Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moar Demos: Wolfenstein

I’ve been playing a bunch of XBM demos lately. Time to update my blog.

First off: Wolfenstein. The difficulty selection screen took me back about 20 years. Yes, it’s true that the first person shooter is a hard core genre. It’s very unlikely that a noob to the genre would have picked this game up without having played many previous shooters (including previous W games). So I won’t make my standard “why the pejorative ‘Can I play, daddy?’ label for Easy mode?” comment.

What I ask, on a much deeper level, is why include Easy mode at all. If it’s clear you despise and disdain noobs and don’t want to have them play your game, then spend the time and money refining default (Normal) difficulty level and making sure that the harder difficulties are correctly calibrated to the kinds of challenge that these folks want.

Side note: I’ve been paying more attention to cinematics controls lately, and Wolfenstein adds a new wrinkle: Pressing A calls up a bottom of screen text hint: “A to Skip; B to Pause/Play”. Very elegant in that I learn that A-A quickly skips me ahead. And you get the bonus feature of pausing it if you actually want to watch the cinematic, but just need to get up and grab a soda.

On to the more important stuff: Initial experience. After the quick reprise of Halflife and Halflife 2 (start in a train car; run past authoritarian guards who are interrogating civilians) it jumps quickly into a learn-as-you-play tutorial.

I managed to fail the tutorial pretty much right away when I was trying to complete the “Use the veil to pass through the wall task”. As soon as I started to walk through the wall I received a “press down on the dpad to exit the veil” prompt. Whoops. I exited the veil while I was in the middle of a wall. Death and restart. Last checkpoint could probably have taken me back to the underground sewer as opposed to the train car at the beginning of the level.

Otherwise, the “basics” tutorial was pretty good. I’m still not sure what “veil pools” are (vs. all the water and water runoff I see all around me in the sewer) but the learn-to-play mode covered basic navigation and exploration in a straightforward and non-intrusive manner. No interruptions to game play for modal billboard text, just navigate through the sewer and learn a few of the basic functions (walk, run, open things, climb ladders, jump, crouch).

I kind of missed the introduction of my next “magic” power because it was in the middle of a mission briefing and being handed a bunch of standard weapons. It looked like I picked up some sort of cool item, but I wasn’t really sure what it was.

Then came combat.

The “Mire” ability seemed pretty cool in terms of visual and game play effects. It’s fun to send bodies flying. It’s nice to have a combined slow time/detective mode ability when I want to take out a squad of enemies single-handedly. The standard MP40 had a satisfying sound and feel to it. The grenades, however, were lacking. Most importantly, there was no visual, sound, or rumble feedback to let you know how long you could “cook” the grenade for prior to throwing it. This is a problem given that your “use grenade” prompt basically tells you to hold the LB to burn through the timer. Needless to say I made a mess of myself.

In terms of combat feedback, there were a couple of things missing. First, there was no “tango down” equivalent when an individual enemy was finished off. I realize that this is much easier to do "within the fiction” with more futuristic games (like in Halflife 2 when you hear the flatlines), but even so it’s something that I find I miss when it’s not there. Other games use tell-tale vocal screams or grunts that accomplish the same thing. That said, there could have been an intentional decision to NOT provide this feedback in order to encourage players to use their weapon sites to visually confirm each kill – and punish players who throw caution to the wind. However, I would have expected that approach more in a survival/horror kind of scenario instead of a squad based tactics scenario.

The second part that was missing was the “end of sequence” feedback. I mostly knew we had killed all the local baddies when my squad mates moved forward and/or my objective changed. I guess I’ve just been playing a number of games that had dynamic music lately -- and other games that provided a dramatic cinematic of the last baddie’s death – which provide a nice sense of closure.

After a few standard combat encounters, the game got… weird. But in a good way. It was kind of like a combo of Bioshock, The Darkness, and Call of Duty all in one. I like a dose of sci-fi in my action adventure, especially if it makes for interesting puzzles, combat, and upgrade paths. I really enjoyed Bioshock and The Darkness for the story components and gritty upgrade paths. I missed out on fun combat for the former game because I set the difficulty level too low (I wanted to blow through the content) and never really found combat in the latter to be fun (even though I liked the powers and upgrades).

The Call of Duty experience (at least the first couple) was much more about the combat sequences. They felt polished and balanced (except in a few cases) and even though I know they were scripted and I was getting lots of cheat-y help to propel me through the levels, the game play was viscerally exciting.

The Wolfenstein demo ended shortly after I received my first sci-fi weapon (and met the upgrade vendor). Even though I was interested in continuing, I was left to wonder whether the game would be able to deliver the elements I like in a sci-fi action adventure game in satisfying ways? Specifically, will the sci-fi abilities and weapons be viscerally satisfying, make for tactically interesting exploration and combat, and be fun to upgrade? The demo didn’t really answer this question for me – and required me to make a leap of faith that I’m not sure I’m ready to make.

First person shooters are a tough sell for someone like me. I evaluate them against my favorite action adventure games and they tend to come up lacking unless they bring something new game play-wise, have a world that is super fun to explore and interact with, and/or have character-driven story that is well crafted and engaging.

Prey is a great example of an FPS that I knew nothing about before the demo and that blew me away when I saw the cool possibilities that “portal” based game play brought to the table. I don’t get that same sense in the Wolfenstein demo.

I also have a strong suspicion that story won’t carry this game – the bar has been set too high by its competitors (The Darkness, Bioshock to name a few) and, let’s face it, the Wolfenstein franchise is not known for its great character-driven story experiences.

With a ton of other content (casual, social, and console games) and Uncharted 2 around the corner, I think that Wolfenstein gets added to the Gamefly Q.

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