Wolfenstein: The New Order

I’ve written before about how much I miss the B-tier of gaming, that time when there was something between a $100 million “AAA” release – the shifting definition of that term is another post in itself – and a quirky indie game from two blokes in a garage. Every so often you get something that channels the spirit of that time, showing that polish, cool ideas and a budget aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this, which had sat on my pile of shame for a couple of months, is put together in that vein.

I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say that The New Order feels straight out of 2003. It belongs to that glut of post-Half-Life 2 narrative-driven shooters that were ten-a-penny on the original Xbox and actually represented, in retrospect, a reliably good subgenre for one that was rinsed so thoroughly. As well as Valve’s classic, the DNA of games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (there’s a Starbreeze connection), Breakdown, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, Doom 3 and so on is on show here. Even if I limit the discussion to games about leading a resistance against a technologically advanced and oppressive regime, I could equally be talking about The New Order, Half-Life 2 or the much-missed Freedom Fighters.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

This retro feel is carried through to the pleasantly old-school design: secrets, collectables, non-regenerating health, an arsenal of weapons to carry around without regard for encumbrance systems, and giant enemies with exploitable weak points abound. Even the prominence given to dual-wielding feels pleasantly of that era, after Halo 2 made it a banner feature but before dour, grounded militarism became the genre’s creed.

The New Order isn’t thrown together without thought, though, which is perhaps surprising for a series with such straightforward roots. Almost as surprising as the lack of multiplayer in a game whose deathmatches once hooked me so strongly. The design of posters, signage, architecture and even the pop music heard in the background has been built to present a believable vision of the 60s in a world where the Nazis won the war and propaganda infuses all aspects of culture. I read several excellent articles about the music around the game’s release, among them VentureBeat’s, and was blown away at how much effort went into an area that is so easily overlooked.

Visiting Nazi London in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Wolfenstein is undoubtedly a game that would have made my abridged best of 2014 list had I plunked down the cash before the Boxing Day sales. I’m tempted to drop a cliché about how it’s not big or clever, but really, it kind of is. The old-fashioned parts are lovingly, knowingly so, and the thought put into its vision of a Nazi-dominated 1960 is up there with the big releases. There’s nothing in The New Order that’s been thrown together arbitrarily.

I’m happy, therefore, to declare that gaming’s B-tier still lives! For one game, at least.

Best of 2014 #1: South Park: The Stick of Truth

South Park: The Stick of TruthThe South Park games are an eclectic mix, from an FPS in the days before everything had to be an FPS, through kart racinggame shows and tower defence. An RPG must have been the obvious choice, then, thankfully after they had the revelation that South Park games work better when they look like the TV show.

But even despite the turmoil that accompanied the development, from THQ’s bankruptcy to the frankly shameful censorship – I imported the unsullied version, naturally – it turned out amazingly well. It’s fun, funny, authentic, and unlike many turn-based RPGs, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. With my reduced gaming time coming into frequent conflict with my love of a genre that thrives on lengthy narratives, words cannot express how much I appreciated a traditional RPG that I could finish in 15 hours.

It’s the fact that it was funny that stood out most, though. From the ludicrous summons to the creative trophies (‘Are We Cool?’ and ‘Heisenberg’ are favourites), through the obsession with anal probing, dodging swinging ball sacks and the way the Nazi zombies speak in incomprehensible snippets of Hitler speeches, it’s often hilarious when most games can’t raise a chuckle. Even if the game had sucked, which it absolutely doesn’t, I’d have happily endured through the running time to soak in all the humour.

Happy new year, everyone. May it be better for gaming than the last one.

Best of 2014 #2: Infamous: Second Son

Infamous: Second SonThat this is the only first-party game to make my list may be an admission that I don’t have a Wii U more than any lack of trying from the platform holders, but the fact is Microsoft and Sony haven’t been particularly prolific in 2014.

