It’s been a little difficult to find the time and motivation to write recently so posts may be somewhat more infrequent over the next couple of months.
When you say the words “expansion pack” to me, the things that immediately spring to mind are the classic expansion packs in the RPG and strategy genres. Yuri’s Revenge, Throne of Bhaal, Lord of Destruction — it’s a list that stretches on and on. Given the great success of the idea here it’s easy to forget there was once a time when the FPS expansion pack was just as popular, starting with basic Doom WADs and continuing on through the Quake and Half-Life expansion packs to Call of Duty: United Offensive, which was the last really high-profile one. FPSes have since experimented with episodic content and smaller bite-size chunks sold as DLC, but while the RPG/strategy expansion pack concept lives on thanks to the sterling efforts of developers such as Firaxis and Blizzard, first-person shooters have pretty much discarded full-on expansion packs as a decidedly old-school idea.
This is why I think it’s particularly fitting that Wolfenstein: The Old Blood has been released as an expansion pa- I mean, an expandalone, because TOB is as old-school as they come. It follows up last year’s surprisingly thoughtful Wolfenstein: The New Order with a standalone prequel set in an alternate 1946, but where TNO augmented its excellent shooter credentials with an intriguing alternate history and well-measured writing, The Old Blood prefers to dedicate itself solely to the business of Nazi-killing. Nearly everything about it is a deliberate callback to the original Wolfenstein 3D, from the premise – you kick off the game by literally infiltrating Castle Wolfenstein, again — to the main menu, which is a modern homage to the classic Wolfenstein 3D box art. Even the particular flavour of Nazis that you kill can be thought of as much more traditional; New Order already threw the spotlight on their mad scientist technology, so Old Blood returns to the RTCW theme of their meddling with the occult.
This conscious focus on Wolfenstein’s roots is refreshing, in a way. It’s nice to play a shooter as unpretentious as The Old Blood, whose major concern is showing the player a good time with precious little in the vein of quicktime events or scripted plot sequences to get in the way of the shooting. Series protagonist BJ does the odd bit of soul-searching internal monologue but it falls somewhat flat without the poignancy of New Order’s temporal disjointment to back it up, and so I think it was wise to jettison most of the story in favour of the action. It ultimately boils down to a very simple premise: there is a head Nazi who is trying to acquire supernatural powers for the Reich, and your job is to stop them while getting entangled in some spectacular action sequences along the way. That’s not to say that Old Blood doesn’t have some neat thematic and visual tricks up its sleeve, but it’s almost 100% reliant on the shooting to carry it forward as a game.
It’s good news, then, that the quality of Old Blood’s combat is on par with that found in New Order. Most of what’s good about it is imported wholesale from that game – the visceral impact of the guns, the pleasing variety of enemy encounters (there’s only 4-5 primary types of baddie in the game, but Old Blood keeps mixing them up in different ways and locations) occasionally broken up by faux-stealth sections where you sneak about and try to kill off officers before all hell breaks loose, and the neat cover system where BJ will intelligently lean out to shoot round corners if you bring up your iron sights. One of the things I particularly liked about the combat in New Order was that you found yourself constantly switching between weapons in a firefight to take on different kinds of enemies, and that’s true of the Old Blood too. There are a few new weapons such as a bolt-action rifle for popping heads and a pistol-sized rocket launcher for taking out bosses; mostly, though, Old Blood sticks to what worked so well in the original game, just with a fresh coat of paint.
It’s a hell of a paintjob, though. New Order had some fantastic locations, but there’s something indefinably timeless about sneaking through a dusty old castle chock full of secret areas and knifing unsuspecting Nazis in the back. The level design is excellent as ever, providing a largely linear series of action set-pieces (there’s a great cablecar segment) but also rewarding exploration with bonus goodies including the opportunity to take on secret “Nightmare” levels that reconstruct the original Wolfenstein’s pixelated environment and 2D baddies. The Old Blood is mostly pretty good at keeping control in the hands of the player while they’re scrambling through these environments, too; there’s the occasional scripted cutscene where BJ does something incredibly stupid, but these are all the more jarring for how out of place they are when put in context with the rest of the game.
