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game review

In the 1980s, two things were cool: cyborgs and ninjas. Naturally, the star of Blood Dragon is both.

Who the hell at Ubisoft gave Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon the go-ahead? And more importantly, how can I shake his or her hand?

It's one of the most unique releases of the year: a brilliant homage to the games and movies of the 1980s, yet it's also a biting mockery of them. At once based on Far Cry 3 – which recently took top honours at the Canadian Videogame Awards as the best game of 2012 – while at the same time having nothing to do with it. A first-person shooter, it's completely unlike the rest of the genre because it's a hilarious riff on Reagan-era future-pocalypse sci-fi.

The year is 2007 (about as far into the future anyone in the eighties could see), and the world – especially Canada – has been ravaged by nuclear war between the Americans and the Soviets. The Montrealers who created the game couldn't help themselves: They chose to nuke Toronto in the opening scene.

The backstory unfolds through the sort of retro eight-bit animation found in Super Nintendo games, back when Alf was on TV and Bryan Adams was topping the charts. If the visuals don't take you back, the accompanying music will – it's a vintage 80s action movie soundtrack, with synth drums and electronic trumpets immediately evoking memories of The Terminator or any number of Vangelis soundtracks.

Into this milieu steps Sergeant Rex "Power" Colt, a Mark IV cyborg ninja who must take on Omega Force, a cyborg army led by Colonel Sloane, himself a former cyborg ally also who happens to have the blood of dragons coursing through his veins. Yes, there are a lot of cyborgs in this game. Even the tigers that roam the dystopian island where the story takes place are cyborgs. That's because in the 80s, two things were cool: cyborgs and ninjas. Naturally, Colt is both.

Colt is voiced by Michael Biehn, the actor who played the heroes in both The Terminator (Reese!) and Aliens (Hicks!), two landmark 80s sci-fi films. He takes the whole raspy-voiced, anti-hero shtick to a whole new level of brilliance here. If his performance and the game's silliness as a whole aren't a purposeful mockery of the Metal Gear series, then I must be losing my mind. Indeed, Blood Dragon makes the latest game in that franchise – Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, released just a few months ago – look even more awful and ridiculous, since it un-ironically stars a raspy-voiced cyborg ninja. What year is it again?

Almost as soon as Colt hits the ground he breaks the fourth wall by complaining about the gameplay tutorial he's forced to endure: "Just let me kill people, dammit!" he yells to no one in particular. As both an homage and mockery of generations of shooter video games, Blood Dragon assumes its players know what they're doing so the tutorial is in fact brief. Players are asked to press the A button to demonstrate that they know how to read and the action kicks off forthwith.

The sky on Colt's island alternates between deep shades of purple and red, with the resultant landscape in a perpetually darkened state. The glum colours are punctuated by the occasional bursts of neon orange or yellow, but otherwise this is a much more shadowy palette than the tropical paradise of the Rook Islands in Far Cry 3. I was expecting the transition from eight-bit cut-scenes to a properly animated modern game to be jarring, but the Tron -like design actually works. The dark dystopia kept reminding me of the gloominess of Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man, but with a modern twist.

The play area itself is much smaller than that of Far Cry 3, since it's limited to just a single island rather than the parent game's archipelago, but it's otherwise functionally identical. Colt can traverse it on foot or via a host of vehicles, including jeeps, jet-skis and hang gliders. The open-world island isn't all that big, though, so running around on his super-fast Mark IV cyborg legs will usually do.

Colt otherwise engages in the same kind of action that protagonist Jason Brody did in Far Cry 3. Aside from the main story, where he must hunt down and stop Sloane's Omega Force, Colt must liberate the enemy-controlled strongholds that dot the island. This is immensely fun since no two fortresses are the same and there are many options for overcoming them. Players can choose to sneak in and silently take out all the guards, or they can run in all guns blazing. Alternatively, they can try to turn off the force shields protecting the bases from the eponymous Blood Dragons roaming the hillsides, then watch the huge, deadly monsters take out the bad guys.

With the strongholds liberated, Colt can embark on missions to rescue scientists being held hostage or hunt exotic animals. One of these tasks involves him delving into the sewers in search of mutant turtles. In this game, no 80s reference is left un-referenced, so naturally, there are pizza boxes strewn about.

Completing the missions and finding collectible VHS tapes, research notes and television sets unlocks new weapons and attachments, all of which can be purchased at the liberated bases. Experience points also unlock new abilities, such as extra health bars or melee attacks against armoured opponents, but unlike Far Cry 3, these are automatic rather than player chosen. If there's a downside to Blood Dragon, it's that the unlockables aren't as tied in and vital to the main story as they are in Far Cry 3, but that's okay because they're still fun to find on their own, if only to hear Colt complain about it. When he's not whining about how his skills are being misused on scavenger quests, he's mocking other Ubisoft games – "I hope I don't have to find any $#&* feathers!" he growls (a knock at Assassin's Creed).

In the end, Blood Dragon is a much shorter game than its parent. Even with gathering all the collectibles, it can be breezed through in five or six hours. But it's a completely standalone, downloadable game – you don't need to own Far Cry 3 to play it. Indeed, if you haven't played that tremendous game yet, the action in Blood Dragon may turn you onto it.

Even if it doesn't, it's still the funniest game of the year for anyone who lived through the 80s. I'm not sure if younger players will get the onslaught of references, but for those of us who were there, Blood Dragon is a visceral reminder of the sort of nonsense we used to find entertaining. Kudos to Ubisoft once again for allowing such a strange and absurdly hilarious game to be made.

And to answer the question I know all children of the 80s will have: Yes, of course, there is a training montage.