But even without caveats, I thought Second Son fulfilled the promise that the Infamous series had had since the beginning. The first two were good but saddled with a bland protagonist and a uninteresting, half-baked apocalyptic story. Delsin liked having powers, just like the player does. He’s like Spider-Man rather than another tortured hero.

Second Son was, in fact, the first game in which I bothered to earn the Platinum trophy. That means I finished it twice, when most games don’t even move me to play through them once. Even if it still suffers from the rather binary morality of the other Infamous games, the good and bad paths were enjoyably different.

It was gorgeous too, of course. One of the first games to restore some faith in what these consoles are capable of when they’re not running another remaster.

Best of 2014 #3: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadow of MordorHere’s another late addition, which I admitted to missing out on barely a month ago but have since fallen for in a big way. I wish I could say it wasn’t the Assassin’s Creed ripoff that I called it back when it was unveiled because, gameplay-wise, that’s essentially what it is. But it’s polished nonetheless – that’s something you can’t say about this year’s Assassin’s Creed – and has enough tricks to stand out.

The Nemesis system was the cleverest for me, in that it’s a somewhat procedurally generated system that doesn’t stand out as being so – you might not realise that Goroth Plague-Bringer, against whom you had a long-running feud, was a creation of the game itself. The way it would cause some uruks to run away and others to return from the dead, hell-bent on revenge, allowed the game to create something approaching the personal, unique stories that typify the best open-world sandbox games.

Monolith seems to have a way of coming out of nowhere with impressive games – think the Condemned, F.E.A.R. and No One Lives Forever series – without picking up the following of some of the better-known studios. After this, and following my frequent complaints that so few studios are making games that aren’t safe, ridiculously budgeted annual sequels, I’ll keep an eye on what it does next.

Best of 2014 #4: Dark Souls II

Dark Souls IIThe consensus on Dark Souls II seems to be that it’s the weakest of the three games in the tenuously linked Souls series, so perhaps I’m unusual in finding it more immediately engaging than its direct predecessor. I admittedly lack the patience to go all that far and sample their full depth, so the “immediately” part may be where a connoisseur could tell me I’m wrong.

Honestly, I feel like a bit of a dilettante discussing it when there are so many writers who can be far more authoritative on these games, so I’ll just say that I had a blast with it. I’m safe with my complaint that it’s another of those games that suffered from pushing ageing hardware too far, this time to a controversial extent that makes the inevitable PS4/XB1 upgrade seem more cynical than usual. But beyond that I enjoyed the bleak world, the minimalist storytelling, and the creative bosses.

If this is Souls without its soul, the series director Hidetaka Miyazaki having been reduced to a mere supervisor by his role on the upcoming Bloodborne, I can’t wait to see how that game turns out. I’ll reserve a spot in next year’s list, shall I?

Did you hear that the Souls games are quite hard, by the way? I think I’ve seen it mentioned.

Best of 2014 #5: Threes

ThreesA real surprise, this one, which literally only displaced my original choice for the fifth spot, Monument Valley, in the last few hours, having been a post-Christmas purchase in light of its presence on a couple of other lists.

Even now that puzzle games are my iPhone distractions of choice, most of what I play is a variation on a classic theme – falling blocks, matching blocks, unscrambling letters, or picross. I’m not sold on the format for most long-form experiences but find it undeniably the platform of choice for time-wasting puzzlers. It’s usually to blame when my homeward commute has to be passed without podcasts after I’ve blown through the battery.

Threes is the closest thing in the puzzle realm to being completely new that I’ve touched upon in a while. It’s a bit of a maths game, a bit of a sliding tile puzzle. I know being difficult to explain succinctly isn’t often an indication that a £2 puzzle game is a winning formula, but trust me here. Watch the demo animation on the official site and it should become clear. Games are finished quickly, making it a great time-waster, and the advanced strategies are there for those with a sufficient head for numbers.

My high score is 3,078 at the time of writing, with a mere 750,000 required to get you into the top ten and a credulity-stretching 1.8 million sitting on top. Not bad for a game that starts off tasking you with calculating 1+2.