Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wolfenstein: The New Order (and the Old Blood)

Perhaps the only thing missing from this game is the opportunity to personally
shoot Hitler in the face.
Wolfenstein is the grand-daddy of FPS, with Wolfenstein 3D one of the first serious exemplars of the genre, and a franchise which seems to renew itself once every decade or so. The latest revival began ahead of schedule with the largely ignored Wolfenstein in 2009, but this generation's serious entry is Wofenstein: The New Order, which brings the action of the series into an alternate 1960 in which the Nazis won the war and now rule the world.

Actually, we open with a chapter set in the last days of World War II, and the fact that this is in 1946 is a fucking sign. Long-time antagonist Wilhelm 'Deathshead' Strasse has pioneered a wave of advanced technologies which have brought the Nazis to the brink of total victory. Together with a company of infantry including Private Wyatt, and RAF pilot Fergus, series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz must infiltrate Deathshead's fortress and assassinate the general, but falls foul of what will come to be his most insurmountable foe of all, an unavoidable cutscene capture. Forced to chose which of his friends will be vivisected by Strasse, he escapes with the survivor, only to suffer a head wound which leaves him comatose.

Holy fucking shit I'M ON THE MOON!
Blazkowich spend fourteen years immobile in an asylum in Poland, until the Nazis come to close it down and take the inmates for experimentation. Driven by a desire to protect the nurse who has cared for him, Blazkowicz - displaying phenomenal muscle tone after fourteen years of immobility - starts murdering his way through the Nazis to save the girl. She takes him to her grandparents and they set off on a course that will lead them to the resistance, to a secret order of Jewish mystics, and even to the moon, before ultimately returning for a final confrontation with Deathshead.

Along the way, BJ has to fight robot dogs, cyborg dogs, supersoldiers, drones, and a whole lot of Nazis with a combination of light stealth and heavy firepower, including his new signature combination weapon and cutting tool, the LaserKraftwerk. There's a story, a romance, and you get to rock out with Jimi Hendrix in one of the timelines created by your choice at the start of the game. A lot of people get dead in the most horrible and visceral fashion that modern graphics technology can muster, and you spend what seems to be an awful lot of time looking down at a knife sticking out of BJ's chest, waiting for the QTE to strike back.

The Beatles may have gone German, but at least they got in trouble for not
thanking the Fuhrer before their concert.
The New Order is a very grim game, with lots of desperate gambits and bloody violence. At one point you fight your way through the burning Resistance HQ, past the bodies of your dead comrades, including a couple dead on a cot with a pistol by one of their hands. Then J plays the Star-Spangled Banner while he's gunned down by forces under the command of the crazed former head of the League of German Girls, whose face is all messed up from where it was squashed by a robot earlier in the game. Later on, her dodgy-moustached toyboy leers in your face after poisoning you, but you shrug off the drugs and brutally stab him to death. There's a lot of brutal to-death stabbing, with the takedown kills in particular leaving Dishonoured for dust and dual wielding - which you can do with everything from knives to assault shotguns - carrying a high chance of messy dismemberment.

Speaking of Dishonoured, my hours playing that game were a disservice here. Although there are stealth sections and it's always best to take out the commanders who can call in reinforcements before going loud, loud is pretty much where you always end up. This is not a stealth game and it isn't a game with multiple paths. It's a linear shooter, albeit a graphically impressive one. As a character, BJ Blazkowicz isn't actually that much more interesting for having a face, a voice and a love interest, and this does create a slight problem when he is surrounded by more interesting characters who keep getting killed.

Both of these two have more layers in their backstory than Blazkowicz, but by
the end of the game you will have shot one of them in the zombie face. I feel
it incumbent on me to save Annette because I don't want to let the only gay in
the franchise get eaten.
This goes double for the games stand-alone companion, The Old Blood, which is essentially the New Orderverse reboot of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, complete with the death of cool Brit Agent 1 (aka Wesley,) and a slight branching path where you can save either your resistance contact Kessler or his assistant Annette (because nuWolfenstein loves to make you choose who lives and who dies.) The one you don't get to in time becomes a zombie, as does Agent 2 (aka Pippa), another cool British character whose tragedy is all the greater, since it's her role to demand that you leave all your guns behind before going on a doomed undercover run, just to make sure that you have to watch her get clobbered by zombies because you can't shoot through a blocked gap to save her.

