Thursday, 9 July 2015

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood - Review

Wolfenstein: The New Order was one of the better games of last year. For starters, it was a first-person shooter that actually understood proper pacing. Most shooters of the past five years have opted for the Call of Duty school of level design: give people a pretty-looking corridor and have enough explosions going off that they don’t realize how shallow the whole experience is.

Wolfenstein completely rejected all of that, it had stealth sections and quieter moments that punctuated the more explosive set-pieces. It was more comparable to Half Life 2 in terms of how it operated than any other recent shooter. Hell, the game even had a map screen!

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood isn’t a full-fledged follow-up, but rather a modestly-sized expansion that also acts as a prequel. Back in the boots of B.J. Blazkowicz, you’re sent undercover and tasked with infiltrating Castle Wolfenstein.

MachineGames do the clever thing here, rather than set up any extra story, they use this expansion to experiment. In short The Old Blood is an attempt to emulate the previous Wolfenstein games, by harkening back to older retro shooters.

So there’s very little plot to speak. Sure, there’s story trundling along in the background, but it has nowhere near the emphasis that the previous game’s had. Combat is back and essentially unchanged. You can dual-wield most weapons, which still remains surprisingly balanced. Whilst two weapons doubles your firepower, it also slows your movement and prevents you using any grenades, meaning there’s always a payoff to be had.

It’s hard really to knock The Old Blood since it effectively does exactly what The New Order did, and that games was great. But…that’s part of the problem. This is an expansion that manages to add very little to the overall formula. In fact, during the total runtime (between 4-8 hours depending on difficulty), there’s exactly one new gun added, and it’s a shotgun…a shotgun that’s worse than the one you already have and can dual-wield.

It doesn’t help that the opening chapters of the expansion are easily its weakest. A long, awkward stealth section starts the game, and it’s hard to enjoy it when one wrong move is likely to have you torn to pieces by one of the hulking super-soldiers strapped with mini-guns. The original had plenty of stealth sections, and they worked incredibly well for the most part. Here though, many of them seem rather simple in design, hiding the commanders at the other end of the map and having a tedious job of shuffling around to try and get to them unnoticed.

At about the halfway mark things do begin to pick up. The set-pieces begin to get more interesting; there’s one great moment along two cable cars that’s easily a highlight, as you duck in and out of cover, trading fire with Nazis coming up the other side of the line. It’s a great moment, and a huge adrenaline rush following the quieter moments that punctuate the game’s earlier chapters.

But, even these moments come with a caveat. One of the new enemies is an elite soldier wielding a shotgun, and they only seem to die by pounding them with shotgun rounds. It doesn’t help that they’re immune to stealth, which typically forces players into direct conflict even if they’re ridiculously outnumbered.  

Of course, the big experiment this time around is with the introduction of actual Nazi zombies. Yes, The Old Blood stays true to the original games and, during the game’s climax, Nazis are brought back to life as the undead, turning the whole experience into a pulpy retro zombie shooter. It’s clear that MachineGames were using the expansion to test these weirder elements. After all, they were notably absent from the original game, and for the most part the zombies work, without overstaying their welcome. If anything they’re welcome simply because they’re something different. For an expansion pack, The Old Blood doesn't do a whole lot of…well…expanding.

The problems from the main game persist too. For a game that revels in Nazi weird-science, with dog-mechs the size of a car running around, the weapons seem incredibly tame by comparison. There’s assault rifles, shotguns and pistols but there’s the grating sense that the game could have gotten a lot more creative and taken a leaf out of Insomniac’s book. The Resistance series was rather flawed but at least its weapons were original.

But the most disappointing thing is that The Old Blood lacks heart. The New Order wrapped its guns and gore in a surprisingly enjoyable sci-fi story, with a cast of likable characters. The Old Blood has the same lead character but does nothing with him, and the end result of the game is a quick cutscene followed by the credits. It might seem odd to criticise the plot in a game like this, but when the gameplay offers nothing new you hope the story picks up some of the slack. The end result is a rather hollow expansion, devoid of real experimentation and lacking any major new ideas.

This review might seem overly critical, and perhaps it is. Yet, that’s only because the original game was so good. If you’ve not checked out The New Order yet, do so, it’s well worth your time. Then, you can consider checking out this expansion.

Just don’t expect too much…


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