Monday, February 9, 2015

Games Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order

There was a bit of a buzz phrase that went around the gaming review world about the time that Bioshock Infinite came out; Ludonarrative Dissonance. Its about as pretentious a concept as it sounds; the idea that gameplay and story can jar badly in a game, pushing you out of enjoyment of either the moment-to-moment gameplay or whatever epic tale that gameplay is trying to tell. It's actually a pretty common thing - think Lara Croft getting teary over killing someone and then proceeding to kill about two dozen more - and its pretty rare that games successfully mesh the two, especially in the big, AAA action section of the market. But I've rarely had a problem with it, because its part of the gaming landscape, and I always appreciate the effort, story wise. In fact, the first such game I can think of where I've really had this problem is Wolfenstein: The New Order.

I'm old enough to have played Wolfenstein 3D when it was passed from hand to hand on this little floppy disks with the spring-loaded port on the front, that future generations will only recognise from still being a universal "save" icon. What a grand thing it was - being able to run around in first-person, shooting nazis, running over dog food to get health back, and a final, grand confrontation with Hitler-in-Power-Armour. There was secrets to discover, multiple weapons to use, and to be honest it pretty set a template for the FPS that we're still stuck with, So meet the New Wolfenstein, same as the Old Wolfenstein.

In many ways, Wolfenstein TNO is self-conciously aware of it's heritage and even revels in it a little bit (the bonus level is especially cute). It does away with the few innovations of the last few years like regenerating health and the constant need to velco your butt to a waist-high wall, and brings back things like leaning and health pickups. It also brings a gnarly sense to it's level design, making it feel less linear than it is, which whilst a Far Cry (ba-bum-tish) from open world games is still more interesting than the average corridor shooter. It also gives you lots of guns, and lots of crazy dieselpunk nazi's to kill in splattery ways. So far, so familiar, and indeed, so good.

And then there is the story. After a disastrous attempt to end the war, our hero Blaskowicz is left in a  coma whilst the Nazi's conquer the world, waking in the 1960s to a world drenched in blood and horror. The game then tells a tale of desperate resistance against an all-powerful regime, full of deeply damaged characters crying out for a moment of light in a world overrun with darkness. It makes a laudable and at times very effective attempt to portray life under occupation, and doesn't shy away from the terrible world that it's fiction has created. I liked the story and I cared about the characters.

However, I was listening to the heart-breaking story of what one the characters had to endure as her nation fell under nazi rule, and then I had to go back to shooting waves of moon-nazi's with my laser rifle. And then I flew a space shuttle back to London and fought a Giant Stompy Robot.

Basically, the story requires a slow-paced, more thoughtful game, because it's a thoughtful and mature story. The gameplay is running around shooting the crap out of un-redeemable bad guys with increasingly large weapons, and felt like it wanted a more heightened, pulpy storyline. It's great that they set a level in a concentration camp and use the immersive nature of the FPS to put you up close and personal with even a thin reflection of how terrible those places must have been. It's power is lessened a lot when you bust out in a hi-jacked Combat Walker with Rockets and Chainguns, no matter how much fun that Combat Walker is to kill Nazis with.

In the final analysis I had a lot of fun with Wolfenstein the New Order. It is a well-balance, very old-school shooter that I really enjoyed. I also liked and respected the effort they went to in how they handled the world, and the characters, that the game takes place alongside. I still can't really square the two, and that, I think is a shame.