Don't get attached, folks.
So, yeah. It's more than thirty years since the first Castle Wolfenstein, and twenty since an identified BJ Blazkowicz first shot a Nazi in the face, and while The New Order and The Old Blood are decent fun and technically impressive, in terms of substance they aren't much beyond what Return was doing in 1992. The levels are open, but the plot still runs pretty much on rails. Also, you have to recollect your guns pretty much every level, even your spare knives and basic handgun don't seem to be basic mission equipment (although the laser cannon is thankfully essential,) which gets very, very old. As a die hard stealther, I also miss the Snooper rifle of Return, which leads to every level eventually becoming an arena.

On the upside, dieselpunk Nazi-punching, so it's swings and roundabouts.

X-COM 2 - Thoughts on completion

This is the Avatar, the pinnacle of the Alien masterplan. It has silly hair.
So, I have now finished my first play-through of X-COM 2.

The pacing of the game is interesting. Unlike its predecessor, nothing comes for nothing. whereas in the glory days of X-COM there were new scientists and engineers shipping in every month, here they have to be hired. Individually. And they cost, so there's a trade off between investing for the future and buying in enhancements for the field troops. This means that in the early part of the game, your progress is slow. Your engineers are individually assigned to clear rooms and create or - once you have enough of them to spare one or two from clearance and construction duty - enhance the rooms in your ant farm. Scientists are less exciting, and although individually named they basically just reduce your research times.

In addition, your monthly income is in the form of a supply drop, which has to be collected by the Avenger, and while you're doing that, you can't do anything else. The singularity of the Avenger quickly becomes a source of tension, if not frustration, as scan events crop up and you have to choose between resource seeking, expanding your network of resistance contacts and just staying at home to lick your wounds (until you get the Advanced Warfare Centre, which accelerates healing, built, expect to spend a fair amount of time at Resistance HQ with the 'quicker healing times' bonus activated.)

As you go through the game, Advent works on a series of black projects designed to make your life more difficult. Some of these just advance the Avatar project which serves as the endgame clock, but others give the enemy bonuses for a month, or send a flying saucer to come and shoot you down. In the latter case, this can result in the game's version of Enemy Within's base defence map, in which you have to defend the Avenger from an infinite supply of bads while also making an end run to take out an EMP spike. You can - indeed, you must - return the favour by attacking Avatar blacksites to reduce the Avatar counter, usually by planting a bomb, although a few special mission have you retrieving information.

The Psi-Operative wields the power of purple.
One of my favourite things about the game's build system is Squad Upgrades. Once you finish researching a new class of weapons, you only need to build the squad upgrade and everyone gets the new hardware, which means no more juggling your one plasma sniper back and forth between injured snipers and accidentally sending your top soldier onto the deck of an alien battleship with a flak jacket and a 30.06 bolt-action. Basic weapons and standard armour is upgraded this way, although you can also build individual suits of heavy armour - the EXO and WAR suits - in the Proving Grounds. You can also make armour out of the three alien rulers, which is... a little bit serial killer, if I'm honest.

Once you've done the appropriate research and construction, you can start training an additional class of soldier, the Psi-Operative. Unlike in X-COM these are not regular soldiers with extra abilities. They train from Rookie in the psi lab and gain no XP or promotions in the field, and their suite of abilities can be customised as they train. Of course, you're going to want to get Mind Control, because it's awesome, not least because in this game it lasts all level.

