Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wolfenstein: The New Order - Thoughts

[contains slight spoilers]

While I concluded that 2009's Wolfenstein was fairly unremarkable, 2014's sequel Wolfenstein: The New Order is quite the opposite. Machinegames took a big gamble by altering the standard formula, adding a pulpy edge to BJ Blaszkowicz's formerly plain narrative—but it succeeds! Europe's alternate future is a grim, dystopian world where the Nazis have infested every corner, the resistance against them diminishing slowly day by day. Despite ludicrous advancements like cyborg dogs and lunar bases, it's a setting that remains horrifyingly lifelike as well as tremendously engrossing. Oh, and the game is a ton of fun to play too.

The New Order shares Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's unfortunate folly of greeting the player with a turret section of all things (possibly the worst way you can open your game), but past the linear prologue the action really takes off. Scenarios will alternate between stealth, shooting and bouts of dialogue, the designers carefully making sure that each portion never overstays its welcome. After large fights you'll be treated to some captivating discourse and the moment your bloodlust begins to wax you'll be back in a concrete compound with some soldiers to slice up. There are some miscellaneous issues that will unavoidably stand out: cutscene transitions are jarring, stealth sections are largely shallow (Nazi soldiers make murmurs of curiosity upon finding an ally's corpse rather than trigger an alarm), and the lack of manual checkpoints means the game will send you struggling through difficult hallways over and over again. While these issues slightly mar the experience, The New Order remains fantastic at its core.

At this core sits the riveting gunplay, being one of the most holistically satisfying shooters I've experienced. Weapons are large and have a good weight to them, there's a smart judge of how much ammo is allotted to each gun, and upon being shot enemies animate as if they feel the bullets shattering their bones. Even with a small arsenal available (there's about six arms) it never becomes grueling to switch back to the standard assault rifle and burst into a room, both guns blaring raucously. A couple of minor variations exist to shake-up the routine FPS load-out—the shotgun is less powerful than you'd expect but holds 20 shells, the assault rifle has a rocket launcher add-on, and your laser cutter becomes stronger as you find enhancements. The rifle is perhaps the only useless armament, bereft of bullets for the majority of the journey and being outclassed by the multi-targeting the laser cutter, but it gets plenty of screen time on the moon.

Despite its Nazi-crushing exterior the game is shockingly heartfelt, with many of Blaszkowicz's inner monologues and interactions feeling strikingly thoughtful. From important story beats to some of the small conversations you'll overhear, there's an interesting array of subjects touched upon. At one point I was traveling through the sewers and overheard a man talking to a woman, telling her about his vacation in Africa with his wife, and the woman asks whether or not her favorite animal—the elephant—was still there. The man replies that he didn't see any, and the dialogue ends; the potential extinction of elephants in Africa is an extremely minor detail added to the world but paints a great picture of the Third Reich's recklessness towards anything but their own progress. Foot-soldiers are also commonly portrayed as nothing more than privileged men in a uniform, abstaining from using childish, dehumanizing derivatives. Of course it doesn't excuse their crimes, and there's some utterly demented commanders in charge of their forces, but it's nice to see the game approach something like Nazi infantry with such honesty.

The plot also does a good job at changing scenery changes often, ferrying you from one great locale to another. From a ruined bridge to a mock-concentration camp you'll engage with legions of soldiers, and from murky aqueducts to a surreptitious Hebrew hideout you'll spend time exploring and poking at the scenery. The comparisons to Half-Life 2 are surprisingly apt in this regard, as the game does its best to tell a story while keeping the setting varied, ending the tale on one hell of a heart-pounding climax. In direct contrast to Wolfenstein's final boss, The New Order's mechanized monstrosity shows how to make a nod to the older games while adding flourishes of its own, especially regarding the intense final phase. The melancholy ending that comes afterwards is pitch perfect, and caps off the experience most appropriately.

You'll find few big budget games in 2014 as full of charm, brutality and heart as Wolfenstein: The New Order (let alone a combination of all three). Machinegames did the impossible and made the bulky meathead of a protagonist actually likable without peddling some kind of sob story background, rarely forcing his emotions throughout the hardboiled journey. The guns take center stage despite the minimal assortment of them, although this isn't too surprising given the developer's pedigree. The New Order is a solid, frantic outing through and through, and quite possibly the best Nazi-killin' game yet.

Logo obtained from:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dino Crisis - Thoughts

If you've ever thought to yourself "gee, the old Resident Evil games sure do sound cool, but what it really needed was dinosaurs!" then you may be in luck. Directed and Produced by Resident Evil's very own Shinji Mikami, Dino Crisis is cut from the same virus-infested cloth, switching out the brainhungry undead for bloodthirsty lizards*. Compared to its cousin, Dino Crisis feels eerily similar in control, interface, and progression... to a serious fault at times.

I mean, the game has the same exact jump scare in a windowed hallway early on!

I initially thought that the fossilized beasts would be used in ways unique to their biology but they roughly act as speedy zombie surrogates most of the time. Despite the exorbitant amount of parallels between the two games there are a couple of minor variations here and there. A larger amount of items are available to mix together and anesthetics play an important role, allowing you to put down a raptor momentarily instead of wasting precious ammo on them (which, if you play on Easy like me, doesn't become much of a problem). Rather than giving you a bottomless crate to store goodies in every save room, you get keys to open up either ammo or medical boxes, forcing you to choose both where your storehouses are and what equipment you'll receive. This makes your inventory a bit more cluttered as you can go long stretches without bumping into any of the boxes you can use, forcing more components to be mixed together until you're sitting on top of L++ medical supplies. Photorealistic backgrounds have been removed in place of smooth rendering, letting the camera move around freely as you're running down corridors, akin to Silent Hill. These are admittedly small touches but I think they're kinda neat.

