Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wolfenstein: Unfulfilled Potential

Running through the streets of the fictional town Isenstadt as American special agent B.J. Blazkowicz provides for a very conflicting experience.

One moment in Wolfenstein presents an encounter akin to any other World War II first-person shooter. Blazkowicz will combat the typical Nazi grunts, spraying bullets with an MP40 machine gun and sniping targets with a Kar98 rifle. Allied members of the resistance will draw fire from the enemy, while the Nazi grunts utilize available cover, inform their comrades of Blazkowicz’s lack of ammunition, and throw the occasional grenade.

The next moment in the game relinquishes any semblance of realism, and throws in the absurd. Blazkowicz will find himself overrun by suicidal busty women in ridiculously tight leather suits. Forgoing the obvious firearms, such femme fatales will make use of their exceptional training in hand to hand combat and the martial arts, attacking the perennial hero with scratches and spin kicks.

A third moment in the game provides for an even more unrelated experience, more akin to a horror title, as Blazkowicz is hunted by cunning and completely invisible assassins. Taunting the American protagonist’s lack of perception, such assassins only reveal themselves upon slicing into Blazkowicz’s bowels with dual blades of energy.

Recipe for Success?

Raven Software’s newest first-person shooter, Wolfenstein, seemingly provides all of the necessary ingredients for an appetizing first-person shooter. Enemies range from the ultra-realistic to the completely absurd, as Blazkowicz encounters troops with flamethrowers, massively armored Nazis, and mutated crawling monsters.

Weapons follow a similar trend, ranging from the ubiquitous German-made machine guns and rifles, to energy-based cannons of mass destruction. Environment design is gorgeous and never gets stale as Blazkowicz traverses through varied locations such as dilapidated city streets, bright pastoral farmland, and futuristic Nazi laboratories.

Tying all of the elements together is a decent but not groundbreaking story, seemingly open-ended mission structure, and Veil Powers that allow Blazkowicz to manipulate his abilities, surroundings, and time.

So, given all of the well-executed and polished elements, why does Wolfenstein evoke such indifference? Why isn’t this game the exciting, adrenaline-pumping, innovative first-person shooter that it should be? Why is it so forgettable?

Ultimately, and despite the game’s schizophrenic elements, Wolfenstein feels very familiar. Unfortunately, that familiarity does not satisfy a nostalgia for the game’s predecessors.

Instead, Wolfenstein feels derivative of other modern and popular first-person shooters, incorporating certain design elements of such games and not utilizing them to their fullest potential. Those seemingly innovative elements that Raven Software’s title does introduce into the genre are again not utilized fully, and end up feeling unnecessary and insubstantial.

Too Open-Ended

In terms of combat, while Wolfenstein certainly has a variety of enemy types and weapons, its core is grounded in the all too familiar and linear World War II first-person shooter. Whereas other first-person shooter series have moved on into newer eras and conflicts with differing weapons and enemies, Wolfenstein blandly recreates what has already been popularized and discarded.

Looking down the scope of a Kar98 rifle, or the iron sights of an MP40 machine gun is so recognizable, it borders on tedium. Enemy behavior is no different as German soldiers run from cover to cover, poking their heads out in an all too predictable fashion, while allies hide behind similar cover and create a false sense of urgency by rapidly firing their weapons but doing absolutely no damage.

Other fairly linear first-person shooters have used such mechanics to great success. Part of that success however, could be contributed to heavily scripted sequences that provided for very exciting and adrenaline-pumping moments.

Regrettably, even though Wolfenstein is at times indistinguishable from a number of other World War II titles released in the past, it does not make use of such scripted events to create an exhilarating or intense atmosphere.

Too Linear

Of course, the often cited counter to heavily scripted and linear gameplay is open-ended or free-roaming gameplay.

Raven Software’s shooter makes an attempt at incorporating sandbox elements by utilizing a two-party mission structure. American hero B.J. Blazkowicz is able to travel between multiple hubs in the city of Isenstadt, gaining missions from various underground contacts who work for one of two factions. He can even find side missions outside of the two factions, and has the freedom to choose between multiple missions at any one time.

Outside of the mission structure, Wolfenstein incorporates additional hubs as stores for Blazkowicz to purchase upgrades and ammunition for various weapons.

The mission structure and weapon upgrade systems are seemingly pulled verbatim from another popular first-person shooter, albeit one that is set in war-torn Africa instead of the hackneyed World War II. Unfortunately, just as is the case for combat, Wolfenstein attempts to mimic previously utilized mechanics without fully incorporating the necessary aspects that made such mechanics so successful.

Much of the appeal of open-world games is the ability to explore and discover new experiences.

The city of Isenstadt, while well-made and pleasing to the eyes, is too small and lacking in substance to maintain such an appeal. As a result, the seemingly open world mission structure of Wolfenstein does not elevate the title beyond the level of a linear shooter.

Too Shallow

All that is Wolfenstein is of course not poached from other games. While it certainly owes a lot to its predecessors in the series, and other more modern first-person shooters, Wolfenstein attempts to create innovative gameplay mechanics through the use of Blazkowicz’s Veil Powers.

Utilizing these powers, Blazkowicz has the ability to traverse through otherwise impenetrable obstacles, find weaknesses in enemy combatants, and slow down time, among many other talents.

While seemingly adding multiple dimensions to the gameplay, these Veil Powers prove themselves to be extremely one-dimensional. The abilities are almost completely unnecessary in general combat, and only useful in very specific and contrived situations. Additionally, such situations provide a small contribution to the overall game, and are heavily concentrated in areas that immediately follow Blazkowicz’s initial acquisition of a particular power.

The Veil Powers are design mechanics that could have potentially created gameplay requiring creativity and thought. However, they simply feel gimmicky and unnecessary.

Flash, Substance

On the surface, Wolfenstein seems to have all of the elements necessary for a memorable experience. It is fairly clear that a great deal of time and polish went into developing the game. Enemies, weapons, and environments are all highly varied, pleasing to interact with, and well-executed. The game seems to mix innovative mechanics from other games with new content of its own, to create a satisfying experience.

Unfortunately, none of the components that Wolfenstein incorporates are executed to the extent and precision necessary for an impactful experience. The seemingly open world structure does not elevate the game past the level of a linear shooter, and the lack of exciting scripted moments does not provide for engaging linear gameplay.

The varied elements and high level of polish, coupled with poorly executed core mechanics, unfortunately provide for a game that is exceedingly mediocre. While certainly playable, Wolfenstein provides little incentive to play, and as a result, is ultimately forgettable.

No comments:

Post a Comment