This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Wolfenstein: The Old Blood.
What's that, Skippy? Wolfenstein: The New Order is getting one of those standalone expansion type things? What good news, The New Order made it into my Top 5 last year for adding some real depth to the act of cutting an endless parade of Nazi throats like we're a tiny lumberjack in the forest of squishy pink trees.
What's that, Skippy? It's gonna be a prequel called "The Old Blood"? What good news, it comes before a thing that's new, therefore it's old, how heartening it is to see that id Software's investment in a dictionary is paying off.
What's that, Skippy? Timmy's fallen down a well? What good news, this will give him ample opportunity to explore his interest in geology, and I can put a snooker table in his bedroom.
What's that, Skippy? Kangaroo meat is a lean and tasty alternative to beef? Oh Skippy, I already knew that, that's why I cut off all your arms and legs. Can you wiggle back down to the basement by yourself or do you need me to kick you down the stairs again?
Wait a minute, you extremely tasty marsupial git, a prequel to The New Order? What made The New Order good was that it was kind of a knowing swan song for the whole World War II action shooter thing. "Yeah," it said, "World War II is not giving up any more drops, no matter how hard we wring it. Let's just push it to the point of maximum absurdity, i.e. space Nazis on the moon, and make all the characters visibly tired and wondering why they bother anymore when they've been murdering Nazis like popcorn for twenty years and there doesn't seem to be any less of them." Surely, to go back and set the game in World War II again misses the point completely. It's like making a prequel to Alien called "Let's watch some blue collar guys in hypersleep for two hours."
B.J. Blazkowicz, a man the size of a fridge who so embodies bullet-headed American military strength he might as well have George C. Scott's face tattooed on both his nipples, is on an undercover operation, possibly as a prank. His job is to find some documents that will lead to the mission in the prologue of New Order, which we already know he will fuck up like ceiling-mounted Fleshlight. On the way he must foil a Nazi operation to exploit a supernatural power dug up from ancient times, which presumably will also fuck up because there is no mention of it in New Order. So what we have here is a bunch of predestined failures competing to see who can fail first, sort of like the British General Election. But it does make it hard to stay invested.
Besides, Nazis, castle, dig up ancient magic, zombies is literally the plot of every Wolfenstein game before New Order, that is to say before they got good. Nostalgia is a prevailing theme here, but New Order was turning that nostalgia around to go at it through a new hole. Old Blood lacks the same self-awareness and goes back to the missionary position. For example, falling asleep and finding yourself in the first level of Wolfenstein 3D was cool in an easter-eggy context, but Old Blood again misses the point by doing it seven more times. When you are locked into one of the longer and more boring levels of Wolfenstein 3D, all the surprise and impact is lost, but you'll gain a new appreciation for things like 3D models and colours that aren't either bright primaries or one of the two shades of grey the floor and ceiling use.
Maybe that's the plan, the game locks us into these little retro sessions so that by the time you get out we're so astonished by the idea of one bit of floor being slightly higher or lower than another bit of floor, that we forget how bored we were getting. Because Old Blood doesn't seem to have much in the way of aspiration beyond reminding us of things The New Order did better. One might argue that that's the point, we had the big, tasty meal that was New Order and maybe some people came up and said "More please!", so now here's some more for those greedy fucking shitheads.
Did you like that bit in the last game where B.J. was in disguise and a high-ranking Nazi started toying with him and you weren't sure if they'd sussed him out or not and things got kinda tense, in spite of the fact that prior performance indicated that B.J. could probably just reach out at any time and snap all their necks using only his armpit? Well that happens again, twice actually. Look B.J. mate, you look like Desperate Dan doing Schindler's List. I don't think practice is going to make you any better at the whole undercover thing!
Also, remember how The New Order made you choose which of your two allies to save at the start and it changed a bunch of stuff for the rest of the game? That happens again, except it happens halfway through the game and doesn't affect shit. And I didn't know I was making a choice; I picked one of two corridors to go down and the next thing I know I've condemned the spunky resistance girl to the fate that she put up insufficient resistance to, ironically, spunk not withstanding.
And all of that is buttered by a hearty feast of stealth and gun battling with fantasy tech Nazis so there's your "More please!" for all you slaves to the all-you-can-eat deal. But I would argue that "More please!" is what DLC is for, and that the end of the standalone pseudo-expansion is more the territory of "More please, but this time set it in hell!" or "More please, but set it in a corny 1980s scifi film that would probably star Michael Biehn and then actually put Michael Biehn in it in case case we're slow on the uptake!" The most Old Blood can do is introduce Nazi zombies and in this day and age, that's the fucking white noise of creativity. That's the fucking Jeopardy think music that plays inside the head of AAA game designers!
Really fragile Nazi zombies too, I found the perk system largely by remembering that New Order also had a perk system that it too was really bad at telling you about and the zombies were really useful for getting all those unlocked. Kill three enemies with one grenade? Done! Smash ten heads in with the melee weapon? Just the ten? Let's do fifteen for luck. I was perking up like nipples in a winter bra shortage.
But it wasn't an enormous help when I reached the final boss fight, which is the point where the game officially lets its head slap onto the desk like a sack of wet laundry from the arms of a frustrated housewife. The Nazis raise a giant zombie king just in time for standard boss fight 27-alpha, upper half of large man smashing ledge where the player is with big fists. If Nazi zombies are the Jeopardy timer music of action games, this is the point where the music abruptly stops because you've been hit by a tranquilizer dart, except it's traditionally the boss fight of the generic third-person game where you have some kind of dodge ability to avoid the fists, and in first-person it becomes a frustrating exercise in sprinting back and forth like a streaker at a football match, hoping that the attack brewing somewhere offscreen to the right will whiff if you keep moving.
And things get even more annoying when Nazis start streaming in, who for some reason prioritize shooting you over shooting the giant boss who smashes indiscriminately. I'm thinking these guys misread the orders. [With a fake German accent] "Gehen ze Bossfight, shooten ze massive Bloke" they read aloud. "Did zey mean ze massive Bloke or ze incredibly massive Bloke?" "It just says 'massive', Hans." "Fair enough. Die, Yankee scum! Ach, not mein German Sausage!"
- Uber Alles: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And now, an attempt to type B.J's last name without double checking the spelling: "Blaskowicz"?
- "Spunk notwhithstanding" is the title of my new indie film