Monday, September 24, 2012

Wolfenstein (2009)

Glow in the dark Nazis.
Review By Ken Inferno

Each generation has its genre that defines it. The fifth generation was defined by RPGs. The sixth generation by free-roaming action games. This current generation has very obviously been defined by first-person shooters. The most popular and best-selling games this gen have consistently been FPS games, with Call of Duty going from a standard though well-polished World War II series to one of the best-selling game series of all time, and developers constantly churning out FPS after FPS. With all of these first-person shooters in the market, it's not hard for some to be skipped over. Games like the excellent Prey and the equally as awesome Singularity are criminally underplayed thanks to the much larger success of their genre brothers. It's time to add Wolfenstein to the ever-growing list of FPS games that every fan of the genre should play and not nearly enough people have.

Wolfenstein is notable as it is another installment in what is essentially the very first first-person shooter franchise. id Software created Wolfenstein 3D way back when and invented the genre, which spawned the id-developed Doom and classics like GoldenEye 007 on the N64 and Halo: Combat Evolved on Microsoft's original Xbox. Hell, Wolfenstein even basically invented the stealth genre with the very first game in the series (not developed by id Software), which incorporated elements and gameplay mechanics that would later be borrowed by stealth juggernauts like the Metal Gear series and Thief. This latest game in the series is a direct sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which graced the Xbox and computers last generation, and was met with a mostly warm reception.

Players control BJ, an American spy hell-bent on liberating Europe from Nazi control while also stopping the Nazis from using supernatural weapons. Enemies range from regular Nazis that I'm sure nearly every gamer has dealth with, whether it be in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor, to small vicious creatures that try to rip you apart, to invisible assassins ready to slit the throat of anyone that should be unfortunate enough to cross their path.

These supernatural elements help set Wolfenstein apart from all the other FPS games on the market. By injecting science-fiction and horror into what is essentially a generic World War II shooter setting, the developers have managed to create a unique experience. By the way, fans of the franchise will probably be sad to hear that while id Software did have a hand in the development of this game, the talented folks at Raven Software (Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and the aforementioned Singularity) was largely responsible for most of this game.

As a result of these paranormal entities that players have to fight, BJ has access to special powers. Of course, he also is able to use conventional WWII weaponry. These weapons can be upgraded at the black market using money earned by completing missions and by finding bags of gold hidden in each area. New upgrades can be unlocked by finding intel scattered around the game world, and BJ can choose from any of these weapons at any given time using a weapon wheel.

However, I have a problem with this system. Basically every weapon has the exact same set of upgrades, meaning the guns really end up having no individual personality, which is essential for any first-person shooter. There are two machine guns in the game, and I really could never tell which one I had equipped, and in the end, it didn't really matter. I don't understand the point in including two different machineguns in the game if they perform more or less exactly the same. These black market areas where the upgrades are purchased are also located in inconvenient places. While finding these black market areas is pretty easy if you're going through the storyline, players that go out of their way to hunt for gold to purchase better ugprades will have a difficult time locating these black market areas, even by using the in-game map. Constantly pausing the action to check the map really hurts the experience, as does the frequent, long, and annoying loading times that are encountered.

On the bright side, there are awesome futuristic weapons that alleviate some of the woes I have with the other weapons available to BJ. These weapons can unleash absolute hell, with one particular gun shooting a beam of light that destroys literally everything it touches in glorious fashion, vaporizing Nazis into nothing and blowing up wooden barrels into millions of tiny pieces. These weapons seriously kick a whole hell of a lot of ass.

And of course, there are those supernatural abilities I mentioned earlier. During the early missions of the game, players collect different diamonds that grant BJ more abilities. These abilities are activated via the d-pad, and while the d-pad being positioned above the left analog stick can create issues during frantic firefights, they are so damn effective that it hardly matters. BJ has access to a power that reveals to him secret areas, and another one that works as a shield. BJ can slow down time, and he can increase the effectiveness of his ammunition. Similarly to the guns in the game, these powers can be upgraded via the black market. The black market is still an inconvenient gameplay mechanic and an unnecessary one since its function could have been achieved in a simple pause screen menu.

One thing that I'm sure anyone playing the game will almost immediately notice is how tight the controls are and how technically sound Wolfenstein really is. The aiming is spot-on perfect, and the game never skips a beat when it comes to the controls. Everything feels fluid, with shooting mechanics that are satisfying and supernatural powers that help given Wolfenstein a face of its own. Raven Software has certainly proved that they are technically sound when it comes to first-person shooters with Wolfenstein.

