I’m bored, more so now that I’ve finished Wolfenstein: New Order. So in order to stave off my boredom I figured I’d eject 6 – yes 6 – things about Wolfenstein: New Order (WNO from now on) into the world. You know, several months after the game came out and no one would be interested in reading a review. But hey, blogging is the future of academia (apparently) so I better get some practice in now. So be prepared for a non-peer reviewed assessment of Shoot More Nazis: 1960 Style.
1. Everything looks… fine
I played WNO on Xbox 360, borrowing it from a friend. I was forewarned that there would be a lengthy install before I could, you know, play the game. Because I got an Xbox 360 precisely because I wanted to sit around installing my games before I can play them. All of this is so that I can then insert disc 2. And is it worth it?
I remember some comment by a developer of Gears of War about graphical innovation (I’d link it but I can’t remember where it is). In short, he was having a right moan about the graphic inferiority of games like Mario Kart and how they were a step backwards when games could be doing this:
That is a two tone palette: grey and red. It’s the sort of colour scheme that you might see in a Zack Schneider film – High Definition Washed-Out. But the real problem for this developer as he waxed lyrical about the many facets of grey that the gaming industry has been able to discover is that games like Mario Kart sell significantly better than these pixelled dreamscapes.
The sort of arsey comment that goes behind this developer’s complaint is that they view themselves as artists and these games are their canvas. We, the general public (of which I am the foremost representative obviously) view them as entertainment. I have played both Mario Kart and Gears of War and I’m not a particular fan of either. But of the two, Mario Kart is the better because it’s simply more entertaining. More so because you can have a bunch of friends sitting around in the same room playing the game together – a novel experience these days, I know. The perfect blend of Gears of War and Mario Kart was Timesplitters: all the action of the FPS and all the craziness of the karting game.
What does this have to do with WNO? Well, the comparison with Timesplitters is going to be significant later. But right now my point is that all that installing to make the game look prettier is not really why I play the game. And at the end of the day while it does look good, for the most part I wouldn’t say it’s the best looking game I’ve ever played. That tip of the hat probably goes to Bioshock Infinite (8 Things about Bioshock Infinite). But, and here’s a crucial point, the visual style of the two games is very different.
WNO has a more realistic aesthetic to it than Bioshock which has a certain cartoonish quality to everything. But going down that cartoonish route just makes everything that bit more polished and seamless. And even if you were going for a more realistic look, check out Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. That game looks realistic and is unbelievably gorgeous at the same time. And, I stress, capable of fitting on only one disc. And this is also talking about a game with some of the best facial recognition-patterning-modelling… look facial expressions look like actual facial expressions ok!
So WNO looks fine as a game. But the real nail in the coffin for the pointlessness for this strive for graphical innovation is a comparison these guys did between ultra and low resolutions of the game (here). Their conclusion? Fuck all difference. As we jauntingly move into the new generation of consoles with their increased processing power and whatnot, far too many developers are concerned with making their games look prettier. With making art. But really, all we gamers want is more game. So why not turn all that extra processing power to, you know, doing just that? Those thousand pixels you added to make Blazkowicz’s chin fluff that bit more detailed could have added a whole extra level.
2. A Series of Fortunate Events
One of the best aspects of WNO is the story. Which considering its competition in the FPS ranks includes Halo, Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, Battlefield, etc. might not really be saying much. Especially with the last three, I could throw up an image here and you probably wouldn’t be able to tell me which game you’re looking at – narratively as well as aesthetically. FPS shooters are not known for their compelling Shakespearean plots. Hell, thinking back to the first Wolfenstein game I can’t even remember there being a plot! It’s just you in a room and there’s a guy wearing a Nazi uniform across from you. From there it’s pretty much self-explanatory right up until the moment you kill mecha-Hitler.
But WNO comes out with a pretty decent story set in an alternate 1960 where the Nazi’s won. It’s probably done because the whole Nazi and WWII thing has been rather done to death at this point. But at the same time, it’s somewhat of a missed opportunity because fitting in with this technological superior Nazi image means that the 1960 you’re presented with is just a steel concrete block as far as the eye can see. In fact, of the various locations you visit they are barely recognisable as those locations anymore, even Berlin itself. Take the image to the right, that’s the London level. And the only aspect you can see? Big Ben. But it’s Big Ben that really bugs me as well because it’s such a missed opportunity. If you’re going to do “Nazis won the war” it’d be a lot more interesting to see the world “Nazified”. I mean seriously, there’s isn’t even a Nazi flag on Big Ben! If you were the Nazis, you’d be stamping swastikas on every culturally iconic landmark in sight. There’s no America level but how cool would it be to come across the Statue of Liberty remade in the image of Hitler.
