Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

In Which I Reassess

Posted by deckard47 on August 30, 2009

So I’ve been known to be nasty before. I’m not always completely intolerable, maybe, but I say mean things about games, and sometimes they might not deserve it. So it is with Wolfenstein. A few days ago, I basically said that I liked Airborne a lot more, and couldn’t understand what the people who made Wolfenstein were thinking of when they let that game escape into retail.

It’s both amusing and embarrassing, but I’ve been playing Wolfesntein basically nonstop since then. I haven’t played a single second of Airborne. This is what happened: I opened up Airborne, and decided I would go back and play the first mission on Normal, and unlock some more “secret air drops.” What followed was an almost point by point performance of what I hate about MoH: Airborne. Every other step, an enemy would spawn in front of me or behind me, out of thin air, sometimes while I was watching empty space. He would then proceed to hit me, each hit blurring my vision and making it impossible for me to retaliate. The secret to melee combat in Airborne is this: they are stupidly resistant to it. If you punch them, they will recover instantly and whack you 3 times. If they hit you with the butt of a rifle, you lose control for long seconds. Just when you regain control and thing you’ll be getting back to punching them, they hit you again. It turns out melee combat (which can be upgraded, giving you a knife, by using the MP40 enough) is not only frustrating, it’s completely unfair. Then there are the stupid, laughably spaced checkpoints. I was wrong. Wolfenstein feels ludicrously generous in comparison, check-pointing based on mission completion and level progress. In Airborne, instead of dropping you at the last check point (say, right after you blew up that fuel depot), the game will drop you right back out of a plane.

You know what’s great about that? Nothing. Sure, it means that you no longer have to worry about those objectives you already completed, but it also means that every bad guy has respawned. Great. Now, you have to fight the “randomly” generated enemies again. It’s like playing a multiplayer game, except the enemies aren’t smart or fun or people. It’s a game that lacks not only good design and good pacing, but any sense of character. It makes the bots in the original UT seem like the most well-drawn enemies ever. It’s boring and frustrating, and its why I’m done with Airborne, stuck on the 3rd mission.

Now Wolfenstein… Funny thing, Wolfenstein. The checkpointing is indeed worlds ahead of Airborne‘s. My initial rage was quickly mollified, as I realized that the game’s super-powers are designed to let you breeze through any reloaded encounters. Seriously, once you’ve died in a room, or been defeated by an unexpected rush or grenade, you know exactly what to do. Hit the “time slow down” key, turn the corner, and waste those Nazis. Even the game’s highly derivative “invisible ninja” enemies can be foiled with a shock-wave power that turns them into statues of ash.

Actually, these ninja guys deserve a little censure. Remember Fear 2 (ok, you three, listen up)? It had amazingly scary, tightly made levels and enemies, and a great shooting/bullet-time mechanic. After Max Payne, it’s the only game to get this thing right, to make it feel really fun, where every other game fails (including Wolfenstein). It also, in both of its Monolith incarnations, featured super-fast invisible techno-ninjas. In the hospital level of Wolfenstein, these guys appear. Sure, they’re wearing smocks and don’t have funny tubes sticking out of them (the gassy super-soldiers grabbed that art asset), and they chuckle in a super-corny way, but they’re the same guys. Except they don’t hop around the walls and attack you in the dark, making them boring. Instead, they appear out of nowhere (below your field of vision, often) and kill you in two hits. It would be annoying, but for two things: hitting that bullet-time/shockwave thing fries them instantly, and you can kill them very easily if you restart and know where they are.

Which kind of sums up what I like about Wolfenstein. It may be derivative in every single way possible, but it never makes playing hard. No, bizarrely, it was designed to facilitate player progression. It’s designed to make it fun and easy to play through the game’s levels. Which is just wrong, if you ask me. I want a game that irrationally, impossibly thwarts simple progression. I want a game that takes away my progress and rewards me with crushing, vicious boredom and failure.

As mentioned elsewhere, Wolfenstein really isn’t sure what to do with its world. It tries, from time to time, to be “scary.” The hospital level and the secret research lab levels (oh shit, spoiler!) both try to leverage the “scary hospital” and “scary monster test subjects” elements of Fear 2, respectively.  In fact, it is worth mentioning that the scary slavering test subject thingies are really ripped straight from Fear 2, along with the inviso-ninjas (although the slavering things are also ripped from Far Cry… I feel like this comic helps, in this situation). Regardless, any tension these levels might engender is quickly erased when you realize a few things: all characters, from friends to enemies have hilarious, MST3k-worthy dialogue, and they all recite of their dialogue as seriously as possible. Likewise, the scary ninja guys have this totally evil chuckle they emit, just before they stab you. I guess it’s supposed to be like an evil villain laugh? It sounds like they’re chuckling about Cheetos or Mountain Dew or something.

This kind of behavior runs throughout the game. As mentioned in a previous post, all of the Nazis have Boris and Natasha accents (they’re more amusing than your allies, almost). As opposed to Airborne‘s language appropriate yells (you know, “Schnell!”), these guys yell “Theeee Ameeerikaahhhner!” I missed my calling, I think I’d make a great 3rd banana Nazi voice actor. Bizarrely, it’s when it is flaunting all of its hilarious genre impossibilities and amusing cliches that the game wants to be taken the most seriously. Everyone is very serious about the “test subjects” and “secret experiments,” and all of the resistance fighters seem to think that they’re even more serious than Victor Lazlo ever was. Raven just can’t seem to make up its mind. This kind of ludicrous narrative is best aided by a plot and performances that know when to wink at the camera and when to play it straight. Wolfenstein seems to take perverse pleasure in doing everything backwards, playing up what should be serious, and sternly presenting the most laughable aspects of this version of Nazi terror.

In the end (as is so often the case with Raven), it doesn’t  really matter though. They cut through the shit that makes other games completely unbearable, at the most basic level, that of gameplay. I can make fun of their silly accents and their uninspired bits of design, but their game is 100% playable. It’s both strange and unfortunate that in the slew of games I’m playing today, Wolfenstein stands out as a shining example of how to to (some of) it right. Go Raven.

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