Sunday, 26 January 2014

Rapid Blood Loss

Depressingly, it must be close to thirty years ago that I first sat down in front of a flickering, tiny TV and tried to persuade a creaking Kempston joystick to help me guide a jumbled block of yellow pixels - all but unrecognisable as the Welsh thief I was allegedly aiding - through turnstile mazes in his quest to escape the law by, er, catching turtles and turning them into monsters.  I think. Logic, like diagonal movement, was still just a dream.

There is nothing in the subsequent evolution of videogames that has pleased me more than the conclusion that videogames can and should be coherent works of art.  You can keep your pretty lens flares and your twelve-button joypads ("games controller" still sounds too much like someone legally prevented from calling themselves DM). Even the decision to make a game's story an actual driving force rather than a vague justification for incomprehensible madness doesn't drizzle my olive oil like the dedication to crafting something whole and unique from the marble of coding; to rely on something other than raw processing power to entertain and impress.

It's a good job this approach impresses me, because as an actual game, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon isn't tremendously impressive. At seven missions it's too brief to work as a linear challenge, and its open world is too repetitive for it to function as an explore-em-up.  Too much of the game relies on the thrill of collecting things (which the main character mocks as stupid; it's never a good sign when you have to slate your own game mechanisms) in order to unlock weapon upgrades, which is kind of tedious, and makes the sudden removal of your arsenal in the penultimate mission a supreme dick move [1]. On the other hand, the advantage of a game speed by all but the most dedicated of completists (a group which includes me, but that isn't Ubisoft's fault) means you reach the finale before the joke wears thin. 

And what a joke it is. If Skynet had sent the Terminator back in time not to kill Sarah Connor but to force James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven to make a first-person shooter whilst drunk, Blood Dragon is what they might have come up with. Relentless, pointless carnage flows from the barrel pink laser-spewing automatic rifles or suspiciously familiar machine pistols as your cyborg soldier marches through neon-lit military bases looking for people to shuriken to death.  Women with gel-heavy blond hair and wearing shoulder apds that could double as armour plate come across as tough yet vulnerable as they explain the plot to you, and then fuck you in a manner both gratuitous and appropriately simplistic in its animation. Hardly a minute goes by without your ultimate badass (voiced by Michael Biehn, natch) engages in some hilariously off-kilter '80s action movie dialogue ("Way to die, dipshitter" remains a personal favourite).

References to '80s movies and cultural ephemera in general are everywhere, and the dedication to detail is such that it can be difficult to tell which is which.  Does the final mission really reference Zoids (or even Dinoriders) for example, or was that decade's obsessions over cyborgs and dinosaurs so prevalent that mixing them together was an obvious choice for the game?  And does it really matter? Either way, hearing the stentorian tones of a cyberdino intone "I am firing my lasors" is hilarious, and anyone who disagrees is a fool.

Or possibly just didn't experience the '80s as history, rather than farce. It's not clear how well the game will translate to today's kids with their twerking and their Beibermania.  You can get somewhere to understanding the game by a diet of appropriately blood-soaked synth-heavy period movies, of course, but that's only half the battle. You don't just need to know that this was how Hollywood was extrapolating the future back then, you need to understand how that was possible, and the materials we had to do it with.  That's why whilst the actual gaming environment here is thoroughly modern, the cut-scenes are defiantly 8-bit. It's why so much of the game is spent seeking out VHS tapes (to the best of my knowledge, no piece of '80s sci-fi assumed those things would make it to 2008). It's not enough to understand that in the '80s cyber-ninja was assumed to be a legitimate career path for post-millennials.  You have to have waded through the decade of horrific materialistic excess and bewildering technological change that made looking cool through paying to have your body upgraded with computers seem like a reasonable plan.

Or maybe not.  Being a fully-processed child of the '80s, it's hard to determine how well its touchstones can be packaged as vicarious nostalgia, rather than the more direct kind.  Either way, Blood Dragon is a mildly diverting FPS humming beneath a gloriously high-concept idea, executed almost to perfection. A run-of-the-mill engine made fascinating by tinkering at its edges. A patch, in other words, pulling a game into a realm of dedicated design so well-constructed the actual underlying structure seems almost beside the point.

Ironically, what could be more 21st century than that?

[1] On the other hand, given the game's obsession with the '80s, might this not represent the ultimately hollow nature of the acquire-at-all-costs mentality of the Reagan/Thatcher era?  Probably not...

No comments: