What Wolfenstein Get’s Right About Nostalgic Game Design

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If I had bought a PS4 instead of upgrading my computer in 2013, Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of like three games I would own for it right now. It’s pretty much the only “next gen” game I’ve played on my computer so far (The Witcher 3 is going to be the second). It’s my favorite shooter of 2014, a breath of fresh air for the genre, and in my opinion the best singleplayer shooter of this new game generation (Disclaimer: I have not played Call of Duty: Ghosts or Advanced Warfare). I’ve been waiting for a chance to gush about it for months and since I couldn’t find anyone to pay me to do so, the impending release of the expansion The Old Blood seems as good as any.

I don’t think this is a review and I’m not just going to go down a list of features that are good or not. I’m going to try to drive a thesis of something pretty cool and important New Order strives to do which is ultimately what sets it apart from other recent shooters. I actually think it’s the exact same reason the Souls games work so well, and it call comes down to their core philosophy.

The Zero Punctuation review of the game sums it up pretty nicely towards its end: “It manages to combine the positive qualities of older level-by-level shooters with those of more recent fare. Possibly by going around with a bunch of fishing nets and collecting a bunch of babies that got thrown out with the bathwater.”

Pretty much everybody has made note of how New Order is a revival of a really old franchise and how it brings back things like health, armor, and automap which modern shooters left behind. It’s not just that though: it’s that New Order actually remembers how older shooters were made.

An easy component to pick out might be its secrets and collectibles. The fact that New Order even had secrets that unlock extra game modes that weren’t DLC in 2014 is kind of mind blowing itself. Then there’s the fact that for many of them you have to solve puzzles, or dare-I-say intelligently investigate each environment. Developer MachineGames even said it did this as a callback to how the older games had secrets behind walls. One of the first ones you find in New Order is hidden behind a wall that slides after you solve a puzzle. It’s extra content the way extra content used to be done. A sign of how effective this was is the fact New Order is the very first game for which I earned every achievement.

Health packs and armor actually play into this. Some players complained about how New Order requires them to actually press a button to pick up items, but this get’s them to actively investigate environments instead of just walking over everything to pick it up. It adds objects to the environment that you can interact with, thus giving those environments substance beyond being shooting galleries. That, in turn, creates the practice of investigation that makes players discover secrets.

The level design is a pretty obvious thing. The fact that New Order even has automap suggests it has levels that actually need to be navigated instead of straight corridors. The game is still linear of course, but it’s the kind of linear that doesn’t push you along a rail, instead letting you move along the way how you want to, with a few open-ended arenas. I’ll just say that one of the early levels has cool paths I didn’t notice until my third run through the game.

So we’ve got itemization and level design that call back to games from 15 and 20 years ago. Those aren’t the whole reason I like New Order so much but they illustrate my point well enough. The thing is though, this doesn’t play like a game from 15 years ago at all. It plays like a 2014 video game.

New Order doesn’t feel like a retro game at all. It maintains modern features like an emphasis on cover, a lean system, a grenade button, partial health regeneration, and basically everything else players expect when they play a 2014 shooter except multiplayer. MachineGames didn’t just make a Wolfenstein game or a 2014 game called Wolfenstein, it made a 2014 Wolfenstein game.

This also addresses an issue with a lot of games that try to be retro. I understand that many indie games have retro graphics because they’re cheap to implement, but in other factors many complain these games are too obsessed with the past for the sake of nostalgia. Developers make these games because they know something has been lost in today’s games, but if you look back in time it should be to remember what might be useful to the games of today. New Order does this well.

The Souls games work the same way pretty much. Public opinion is attracted to their reputation for difficulty, but it’s really about how they bring back the design philosophy of 80’s and 90’s video games and reinterpret them through an entirely modern lens.

Their difficulty is built on the old philosophy of trying something again until you mentally get better at it. The Souls games also choose not to bombard players with the mass of information modern titles do. They don’t highlight your objective, you just explore. They don’t highlight secrets on a map or outline them in your HUD, you simply may or may not find them. Much of finding them is based on shared knowledge not unlike the original Legend of Zelda. The Souls games also feature almost no cut scenes or any non-interactive storytelling. Like 8-bit games they convey as much as they can while you’re in the normal gameplay phase, making the experience feel very player-driven.

And yet, people don’t point out this retro philosophy because it’s implanted in what feel like very modern games. The Souls games don’t have the wonky camera systems that people used to complain about in Japanese games, the camera just works. Their menu screens and user interfaces aren’t stuck in another time. Even firing projectiles in Souls switches players to a modern over-the-shoulder camera. I remember someone saying Demon’s Souls felt like what they imagined RPGs would be like in the future when they were a kid — a natural evolution of the design of that time.

This is ultimately what New Order feels like. It feels like a natural evolution of the components of the mid-to-late-90’s first person shooter. More importantly, it fights back against the prevalent notion that any design element that isn’t common in games today is obsolete.

BULLETS:

  • Looks like we’re eventually getting a remaster of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. http://techraptor.net/content/interview-man-rebuilding-powerslave
  • RPS goes through the current Exanima beta. http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/05/04/exanima-review-beta/
  • Interesting article on an ancient Native American city. http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/05/04/ancient-native-american-city-may-have-been-done-in-by-mississippi-floods/
  • New Kingdom Come screenshots. http://www.gamespot.com/articles/gorgeous-new-screenshots-released-for-no-fantasy-r/1100-6427073/
  • Ghetto Kombat X 2. http://youtu.be/u81j9PZcJX4
  • New Gashi art. http://gashi-gashi.deviantart.com/art/Goku-vs-Piccolo-530484336
  • I think I remember seeing something about this game a long time ago. http://store.steampowered.com/app/317730
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