Monday, August 25, 2014

Wolfenstein - Thoughts

Raven's Wolfenstein feels a bit like an artifact caught out of time. Despite Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's influence on the first person genre, BJ Blaszkowicz's rompin' stompin' Nazi killing adventure plays closer to the older style of post-Half Life shooters, like 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2006's Prey. Despite feeling intentionally "old", it nevertheless makes new advancements in its mechanics and gameplay, giving it the feel of both eras... though at times perhaps the worst of the two.

Right out of the gate, the strangest thing to note is the inclusion of three connected hub areas in an otherwise linear FPS. All the main missions consist of a single path but in the hub town you can pursue side quests and engage in random battles that will break out between the Third Reich and Isenstadt's resistance. The Nazi forces will continue to expand and evolve as you move through the game, stronger enemies making more frequent appearances until you find yourself fighting more supernatural soldiers than grunts. It would be a great addition to a largely "by-the-books" game, if not for the fact that you gain almost nothing from combat.

XP is commonplace in most modern shooters but in Wolfenstein the only way to get stronger is to upgrade your armaments with golden trinkets—a non-replenishable commodity which can be hard to find. Scrounging around in corners and side areas can net you a couple hundred bucks every now and then, but you'll largely have to pick and choose which upgrades to apply since the gun enhancements can get very pricey. If you could get cash off of regular units there would be more of an impetus to fight them, but as it stands you'll only want to encounter them if you're not tired of shooting hundreds of soldiers already. And shoot many, many enemies you shall, as the design does little other than drip-feed you humanoid drones to plow through at every opportunity it can provide.

The game is at its funnest when you get to utilize your heavier weapons, each one feeling astonishingly powerful (the flamethrower in particular deserves a special mention, as it's an absolute beast [especially compared to Far Cry 3's dinky blowtorch]). The Particle Cannon and Tesla Gun are my favorites—the former used to render foes into dust with a terrifying shriek and the latter a portable Nazi-barbecue grill at close-range. The problem however, is that the ammo for these big boys is quite scarce, limiting your equipment primarily to the standard assault rifle firearms that drop from lower tier units. Buying ammo is unwise considering your income is limited, so you're left waiting until you can pilfer said munitions from the specialty units or finding stockpiles before boss fights. Speaking of, most of the boss fights can grow particularly vexing, especially the final one (while being a good callback to the id's archaic shooter, the routine nature of it drains the fun).

The most wild game mechanic comes in the form of your Veil abilities, adding to the shooter a peculiar metagame of resource management as these powers are crucial to your survival. There's something inherently entertaining in slowing down time, applying double damage to your weapon, and frying men alive with the Tesla Gun as you barrel into a densely packed barracks... though the Veil powers don't last long. Besides that it's a shame that shooting with the regular arms doesn't feel that engaging, the gameplay further dampened by the bottleneck design of certain encounters. There's also a World at War style grenade spam that compounds the issue, where more than three seconds behind cover prompts a toss (one section of the Castle stage saw me besieged by five grenades at once). When your supplies are maxed out the firefights can be quite fun but otherwise the action slows to a crawl.

Besides the gameplay, the story and visuals are pretty par for the course (I will admit that the Nazi zepplin does have a great steam-punk interior). Altogether Wolfenstein is a strange-yet-straightforward game with some good ideas surrounding some bad ones. Towards the end it starts to play to its design strengths more, sending a variety of its supernatural soldiers at you mixed in with the grunts, but by then you've likely had your fill. If paranormal Nazi killing is your jam you'll feel right at home throughout Blazkowicz's wacky adventure, but other than that it's largely unremarkable.

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