Quickie Impressions: Wolfenstein

Just a few thoughts on a few hours of Raven’s latest suckling at id’s IP teat… Lest word hasn’t reached you yet – perhaps unsurprisingly if so, given the dearth of pre-release reviews – BJ Blazkowicz’s latest corridor-based Nazi-gibbing adventure seems disappointingly flat. Given id are now a part of the Bethesda/Zenimax machine, it’s highly unlikely Raven will ever get a crack at the game universes they’ve (for better or worse) helped build, making this something of a sad farewell. At the same time, there’s a relief to knowing that some of the most formative names in PC-based man-shooting are no longer left in the hands of an Activision-owned studio who’ve not truly excelled themselves for years. Hopefully this isn’t Wolfenstein’s last gasp, but from what I’ve played so far it’s not going to be its proudest legacy.

[I’ve not had a dabble in the multiplayer as yet, but I hear particularly bad things about that aspect of the game, which was farmed to another studio still. Anyone got any thoughts on that element?]

The really peculiar thing about Wolfenstein is that, even though it ends up feeling like one one, it’s certainly trying incredibly hard to not be just another desaturated run’n’gun shooter – borrowing (or so it appears to mine cynical eye) so many elements from recent hits that it’s alternately tragic and comic. Gears of War’s roadie run, Resident Evil 4/5’s peculiarly exploitative weapon salesmen, F.E.A.R. et al’s slow-motion, Assassin’s Creed’s semi-open world and side-missions, Half-Life 2’s civilians’ awed reverence of the player character, Call of Duty’s well, everything… “Do you like me now? What about now? What if I do this? Or this? Love meeeeeeeeeeee!

Beneath this cold mountain of blatant influences is just a hollow space – no personality of its own, no central core of either invention or absolute focus on getting the essential formula of shooting from the third-person exactly right. For all its freelyish-roamable hub city and RPG-light upgrade system, it is simply there, an overwhelmingly and depressingly familiar experience. Not only that, but it’s entirely departed from dear old Wolfenstein 3D in everything but name – not silly, not colourful, not broadly satirical about Nazis… Just tiresome gothic/bio-mechanical mysticism in a brown world, with a few gimmicky if near-vital magic powers and a fairly sadistic line in death animations.

The flow of action, meanwhile, is disrupted absurdly by the need/desire to collect gold and paperwork necessary to unlock weapon upgrades. When you’re fighting for your life and the survival of the world against Nazi necromancers, scouring dingy corners for bags of coins is openly ridiculous – worse, the inevitable obsession with unlocking everything means such loot-hunting occupied my thoughts far more than did beating the bad guys.

More pleasingly, some of the arcane weaponary is gleefully unbalanced in the player’s favour – I’ve enjoyed the experimental death-cannon that brutally atomises anyone you point it at, even if it is fundamentally a quicker-firing take on Half-Life 1’s Gluon Gun. I’m only around a quarter or a third of the way into the campaign, and losing interest fast, but if it further escalates in such a manner it’s possible I won’t be entirely contemptous of the thing.

It’s possible to kill a lot of Nazis and demony things very quickly and very bloodily, lending it that superhuman killing machine element that’s not lately been quite as prevalent in the genre as it once was. So if you hanker for some kind of Good Old Days when combat tactics were more or less optional and body counts sky-high, it’s very likely this will please you. Because I’m either incredibly discerning or poisonously elitist, that kind of shtick only works on me when it’s openly playful about it, unfortunately. Perhaps I shouldn’t be passing any kind of judgement yet, but I really can’t deny how dispossessed I’ve been with several hours of the thing so far.

Sure, it’s consistently tolerable in its point, shoot, kill loop rather than ever openly awful, and certainly a step up from the icky Quake IV, but the sad inexplicability of its nothingness nags at me. Why would id or Raven or even Activision be happy to treat one of their famous names so apparently carelessly? The conspiracy theory part of my brain is spasming with insane, unfounded thoughts as to why – id’s impending Bethesda partnership meaning they wanted to wash their hands of this last deal, id throwing out all quality control in the face of another big cheque but minimal elbow grease, Activision too focused on Call of Duty/Modern Warfare to give a hoot, miserable guys at Raven desperately overworked or committing critical suicide in the hope of escape…

Pfft. All of ’em likely just the conjecture of my paranoid mind. But what I find it impossible to yield to is the knee-jerk accusation from some quarters that ‘Raven are rubbish.’ I suspect there’s far more to it than that, and one day I hope we’ll hear what the often sad 21st century Raven story really was.

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