragon feels like such a breath of fresh air. By setting a shooter in an action-movie world, the mechanics make sense again, and they become fun again. Despite all of their faux-serious storylines and grimy color schemes, the Call of Dutys of the world are not setting out to make an artistic statement. They are trying to be entertainment. What their fans don't seem to realize is that actual modern warfare isn't fun. It's dark, disturbing, depressing, and generally awful. No piece of art about war should ever be fun. Action movies, on the other hand, can be lots of fun.

There is only one video game in the world that this image could be from

The best way to see this difference play out is by comparing Blood Dragon and the original Far Cry 3. Their mechanics are identical, but their stories and aesthetics are vastly different. Simply by having a story that fits with its game mechanics, Blood Dragon is the superior experience. It doesn't make sense for Jason Brody to murder his way through hundreds of pirates and highly-trained mercenaries. It makes perfect sense for Rex Power Colt to murder his way through legions of robot soldiers (Blood Dragon follows the Samurai Jack rule of violence - you can be as violent as you want as long as you're only killing robots). This is the direction that shooters should take. No uncomfortable military fetishism, subtle racism, or depressing, meaningless seriousness. Just pure fun.

The best kind of power fantasy.

If you want to make a fun game about a hero fighting his way through hordes of villains, embrace the inherent silliness in that premise. If you want a serious game about serious issues, you have to change the game mechanics so that they tell that story.

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