The tank controls don't gel as well in this game as compared to Resident Evil. The zombie thriller was more about lumbering enemies ambling towards you, but dinosaurs (as you'd expect) are significantly quicker—pterodactyls are nigh-impossible to snipe out of the sky and it's difficult to out-maneuver a velociraptor. You're better off pumping the anachronistic carnivores full of lead when you see them (unless you know where you're going), as kiting them is a suboptimal solution (especially in later areas where two of them can stand shoulder to shoulder to block your progress). I'm a little bummed there's not more variety (there's basically one boss and five enemy types), but the journey is relatively short so the enemies don't overstay their welcome either.

The story may be a mixed bag for some people; one of the most important aspects for a B-themed medium to capture is possessing a self-serious tone despite the poor presentation, and here Dino Crisis doesn't falter. From the overly long computer introduction to the internal drama between teammates to some of the eye-roll worthy one liners, the game certainly has a quirky charm to it. Perhaps the biggest disappointment throughout Regina's journey is that every time the mighty king of the dinosaurs shows up, he's used in pretty poor gameplay segments—he can kill the player so easily (instantly!) that he becomes more frustrating than terrifying. Otherwise the plot is a predictable, yet mindlessly entertaining affair.

Dino Crisis is novel only in conception, taking far too many notes from the Resident Evil series to do anything on its own. Yet there's plenty of creative tweaks within these systems; a peculiar kind of fun can be found from blasting anesthetic darts from shotgun at a raptor. These are short diversions from the issue at hand, but if the dearly departed classic design of Resident Evil is still something that tickles your fancy (especially since the tank control scheme has gone extinct), Dino Crisis is a wonderfully droll substitute.

*dinosaurs are not actually lizards

Images obtained from:,,,

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Thief (2014) - Thoughts

Sometimes, it's easy to bungle your own playthrough of a game. I had the clever idea while starting Eidos Montreal's Thief that I'd intentionally make it harder for myself by turning off the focus mode, arrow reticule, hints and waypoint markers in order to have a more authentic thieving experience. I haven't played any entries in the Thief franchise before and after hearing some unfortunate comments directed at the newest title, I decided that going with all these optional challenges would be the best way to make the game feel more "classic". Unfortunately, this meant getting lost... constantly. Looking back, I'm unsure how much of it is due to the obscure game design or my own general ineptitude while traversing the levels.

This confusion was confounded by what may be ironically the best aspect about Thief—the wealth of customizable gameplay options. I previously stated what changes I made but you can go further than that, like making it impossible to incapacitate enemies if they spot you and having only a single chapter checkpoint as your save. Additionally, in the options you can turn off a wide range of interface elements, like the minimap, loot glint, lock-picking assistance, alertness of guards and more. The extent to which your can affect your gameplay is fantastic (the HUD options can be switched on/off at any time) and it's a shame more games don't allow players this much variability... even if it did add some detrimental factors to my playthrough.

Thief is at its best when it provides the player room, letting you sneak around, spot routes, and steal goodies right under naive noses. Conversely it plays worse the more restrictive it gets, with certain linear paths standing out as the worst offenders; the only thing you're left to play around with is inferring the "correct" way out. Eidos Montreal's attempt to rope in non-stealth gamers is visibly apparent when you're funneled through Assassin's Creed-like sections, climbing around the terrain in 3rd person or recklessly fleeing from urgent scripted sequences. I think it's odd that the game forgoes stealth in so many sections, placing the player into more bombastic roles in order to rouse excitement out of them. The lack of focus mode certainly didn't help me in any of these constrictive situations, as at certain points I would be surrounded by enemies after a cutscene and unsure of where to go (like the end of chapter 4). Thief danced between frustration and relief quite often during my experience.

Since the large open playgrounds are the most gratifying component of this stealth title, it may be surprising to learn that the town's hub doesn't hit the mark in this regard. It certainly looks expansive on the map but so many houses and alleys require a loading time QTE to access (you'll do around a hundred times before the journey's end) that you'll eventually be deterred from exploring unless your side-quests demand it. And the paths that don't require mashing "E" to open a window are often narrow and long, lacking shortcuts to other parts of the city. Every time I wanted to go see Basso I'd have to pass through the same alley each time from the same direction, and it became an unfortunate chore by the end of the game.

If the gameplay tweaks don't excite you, the visuals hopefully will—textures are rich, dark and gothic, with certain vistas and rooms worth a repeated gander. Thief is a caliginous beauty but the story suffers from some abhorrently subpar writing & direction. The central antagonist is cartoonishly evil and your tutorial companion is cartoonishly arrogant, the dialogue from both coming across as painstakingly cliche in any scene that they're featured. While the locales are excellent (the insane asylum is my favorite) there was such little reason to care for the town or the characters without diving into the optional text that I felt isolated from the place, largely concerned with upgrading my gear more than whether Orion's revolution would work against the local guard. It's a dreary, atmospheric town but I had little reason to care about it other than for the money.

When you're lurking in the shadows, a hair's breadth behind a guard and you snatch his wallet successfully, turning around and scampering silently back up to the rooftops, Thief works beautifully. But when you're stuck in a small underground passage way, looking for the tiny glowing object you're supposed to interact with as you hear the same ambient noises loop over and over, Thief reminds you that it's still a video game, subject to questionable design. It's largely left to the player to determine which side they'll find themselves partaking in more, but it's not unconscionable to suggest that the fourth entry in the Thief series is certainly marred by its errors, and quite possibly a disappointment considering its legacy... I guess I'll have to delve into the older games to make that decision for myself some day.