The Andromedon; hard as nails and twice as useful.
There's a new alien called the Andromedon, which is basically a toxic beastie in an armoured battle suit. If one gets killed the shell cracks and it staggers about leaking toxic atmosphere for a bit. Mind Control one of those bad boys and you've got a friend of life, or at least for the level. Sadly you can't bring it home with you, however much I wanted to love him and hug him and call him George. In my head canon I was whammying the same Andromedon every mission; I called him Drommie and he was my bud. You know, in a creepy, mind controlling, Purple Man kind of way.

Eventually I got to the final mission and took my best dudes into the Advent core while whipping up worldwide rebellion by exposing Advent's programme of genetic harvesting and alteration. Tragically I lost two of my oldest and dearest shitkickers during the attack - and I think we must have left the damn Hunter's Axe behind as well, which is a bit of a wrench - but the Avatars were slain and thus the forces of goodness and niceness - or at least the closest approximation you can get while literally wearing the skull of the fallen as a hat - prevailed, after many hours of satisfying game play.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

First Thoughts on X-COM 2

In the intervening twenty years, the Sectoids got ripped.
Somewhat behind the rest of the world, I'f started playing X-COM 2. Here are my early thoughts. As a note, I picked up a copy with plenty of DLC, including 'Shen's Final Gift', in which you discover a robot soldier left for you by Dr Shen, and 'Alien Hunters', in which you find some Van Helsing type weapons in a downed Skyranger and a major headache left for you by Dr Vahlen.

You open in a world governed by ADVENT, an alien backed government that decries X-COM as terrorists. Taking initial control of the traditional tutorial sacrifices, you bring your team along with Central Officer Bradford, to extract the Commander - who, in a metafictional headfuck, is of course you - from an ADVENT facility where - to continue the headfuckery - you have spent decades unwittingly aiding the aliens by playing through endless variations of the invasion in a simulation in your mind, which is implied to have been the original X-COM reboot.

Make no mistake; officer pullover will fuck you up.
This game is based around the Avenger, a captured alien transport fixed up by the now-vanished Dr Shen and his badass daughter Lily. It has its own engineering section and labs - run by former ADVENT collaborator Dr Tygan - a geoscape, and an 'ant farm' where you can build your facilities after clearing out the junk.

Much of the game is the same as it ever was, but with the addition of an overworld map which you need to navigate by contacting resistance cells, scanning locations and slowly expanding your influence. Some of your missions come from the resistance, others from scanning intel points, and some are linked to the central goal of preventing a project called Avatar reaching fruition by attacking alien facilities. The main things to get to grips with in the overworld are that funding is hella slow, scientists and engineers are rarer than hen's teeth, and you will miss out on things because there simply isn't time to do everything. Every time you set down to scan for supplies, there's a good chance one of your resistance bases will get raided, requiring you to mount a rescue mission (the game's equivalent of the old terror missions,) in which you have to tag out as many civilians as possible, at least one of whom is a shapeshifting ooze-ogre called a Faceless.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The mission control system is reassuringly familiar, as you order your troops across an isometric landscape, juggling unit cohesion with sightlines, cover and the need to shoot as many things as much as possible, because the aliens are much, much tougher this time out. Basic Sectoids are nails hard and chuck around mind control from mission 1. The Thin Men are replaced by the Viper, a vaguely feminine snake with arms, guns and an attitude problem. Even the grunts - adapted human troopers - have wicked pulse rifles and are led by tough officers with a fierce scarf game.  Later on you start running into armoured opponents and shit gets real.

The other big difference is that you start most missions Concealed, until you get spotted or take a shot, which means that you can sneak up and ambush the first set of aliens by setting up lots of Overwatch before you spook them, and there is little in gaming more satisfying than pulling off a perfect opening ambush. There are also plenty of minor changes to the system: In particular, reloading no longer ends your turn, so if you run dry in a protracted fight you can spend your next turn by reloading and then firing. You can also call in an evac if the mission goes south, and carry your fallen comrades home for life-saving treatment or to nick their stuff. Weapons are upgraded at a squad level (unlock the shard gun and all your shotguns become shard guns) but can individually be fitted with modular upgrades like stocks, sights and hair-triggers captured from dead enemies to give a nice, piecemeal feeling to the loadout.