Another thing that helps Wolfenstein stick out from the pack is its unique mission structure. Wolfenstein takes a non-linear approach to the first-person shooter genre, with players able to explore town, interact with NPCs, and gather a variety of different missions to choose from. While those only playing the game for the storyline will have no problem getting to the story missions, the side-missions add a little more meat to Wolfenstein's bones. Furthermore, many of the main storyline missions can be completed in any order that the player so chooses. I loved this, personally, and it worked expertly with game's setting and atmosphere.

Speaking of atmosphere, the presentation in Wolfenstein is top-notch. Even though I've killed an absurd number of Nazis in past video games, Wolfenstein goes out of its way to make sure the Nazis in their game are somehow different than those found in any other World War II shooter. Wolfenstein may be just another FPS, but everything that is packed in this game has a certain feel that makes it completely unique to the game. The presentation shines in subtle ways throughout the game, with unique puzzle solutions, a variety of mission objectives, original and clever boss fights. A nice touch is that after each mission, BJ recaps what just happened so players that have problems grasping storylines won't get confused with what's going on in the game.

The story takes place after the events of Return to Castle Wolfenstein. BJ is operating as a spy, trying to thwart the paranormal objectives of the Nazis in Europe. BJ works together with resistance groups to try to help bring the Nazi threat down, and is sent out on a variety of missions to ensure their defeat. While BJ himself is a pretty awful character that it is impossible to connect with, the villains in the game, though their appearances are short, all have a distinct and entertaining personality. The writing in this game could have used serious work as a lot of the dialogue is dorky and cripples the serious and horrific atmosphere that makes up the rest of the game. Overall, though, I'd say that Wolfenstein still delivers a competent and engrossing plot told through cool in-game sequences and gorgeous cut-scenes.

When it comes to visuals, Wolfenstein is certainly no slouch. The cut-scenes, as I stated in the previous paragraph, are gorgeous. The in-game graphics are great as well. Character models are excellent, and there is a lot of detail to the environment. While the art style makes it obvious that Wolfenstein was created in a post-BioShock gaming world, it's never a bad thing to imitate one of the greatest first-person shooter games ever created, is it? There's a nice level of destructibility in the game as well, and it's made all the more effective by the fact everything in the environment reacts uniquely to what is being thrown at it. Say there is a wooden table and a couple of chairs next to it. In many games, just shooting these objects would leave them in nothing but pieces. In Wolfenstein, it will leave bulletholes and probably do a little bit of damage, but it won't reduce them to dust. However, a simple chuck of a grenade will create a fantastic explosion, with splinters flying every which way. The framerate isn't perfect, but with a very impressive amount of action that goes on the screen at once, that's to be expected, and it's very easily tolerated.

Audio-wise, Wolfenstein is certainly not perfect. I mentioned earlier that the dialogue can get pretty bad, and it's not made any better by the average voice work. The dialogue is repetitive, with people shouting the line, "Grenade, out!" in almost every combat situation encountered. Most of the NPCs spout the same nonsense as everyone else around them, and in one instance, two NPCs were talking to me at the same time and saying the exact same thing in unison. It was weird, felt totally off, and jeopardized the chillingly exciting atmosphere that the game works so hard to build.

Of course, no first-person shooter is complete these days without a multiplayer mode to go with it. Wolfenstein doesn't include any split-screen multiplayer options, which is really bad considering the game is nearly dead online nowadays. Yeah, it's possible to find a match, but even then, the online isn't remarkable. It's the typical online multiplayer gameplay that every game seems to employ. It's essentially a skeletal version of Call of Duty. It's a real shame too because Wolfenstein's unique powers could have made it a viable contender in the online space. Also, I thought it was a strange design decision to use a recovering health mechanic in the campaign, but use a health bar for the multiplayer, especially since one dies in the multiplayer so fast that recovering health is hardly even a remote possibility to change up gameplay strategy.

Wolfenstein's most glaring flaw is how short it is. The game's main storyline can be completed in under three hours. The game can be completed 100% with the use of a guide. While this is true, the gameplay is so solid, works so well, and is so unique, that it's still worth anyone's time. The online multiplayer, unfortunately, fails to add much replayability to the game, but the campaign is a hell of a lot of fun. Plus, there are trophies to go after to tack on more playtime to the game.

Wolfenstein is an unappreciated and underplayed FPS game that deserves the attention of fans of the genre. While Wolfenstein certainly has flaws and it isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it's one of the better first-pereson shooter games I've played this generation that doesn't involve space marines or killstreaks. Those looking for a different FPS experience need to look no further than the result of the collaborative efforts of id and Raven Software, Wolfenstein.

NAME: WOLFENSTEIN (2009)
SYSTEM: PC, XBOX 360, PlayStation 3

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