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Wolfenstein has always managed to balance the supernatural and the satisfying mechanics of a a World War 2 shooter. But this latest version of the classic overdoes its demons and monsters, leaving a lightweight bubblegum shooter that's reasonably entertaining but left me disappointing by not fulfilling its true potential.
I've always been a great fan of the Wolfenstein series of games. Ever since the first 3D version burst onto the PC scene in 1992 it's successfully mixed World War 2 and the supernatural into a fun-filled shooter that never took itself too seriously. This current-gen version continues with that same attitude but I found myself more interested with its setting and realistic combat this time than its variety of monsters and ethereal powers.
This couldn't of been demonstrated better than with the decision to give Wolfenstein a hub-world level to operate in. The town of Isenstadt essentially operates as a glorified menu system with different safe houses acting as level selection screens, with the added thrill of fighting to and from the mission start points. At first I was very skeptical of this approach as it seemed to add little more than filler around the more traditional and linear levels I was expecting. But as the story progressed and the game introduced the local resistance and Golden Dawn characters, the town started to take on a personality of its own.
This is the first instance a permanent location in a WW2 game has been used throughout a game and it became a powerful area to build atmosphere and frame my whole experience. Little scenarios where I would be fighting alongside the resistance or scuttling in the shadows to make it to the black market, gave Wolfenstein a far deeper level of atmosphere than I ever expected. The usual linear progression of the previous games gave little chance to build relationships or a sense of place, but here it's a constant battle to move from one area to another and I found myself relying on a few incidental characters far more than I've done in any game before.
Perhaps the greatest example of this feature is in the latter stages of the game. Each time I returned to Isenstat after a mission, the streets would be a little more dangerous as the newer enemies I'd previously faced started to roam the streets along with the usual Nazi soldiers. The intensity of fighting to a safe house became elevated to such an epic degree and the little, unscripted battles in this hub-world started to surpass my experiences in the rest of the game. I'd find Nazi's interrogating people in their homes, there would propaganda on the walls in the street and the locations in some areas really started to resemble a realistic German town.
Little scenarios where I would be fighting alongside the resistance or scuttling in the shadows to make it to the black market, gave Wolfenstein a far deeper level of atmosphere than I ever expected.
Once this started to happen it made the more supernatural sections of the game feel a little inappropriate. They fitted in fine during the opening stages and there were many levels where this actually turned the game into a far more creepy and horrifying experience than I expected. One level, set in a hospital, was just as disturbing and full of jumpy moments as the Steinmann level in Bioshock. It was this part of the game which excelled in creating a truly unique atmosphere for me. Finding the experiments being done on the patients and hearing the misgivings in the German Army's own ranks at these events made for a pretty exciting and interesting experience compared the ridiculous and over-blown monsters that were to follow.
This where the game started to lose me. The first half of the game had many parts where it gave me more a traditional WW2 shooter experience than what I've come to expect of Wolfenstein and its odd to feel that it should have played down its supernatural element. But as soon as the Doom-like monsters started to crawl out of the Mire - the otherworld that the Nazi's are foolishly tapping into - the game lost its gritty edge that I was enjoying so much. The first few missions to uncover the Nazi's intentions had the feeling of an Indiana Jones film where the blend of occult practices and the Nazi world domination ego-trip worked together tremendously. These supernatural elements feel legitimate and realistic - a bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark did - but by the second half of the game the appearance of giant space slugs and multicoloured trolls sent the game too far down its own rabbit hole to have any impact on me.
It sounds odd, but I really wanted Wolfenstein to lose its ridiculous science-fiction elements that have made it such a unique franchise in the past, and instead focus on telling a realistic occult tale.
It sounds odd, but I really wanted Wolfenstein to lose its ridiculous science-fiction elements that have made it such a unique franchise in the past, and instead focus on telling a realistic occult tale. The sense of place within Isenstadt and the relationships you build with the resistance, the black market dealers and the Golden Dawn society reminded me of a TV series back in the 1970's called Secret Army. Just like I cared about those characters in that series, I cared about the characters in this game and a story about resistance fighting mixed with a bit of the occult would've worked so much better for me.
In the end the effect of this overblown science-fiction last third meant the game carried far less weight than it could of. Although Wolfenstein is very much a popcorn videogame to be consumed with as little thought as possible, it still had the potential to strike outside of this well-worn path. The themes of life as a resistance member could of been explored further, even with the one-man army approach that the game insists on taking. As it is, Wolfenstein goes back to its safe house and sticks with its traditional wacky approach leaving a game that could've been so much more.
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