But that’s just a nit-picking gripe. Even Blazkowicz himself is a pretty solid lead. He speaks in a hushed whisper most of the time like a bunch of Vietnam-type films where the main character sort of reacts to everything around him like a dream. Which might explain how he handles the whole gratuitous violence thing – I mean there is a lot. He’s a surprisingly interesting character though, and one that fits the milieu of his game.
The main issue I have with the story is how things conveniently fall into place in ways that sometimes don’t work, and sometimes do. First off, once Blazkowicz wakes from his coma, his mission is to join the resistance. When they’ve been found they decide to attack London where a research base recently developed a stealth helicopter that can’t be followed by radar. Which is very convenient when you think about it because the Nazis have literally no need to build one at that point. They OWN all the radar so building a helicopter they can’t detect is like building a car with an anti-theft cloaking device and forgetting to include a tracker so that YOU can find it when it’s invisible. Along the way Blazkowicz also happens to discover documents that reveal that the Nazi’s technology has been acquired from reverse engineering technology belonging to a group called Da’at Yichud. I have nothing against that convenience, people stumble across important shit all the time, but did they really need to play into a Jewish stereotype on that one? It’s almost as if the game is trying to suggest that the reason the Nazis picked on the Jews is because they were hoarding all this secret technology. That’s not only trying to justify their racism, it’s validating their own reasons for it!
Anyway, that was supposed to be a point about convenience, not racism. The other major convenience that does work is once they’ve discovered a member of Da’at Yichud – Set. If this were any other FPS, Set would point the group in the direction of the magic bullet to win the war. And you think he does when he tells them of the location of a secret stash of advanced technology. But what made it work for me was that in order to get there the group required a U-boat and when they stole that, that became the centre piece of the story. It just so happens the U-boat has nukes on board and using those against the Nazi then becomes the focus of the story.
3. Just let me shoot Nazis
The original Wolfenstein involves you running through a series of rooms shooting Nazis in the FACE. I would like to stress that. In WNO you run through a series of rooms knifing Nazis in the BACK. This is actually just a general complaint about big name FPS games in general (which most of this post will become). Why the fuck does there need to be a stealth section!?
I’m not saying that WNO does stealth particularly badly. In fact it does it rather well – aside from the couple of random occasions when the guards decided that I was there with no real evidence as to why. But a lot of FPS games feel the need to allow you sneak around like you’re Solid Snake and there’s absolutely no call for it. If I wanted to spend my game sneaking around I would play a stealth dedicated game. When I play an FPS I want to run around blasting people in the face. IN THE FACE!! I guess its more of a problem for me in WNO because I remember the original being about running into a room and spraying bullets like mad until you were the only one left standing. Now I’m crouching down and routing out Nazi commanders to kill them quietly because I don’t want to alert the neighbours.
Now this is another point that’s problematic with FPS, which is this idea of playstyle. Not every gamer wants to be Leeroy Jenkins (Chickens) and so games do need to reflect that to a degree. CoD does this rather effectively by a mixture of guns and perks – though I should stress that only works on their multiplayer (which NWO doesn’t have) and the main campaign is a different story. NWO tries to take a bite of the CoD pie and introduces a perks system into its main campaign.
Which would be great if the IGN guide didn’t make it abundantly clear that a lot of these perks can only be achieved at certain points in the game. But even without a perk system, the general way in which most games allow different playstyles is through the range of guns they have available. And in WNO there’s not a lot. In fact the only staple weapon you have is this:
Unfortunately that is not a BFG. In fact, that begins life as a completely harmless cutting tool. Which sounds oxymoronic (because it is), but welcome to the world of video games in which a laser hot enough to cut steel chains is useless against unprotected flesh.
