I spent a lot of time thinking about wrestling while playing Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, a stand-alone prequel to last year's critical darling The New Order. That's right, wrestling. On the surface, one has little to do with the other, inasmuch as Vince McMahon's travelling circus of pre-ordained fighting and stunt-performing doesn't share much in common with an alternate-history World War II, one where the Allies are fucked and Hitler, conspicuously if obviously absent, has gone full-anime with his Third Reich forces.
Both of them, however, share common storytelling techniques. The most obvious is the recasting of complex real-world conflicts as over-the-top superman allegories, right versus evil might, the baddies portrayed as literal freaks and monsters, an unwinnable battle won by sheer force. I mean, look at BJ. He's essentially John Cena: a hulking mass of Americana that's going to save the world, a power fantasy at its basest and most obvious. It's simple, but it works, in both cases. The Old Blood is as much a contrived circus performance as anything Vince could have cooked up, but like him it combines simple, relatable stories with supreme athleticism and sheer violence to create what, at its best, is pure entertainment.
Whereas The New Order suffered from being overlong, hugely inconsistent in its tone, and making a lot of its level design dependent on a rechargeable fucking bolt cutter, The Old Blood is shorter, tighter, and much more cohesive. Gone are the jaunty sex scenes which clashed horribly with scenes set in a concentration camp: instead, TOB mostly ditches the attempts at light and shade and concentrates on the fighting. There are still attempts at pathos, but for the most part they're less pronounced, less obviously worthy, more skilfully handled than before - character arcs generally resolve in muted, appropriate fashion, rather than desperately trying to make the player feel something.
The Old Blood is split into two main parts, both set in 1946 as the Allies desperately seek to end the war. The first is an assault (and escape) from the titular castle, the second a battle through a fishing town under siege from occult Nazi undead. The former is the strongest, contrasting your high-powered, anachronistic weapons and armour with the decrepit, dusty old castle you use them in.
It's a smart move, and an obvious one. Producers in all mediums are big on pre-baked properties, those with already-existing audiences. (Marvel is a good example of this, obviously.) There's nothing more pre-baked than the Nazis: it's essentially the law to be taught exactly what the regime did, to despise its ideology, its pomposity, its abject cruelty. The first two-thirds of the game plays this up expertly.
It asks us to stalk and kill the despised SS through a fittingly pompous monument to its reductive worldview: the grand Wolfenstein castle, with its gigantic keep, its self-importance, its overbearing air of corrupt decadence, perhaps best exemplified by the colossal Nazi standards that drape everywhere. Hunting the enemy with its own tactics on its own turf: it's a classic revenge narrative exploited - in all senses - well here.
When you find your enemies and pummel them with high-calibre weapons they die in a manner also befitting of Wolfenstein's obvious Hollywood inspirations. There's no crumpling to the ground here when shot: Newtonian physics barely apply. Instead, the SS are encouraged to 'take a bump': looking for ledges to fall off if close enough (which leads, again, to another wrestling element: 'botches', as the AI struggles to entertain, to 'sell' the fantasy), air to pirouette through, tables to fly over. As with Arnie in his heydey of strutting around Val Verde, killing whoever America's enemy was that year, BJ doesn't tire, even when firing two enormous shotguns simultaneously. He blows off limbs like a sentient, vengeful minefield, using pace unnatural to his bulk to strafe, sprint, and terminate, with extreme prejudice.
As well as providing a fitting narrative backdrop, Castle Wolfenstein works in facilitating the fantasy mechanically. For starters, it's an interesting place to just poke around in, and the game gives players the requisite downtime they need to do this. There are stealth elements, as with its predecessor, with commanders needing taking out before they can call in backup, or robotic soldiers needing to be shut down at nearby power supplies.They break up the action well enough, but it's in the thick of things where Wolfenstein shines, and Castle Wolfie's mixture of long corridors and open spaces, often joined together to create makeshift arenas, are perfect for the game's action. Often there will be entire magazines worth of ammo expended in a single press of the trigger, at onrushing hordes all piling into alleyways of gunfire, each dropping easily as BJ hulks up and fights the good fight. It's enormously satisfying, no doubt in part because of who your opponents are, but also due to the A-Team-esque ease of it all.
Things weaken in the last few chapters, as the action shifts to the aforementioned fishing town. Maybe I'm just a little tired of Nazi zombies, but investigating an archeological dig rammed with flaming Na-Z's didn't do too much for me, lacking both the intensity and excitement of fighting 'human' opponents and not being as visually interesting as the castle. There's some interesting three-way battles, as the living SS troops fight both the player and the zombies, but it can't compete with what came before. It also features a climactic boss battle that is both utterly poor as well as uninspired - it makes up for the giant enemy's lack of offensive power and mobility by dropping in irritating ground troops. It also exemplifies why the decision to make the player manually pick up ammo and armour, in a game where you will always need those things, isn't the best idea, as you'll often be swamped looking at health or ammo to press 'E' on.
The last few chapters do, however, feature the welcome arrival of an antagonist who isn't just totally evil, or machine gun fodder, in the form of Helga von Schabbs. Whereas the castle section's villain is Rudi Jager, a torture specialist who looks and acts like the second baddie from Tomorrow Never Dies (and is most notably on the receiving end of a superb joke from BJ), later on the player runs into Helga. She's still comically evil, of course, and stupid with it. But attention is paid to her past, her motivations, and her own tough childhood, including her father's suicide. There's the feeling that she could have been recruited by anyone who offered her the dream she was chasing - archaeological glory - and the Nazi's just happened to have the best chance of her getting what she wanted.
Quibbles aside, The Old Blood works: shorter, more tonally cohesive, and better than its forbear, it's also - for most of its five of so hour running time - a better distillation of MachineGames' goals than that which preceded it. It also has a combo-based challenge mode for when you've finished: a nice score/time attack distraction which features stages from the game, and underlines the emphasis on speed, violence, and style. Vince would be proud.
Version Tested: PC.