Broadly speaking, then, The Old Blood is just as good as its predecessor when it comes to the actual nitty-gritty of shooting Nazis, and that’s pleasant news when you consider that mechanically speaking New Order is probably the best FPS that’s been released in the last couple of years – the combat is entertaining enough that it’s actually rewarding to play on a higher difficulty setting, while the unlockable perks and secrets give you some nicely-structured short-term goals beyond just getting to the end of the level. It’s far more shallow in terms of its themes and doesn’t hit the narrative highs New Order did, but then it’s not trying to – this is a love letter to the original Wolfenstein games almost from start to finish, and if you’ve played and enjoyed any of those at all it’s likely you’ll have a lot of fun with it.
I do have some complaints, however. These largely have to do with the game’s pacing; for example, the first half-hour of the game is pretty badly laid out. It whets your appetite by opening with two minutes of dual-wielding mayhem, which is exactly what I bought Old Blood for, and then makes the inexplicable decision to then throw you into a prison and make you do an enforced stealth section for the next thirty. The prison is patrolled by super-soldiers who can’t be killed except by sneaking past them and deactivating the power generators they’re hooked up to, and getting spotted by one is pretty much instant death. It makes very little sense to kick off a game that’s supposed to be such a direct homage to Wolfenstein 3D in this way; unlike the stealth-lite sections where you’re hunting officers this is slow-paced, awkward and repetitive (you have to take out six or seven super-soldiers before you can get out of the prison), and was just not a good way to kick off the game. At all.
Fortunately the Old Blood picks up significantly after this, veritably throwing weapons and enemies at you like it’s actively apologising for making you sit through such a terrible opening level, and for the next few hours everything is great. The game is split into two halves, however, with only the first half involving BJ’s rampage through Castle Wolfenstein; once he makes it out of the castle and into a nearby German town the quality of the game dips noticeably, mostly because some bad voodoo goes down and replaces most of the interesting and fun Nazi baddies with undead Nazi zombies. Thematically this makes sense, and there’s a great bit where flaming zombies are literally raining from the sky as they fall out of burning airships above you. Mechanically, though, it’s just about as ill-judged as replacing the Covenant with the Flood was in the Halo games, as the zombies don’t require a huge amount of thought to kill beyond shooting them in the head. And if there’s one thing that this new strain of Wolfenstein makes very, very easy, it’s shooting bad guys in the head.
Still, while it wasn’t quite as good as the first half of the game, the second half didn’t start to actively nosedive until the last hour or so, confronting you with the most boring giant robot segment I’ve experienced since Space Marine. It doesn’t even have any guns! It just does a terrible sort of swipe move that instagibs any zombies that happen to be nearby, which once again moves the game away from the shooting elements that are so fun. I would have ditched it immediately except you need to tow it around for twenty-odd minutes to smash down various walls and doors. Then almost immediately after that you’re confronted with the end boss, which is kind of awful because it does almost no damage on its own and instead functions as this big HP pinata you have to slowly chip away at while soldiers and zombies – the real threats – constantly spawn from monster closets around the boss arena. It’s a very poor way to cap off what was otherwise an extremely enjoyable experience.
Given that the Old Blood is around 5-6 hours long, and approximately one hour of that is actually not that good, all things considered, I think I would be making a lot more out of these flaws were it not for the price tag: clocking in at a mere £15 on Steam it almost seems like a bargain in this modern age of hour-long DLC content. For that much money it turns out I’m willing to overlook quite a lot as long as the overall package has some positive qualities to balance it out, and the Old Blood has those by the bucketload. Yes, from a certain point of view it isn’t really expanding on what New Order did and instead just provides more of the same. From my point of view, though, that’s no bad thing at all.