For the vast majority of the game you have a small selection of weapons and of those, some feel somewhat redundant. When you get the scatter bullets on the shotgun for instance – which sounds like an awesome idea- you discover that shooting round corners isn’t what its cracked up to be when you can rarely tell if you’ve hit or killed the Nazi round said corner. Similarly with the marksman rifle, there are only a select couple of occasions where you can use it or even find it (I am not including the laser mode in this). Yet hanging back and sniping is a popular playstyle when it comes to FPS. Part of the problem is limitations, it’s simply very hard to make a campaign level that caters to multiple playstyles. And the introduction of a fairly regular stealth element closes down more.
4. It’s not a horror game
Remember how I said in the original you ran into the room guns blazing? Well, you can sort of do that here, a lot of the weapons can be dual-wielded for maximum spray. The only issue with that is that the game features a mechanic that has you peeking out of cover to kill enemies. One of the game’s “tips” is to take cover when you’re overwhelmed by enemies. In a game that allows you to run around with shotguns in both hands that is not the kind of mentality you want to cultivate. Ironically, you can’t even duel-wield and lean, it’s one or the other and the other is more likely to get you killed. And part of the reason for that is ammo is surprisingly scarce.
That laser above has infinite ammo. Around the levels you will find various power nodes for which to charge it up to the maximum, or if you’re in a bind the weapon self-charges to a small amount. The issue with that? From full to zero charge takes very little time and the speed of the charging process at a node or on its own is p-a-i-n-f-u-l-l-y s-l-o-w. So you fire off maybe six or seven shots, can’t reach a node so wait for ages just to fire off two more shots before waiting to fire another two, all while skulking behind cover – which regularly can’t decide if it wants to be indestructible or not by the way. I was rather caught out by a matrix-esque scene late in the game when the concrete pillars started exploding as bullets tore into them even though the vast majority of concrete prior to that had been immune to bullets, rockets, and lasers.
But, speaking of conventional weaponry, there’s a dearth of ammunition during the second half of the game. I was constantly running out of everything, and considering the small selection of guns (pistol, machine gun, rifle (if you’re lucky), shotgun, laser) you find yourself regularly resorting to the laser as your only choice. So peek out, fire a couple of shots, wait a couple of years, peek out again… Perhaps I’m just a bad shot.
Or perhaps its also a problem with the enemies. There’s not actually a lot of variety and the game’s way of increasing the difficulty is to simply make them wear more armour which makes them literal bullet sponges toward the end. And because the majority wear ironclad helmets, headshots are no longer the rewarding feats of precision they once were. But that’s ok because if you sneak up and use a knife that’s instantly effective…
5. There’s no replay value
There’s no replay value in Portal 2 either, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best games I’ve ever played. Replay value is one of those buzzwords that developers are keen to bandy about because it makes their games more marketable. There’s less room these days for players willing to shell out £30-60 for a new release game if they know that they’re only going to get twelve hours play time out of it at best. Which is a shame because I’m fairly certain I completed Portal 2 in less than that and I would have happily paid full price for the game, after I’d played it… (I bought it on sale on Xbox Live). Really, this comes back to the art point earlier and what exactly we’re expecting from our games. And really there are only two options:
While I should avoid binaries at all costs (binaries are bad), Call of Duty and Final Fantasy represent the two extremes of the two basic types of games we’re looking for: Sport for Lazy People (SLP) and Interactive Blockbuster Film (IBF). On the one hand, we’re looking for a competitive game in which we can test our skills against other gamers just so we can scream racial slurs into a headset and not worry about getting arrested. On the other, we want to be engrossed in Tolkien-esque epic sagas with(out) all the dice rolling business that goes with it. Ironically, the two predominant types of games are designed to take otherwise social activities and make them anti-social by ensuring you don’t have to do them without leaving the comfort of your own home.
The problem for producers is that the game market means that all new games come out at the same basic £40-50 range. But SLP games have a significantly longer run time than most IBF games. Skyrim may be an apex with its purported 300 hours of gameplay, but more than most games will peak at the 20 hour mark (that and you will never actually play all the 300 hours that Skyrim offers). But consumers are getting curious as to how a game that only lasts 20 hours costs the same as a game that lasts infinity hours. “Replay value” is a way of mitigating that problem by giving players a reason to replay the game because simply making an awesome game and something worth playing again for the sheer enjoyment of it is not longer good enough.
