Wolfenstein (Xbox 360)
Earlier this year, I already played the game that Wolfenstein should have been. Necrovision was created by an indie developer in Poland whose claim to fame was a couple of guys from the Painkiller team. Being a self-published game, it was rough-hewn, sloppy with features and endearingly eager to please. But this horror/war shooter had an inspired, fever-dream quality, just out of reach of the resources of its developers. To their credit, they were undeterred.
Wolfenstein is the polar opposite, all execution and no inspiration, played safe and flat and without a hint of creativity. It is as lifeless and plodding as its Nazi zombies, which is saying a lot since it doesn't even really have Nazi zombies. This is a classic example of a big-budget opportunity gone to waste, cranked out with all the care that goes into a mass-produced widget, mechanically stamped from an old mold and relying entirely on the publisher's marketing and a handful of generous 7.5 reviews.
It didn't have to be this way. Raven knows how to make good games. It has here a decent engine and a wonderfully cheesy premise. From "Hellboy" to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to "Shock Waves," Nazis and the occult make for some of the pulpiest pulp. Raven even seems inclined to include a little more freedom and flexibility than your garden-variety corridor shooter. But the end result is grossly underdone, juvenile, prosaic and almost instantly forgettable. It's no wonder Activision all but dumped it on the retail shelves and turned its back to announce the sales figures for the latest Call of Duty map pack and the song list for Guitar Hero 5. This is as fire-and-forget as a game release can be.
We don't need another zero
The hero is an utter non-entity, as bland as could be, the star of cut scenes you'll wonder why you bothered to watch. He's a mouthpiece for dialogue that will have you marveling that someone got paid for that. He is a disposable action hero whose only redeeming feature is that some kids who might play this game are too young to appreciate the delicious Schwarzenegger-era irony of an action hero with an unspellable ethnic name. They will have no idea what's going on. Blaskowitz? Blast o' Wits? Blagojevich? Of course, the name B.J. Blazkowicz predated Raven, Activision, id and even 3-D technology. It is perhaps the only bit of the original Wolfenstein to survive. It's a shame to see it sullied by such a stuffed bomber jacket as this zero of a hero.
But it's par for the course when it comes to Wolfenstein telling a story, or even having any sense of game flow or progression. In a quick 'n' dirty corridor shooter that knows you're just here for the shooting -- the recent Conduit on the Nintendo Wii, for instance -- you don't expect much from the story. You can safely ignore it. It's almost like an unspoken agreement. You do the shooting; the story waits patiently, like English servants poised to pour you a cup of tea, unfazed if you wave them away because you don't want tea. But the story in Wolfenstein is more like some overeager waiter who keeps bugging you. "You want tea? Can I tell you what kind of tea we have? Come over here and look at the tea. Here, read this pamphlet about tea. Tea is wonderful. Did I ask if you wanted some? Because do you? Have some tea."
I bring this up because the story in Wolfenstein, forgettable and inconsequential as it is, literally has you running back and forth. It stretches a six-hour game into eight hours. The terrible town-hub concept forces you to plod back-and-forth across bad town maps -- corridors, really -- to pick up missions, sit though poorly written superfluous dialogue, and occasionally buy upgrades for your weapons. You can explore the town maps -- corridors, really -- for collectibles that unlock weapon upgrades, which further stretch an eight-hour game into 10 hours. But you'll also have to fight your way back-and-forth across spawning enemies, obligingly following that Call of Duty golden-star waypoint caret as it guides you around corners, up stairs and down hallways, and generally helps you ignore the uncreative level design.
Stop me if you've heard this one
Occasionally the corridors split off into missions -- corridors, really -- stuffed with all the usual tropes. A factory, a train station, a sort of castle. Invisible monsters that insta-kill you. Painfully obvious "puzzles." Switches. Lots of switches, all alike. Force fields (lowered by switches, naturally). Battles down long narrow halls. Corridors, really. Shutting down your abilities to make areas more challenging. Having to scrounge for collectibles so you don't fall behind the power curve. Lots of dying and reloading at check points. Lots. Near the end of the game, exasperated and eager to get this tedious thing behind me, I dropped the difficulty level to casual. There was still lots of dying and reloading. Which further stretches a 10-hour game into 12 hours. The ratio of content to filler in Wolfenstein is pretty much 1:1.
The weapon upgrades would actually be pretty good in a better game. You buy bits and bobs that improve individual weapons. None of the weapons is really bad, and a couple are really good. But Wolfenstein is curiously stingy with ammo for the good weapons, as if it only wants you to use them sparingly so they'll stay special. In fact, I'm almost tempted to begrudgingly recommend Wolfenstein for the fact that you can unlock cheats once you've finished the game. These let you replay the levels using the three nifty magic guns with abandon. Here you can see what Wolfenstein would have been like if it hadn't played so consistently like an outdated Call of Duty. If it had really let itself go crazy with the crazy guns, it would have been a better game.
There are glimpses of this better game as you play with the spell powers, which also make an appearance in the multiplayer game (the multiplayer is disappointing compared to the previous Wolfenstein, where it turned out to be the main draw). Throughout the levels, you can freely recharge your spell powers thanks to mana fountains everywhere. When you can't find a mana fountain, you can probably find a keg of mana the Nazis left scattered among all the crates and exploding barrels. Why is the game so generous with mana but stingy with special ammo?
Unfortunately, these spell powers are awfully late in coming. You also have to buy upgrades to make them truly useful. Normally, hard choices about upgrades would make for good gameplay. But in Wolfenstein, these hard choices are really bits and pieces of a potentially better game doled out far too slowly and far too infrequently. By the time you've got a good head of wacky magic steam going, you're already barreling down the interminable corridors of the dullest zeppelin ever devised, having passed through a one-way door. Soon you get to a terribly tedious boss fight in a tacky alternate dimension. And then the game ends. So that's all Raven has for us, huh? Hopefully it's saving up all its best ideas for Singularity.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.