"We'll include all the old alien types, but unrecognisable and really nasty."
There is a slight change to the class system: Rangers replace the old Assault class, largely by bringing a knife to the gunfight, although when I say knife I mean machete and when I say gunfight I mean it would have been a gunfight if the other guy had a face left. Heavies are now Grenadiers, swapping their rockets for a grenade launcher. Snipers are Sharpshooters, and Supports are replaced by the Specialist, who has a hovering drone.  Progression follows the same two-stream system, with mixing and matching perfectly possible, but the themes are much stronger. Grenadiers essentially get machine gun or grenade upgrades, Sharpshooters rifle or pistol, Rangers stealth or stabbing, and Specialists medical or 'combat hacker', which provides a suite of offensive and technical abilities. All troops are also super-customisable, although I'm not even touching that yet.

"You're very tall."
More variety is provided by the DLC. 'Shen's Final Gift' is a marathon slog through a robot factory filled with killer robots, controlled by an AI named Julian. Survive the bots and the turrets and the poison gas and you get to fight Julian on the roof, in control of a particularly vicious Sectopod, for control of Spark-001, a robot battle chassis. I called him 'Reus' for reasons which will likely elude those not au fait with the requirements of criminal culpability and/or Latin, and also HALO. It's a slog, and Sectopod Julian is a bugger, especially if you go at it in the early game (which I did.) On the plus side, your Specialist for the mission is Lily Shen, who is a tricked out Combat Hacker (and instant fail condition if she gets killed.) She is also, it turns out, Dr Shen's Final Gift, but in gameplay terms we get to keep the Spark.

And at least Shen left us something useful (as well as a crazy AI.) 'Alien Hunters' give you a set of special weapons - the Bolt Caster, a powerful but single shot rifle; the Shadowkeeper, a kick ass pistol which can drop you back into Concealment once per mission; and the Hunter's Axe, an awesome melee weapon with a second axe for throwing - and another new mission, this time to track down traces of Dr Vahlen, who turns out to have left you... a trio of giant 'ruler' monsters with dozens of hitpoints each, and armour, and they not only get a move during the alien turn, but after every one of your actions. And then if you ding them up a bit they run away, and randomly appear in another mission. If you're really lucky, you'll meet the Berserker Queen in a time-critical mission which then becomes impossible because you spent four turns trying not to get stepped on. On the plus side, in the initial mission you get to take Bradford along, although that does have the downside that, as a max-level Ranger with a custome assault rifle, he tends to hog between most of and all of the kills.

The Codex is basically Norton Antivirus with an actual gun.
X-COM 2  takes the excellence of X-COM: Enemy Unknown and runs with it, providing tougher challenges and an entirely new level of conflict to consider in the form of the overworld map, as well as sexier graphics and an almost entirely absent tendency for troops to appear to be shooting in entirely the wrong direction in the cut scenes. The limited resources enhance the resistance feel of the game, and it is very possible for an otherwise perfect mission - of which I have so far had one - to go aggressively south with the addition of a roving ruler or unexpected Codex (a flickering extra-dimensional projection of the ADVENT internet.) You are likely to spend a lot of time shuffling between troops with 60% of your force in the infirmary at any one time, especially while you're still using kevlar armour. Moreover, wounded soldiers can become Shaken, rendering them prone to panic and mind-control until they come through a mission effective and unscathed. Thus you have equal and opposite incentives to bench shaken troops or to bring them with.

There's only one real problem with the game, and that is that it kind of spoils its predecessor. I've played a lot of X-COM over the last couple of years, but I'm not sure I'll go back to it now that it's just a simulation I played in my head while I was in a tank, so that the aliens could learn to beat my peeps in battle. It's like being... the anti-Ender, which is depressing, if probably free of ultra-right bias at least.