WNO’s replay value comes from the alternate timeline dictated at the start of the game over whether you save one dude or another.
But aside from whether you get health bonuses or armour power-ups, that decision makes fuck all difference to how the games plays out as a consequence. For one, the story doesn’t play out differently because you saved one person instead of another. Blazkowicz comes out the same regardless of what you do and the events are the same. All that changes is the character development scene for your helicopter pilot. None of the major events are altered because of the choice you make. This is not like Witcher 2 where making a decision leads to entirely different levels and an entirely different outcome to the story. In WNO, either choice ends the same way.
6. Bored now
Usually these posts are “8 Things about X“, but ultimately the most damning thing about WNO is that it’s a mediocre game and there isn’t even all that much for me to hate about it. I primarily finished WNO because I had nothing else to play at the time – there’s also been a rather long gap between when I finished it and writing up the last 3 or so points. But that sums up exactly what was meh about the game. I didn’t love it or hate it enough to want to write 8 Things about Wolfenstein and 6 was all I could come up with. There have been bigger and better things in my life, games that are definitely worth playing, that drew my attention from WNO (and this blog).
And this is where the comparison with Timesplitters comes in. Timesplitters was a game that I could keep coming back to when all the others had dried up. Some games can be played twice, Bioshock Infinite was one, but that was because the story blew me away enough to warrant a second stab at it. But by the end of that second playthrough I was starting to feel the grind. But I’m not really sure how many times I played through the Timesplitters campaign – when all other games were finished and I couldn’t yet afford something new it was my go-to game. But part of that appeal was in the fact that pushing that bit further with the game gave me tangible rewards for completing levels and challenges on harder difficulty levels: new (and sillier) playable characters. Yes that’s fickle, but that’s part of the point of games. Timesplitters knew how to reward me for my effort. Not to mention it had a create-a-map element and I love that sort of thing.
WNO does not feel rewarding in the same way. Defeating the final boss was less an achievement and more washing the dishes. The fact that the two bosses look almost identical really doesn’t help either.
If WNO were a film, it’d be the Sunday afternoon WWII film on TV. One of those ones from the 50s and 60s. I’d watch it because it was on and there was nothing else, and I’d be reasonably entertained. But I wouldn’t then go out and buy it on DVD. One viewing will satisfy me for a lifetime. Timesplitters was the opposite, Timesplitters was Pacific Rim, and there is no way I could ever get bored of watching that film. Nor would I stop going back to it. And rather unfortunately that also speaks for the state of affairs for many of the first-person shooters out there. I’ve never once been really interested in repeating the campaign on the Call of Duty games and their longevity came from really emphasising the SLP side. I never even got past the first few levels on Halo 18. And I only enjoyed the original Halo games because they were the closest there is to the frenetic chaos that is a Timesplitters multiplayer match.
You see the problem with WNO and all the other FPS games out there at the moment is that they take themselves too damned seriously. Remember, they’re making art. Call of Duty is competitive through and through. You hear gamers screaming at their TVs like fans scream at a referee during a football match. Because that’s artistic. Not once have I heard the “Did you see that!?” moment that the adverts for Titanfall advertised – an advert for a generic shooter hosted by a generic actor lauding a generic movie as the role of a lifetime (promising career that). Nearly every match of Timesplitters had that moment for me. A moment where everyone collectively forgot that they were there to shoot everyone else to appreciate something cool. But that’s those FPS which emphasise SLP, WNO like Bioshock are really closer to IBF. Closer to art to be sure, but these days way too damn serious. And part of the appeal of Timesplitters – aside from stupid amounts of fun – was the fact that it took the piss out of those other FPS games it was competing against. All this getting serious about games has led to FPS making choices between being SLP or IBF, no one does both anymore. Mostly because you can’t do both if you’re trying to be serious, Timesplitters was the joker in the pack and because of that it aced both sides of the binary. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a Timesplitters game since the PS2 era and that makes me sad. So the best thing about WNO? It gives me an excuse to plug 100,000 Strong for Timesplitters, a group actively trying to get a new Timesplitters out there. And doing that, getting a game that made a mockery – humour-wise and gameplay-wise -of its competition would actually give us better FPS across the board.