(Before I forget, I wrote up a thing over at Gamemoir taking a guess at what Rockstar’s new title is going to be. It went up yesterday, when most of the USA was away from the internet, so if you’d like to check it out, here it is.)
Here’s something I never expected to say: I’m far more interested in finishing Wolfenstein than I am in firing up Watch Dogs, which just arrived and which is sitting in my messenger bag at this very moment. As much of a sucker as I am for open world games, and as much as I succumbed to the insane amount of hype that Watch Dogs had gunning for it, I am thoroughly enjoying Wolfenstein and very well might go back to play it again once I finish it – or, at least, go back chapter by chapter to find all the hidden stuff I missed.
Whenever I talk about “shooter fatigue”, I’m talking about a combination of things: (1) a lot of the big budget shooters (and there are quite a few of them) basically feel and look the same; (2) those shooters have very flimsy narratives and it’s often a struggle to understand why you’re going where you’re going or why you have to kill so many people beyond those people being “the enemy”; and (3) I’ve grown weary of having the murdering of virtual people as the primary game mechanic.
Wolfy solves a lot of these problems for me, actually, and one of them comes as a complete surprise. In 2008 I’d complained of how tired I was about shooting Nazis, actually:
Nazis have been the de facto bad guys in popular culture for the last 50 years. They are a perfect enemy; nobody gets offended when you have to kill them. Castle Wolfenstein illustrated this in interactive 3D, and the videogame boom as we know it was born.
I think, however, that we’ve reached a point in our society where the evilness of Nazis has lost a bit of its power. The videogaming generation did not grow up in WW2, and neither did its parents. When you kill Nazis in videogames, you’re not avenging the horrors of the Holocaust anymore, or freeing Europe from the tyrannical grips of a monster; you are killing bad guys in order to make it to the next checkpoint, and Nazis have always been an easy target for game designers because (a) you don’t have to worry about cultural sensitivity issues, and (b) who doesn’t enjoy killing Nazis? It’s just that most WW2 games these days don’t really focus on the why; they focus on the experience of the soldier in the middle of the battle, rather than the reason why the soldier is over there in the first place, and as a result, the enemy Nazi soldier is no longer as capital-E Evil because they all look the same and there’s so damn many of them.
As it happens, that same column was about how zombies were the new Nazis, and how I thought that was kind of great, because we needed a new type of baddie to kill. Now, of course, zombies are everywhere, and it’s gotten to the point where I actively avoid playing games with zombies – even The Walking Dead Season 2 – because I’m so, so tired of them.
So you can imagine the irony in which I’m now singing the praises of a game that eschews zombies altogether and goes back to killin’ Nazis, and how much goddamned fun it is to be killing all of them. I feel, at times, like I’m a part of the Inglorious Basterds, and it can feel downright cathartic to mow down wave after wave of them.
And I also can’t say it enough, how impressed I am at how good the game feels. The shooting is excellent; your arsenal is potent and varied, and I’m always pleased at how I can improvise and change tactics with a different weapon if my preferred gun is low on ammo. (Also: dual-wielding automatic shotguns is insane.) The game is also fantastically paced, especially for my personal tastes; there is plenty of action, to be sure, but there are also welcome lulls (and also dedicated sections in the resistance safehouse) where I can root around and look for hidden items and secrets (of which there are so many, which is delightful). I’m probably 8 or 9 hours in at this point and there have only been maybe 3 or 4 times where I’ve come across a frustratingly high spike in difficulty (one section in particular drove me bananas, though I did eventually manage to outlast it), and those spikes were often solved simply by remembering that I don’t always have to charge in head-first.
I remain surprised at how much I’m enjoying myself, and part of that may simply be that I never expected a Wolfenstein game to be this good. The Wolfenstein brand has always been more important than the games themselves, I think; the original game is what started this whole 3D first-person shooter thing in the first place, and while we may have fond memories of playing it way back when, I don’t know anyone who prefers that game to Doom. I played bits of the last few Wolfenstein sequels on consoles, and they always felt somewhat out of date; or, rather, that each subsequent sequel felt like a desperate attempt to keep the IP relevant. This game, on the other hand, feels remarkably fresh and alive, and yet it also knows how silly it is. After wiping out most of a U-Boat’s crew, the captain exasperatedly exclaims – “What’s wrong with you? He’s just one man!” B.J. Blazkowicz himself, after infiltrating the Nazi lunar base and radioing back to his resistance HQ, says, “Well, I’m on the fucking moon.”
Re: that silliness – I understand what the critics are talking about w/r/t the game’s wildly divergent tone. There are opportunities for character development that never quite get maximized, and one can get the impression that the corporate overlords at Bethesda/ZeniMax took the developers aside and said “Hey, enough with the talky-talky, we need more shooty-shooty.” Still, what’s there can be rich and deep and dark, and I guess I’m just grateful that it’s there at all. B.J.’s comrades have very different motivations for joining a resistance that they all acknowledge has nearly no chance of succeeding, and even if they’re not given all that much to do, they feel real enough to make you feel like part of something important.
It’s a hell of thing, really, to make a Wolfenstein game in 2014 feel important. To that end, I tip my cap to Machine Games, who’ve made something quite special indeed.