Wolfenstein: The New Order - How To Turn a Cliché Into A Masterpiece

“You put a Nazi on the moon. Fuck you moon.”

History is a fickle thing. Looking back at the colossal events that have shaped the modern world, it is interesting to hypothesize about what could have been. How would the world look today if England had won America’s war for independence? What if the dissolution of the Soviet Union had never happened? These what-if scenarios have been a favourite playground for fiction in the last century and none have been as popular a setting as the Second World War. What if Germany developed the atom bomb first? What if they won? What would that world look like? Wolfenstein: The New Order is the answer to those questions.

Wolfenstein is a name many game enthusiasts my age will recognize. It, along with Doom were the beginning of a genre that would become synonymous with the way we play games in the 21st century. They were the first truly successful shooters to allow the player to explore a three dimensional environment from the first person perspective and also gave us the opportunity to blast monsters and Nazis with outrageous weapons while doing so. At the time they seemed graphic, over the top, and delightfully silly. Looking back, we see them as the immature childish toys they were; groundbreaking and important but childish toys nonetheless. Over the last two decades these franchises have had sequels and reboots that have experienced moderate success and mixed reception. They are a product of a different time and trying to make them relevant today is a daunting task, a task developer MachineGames has somehow been able to accomplish despite the odds.

In Wolfenstein: The New Order, BJ Blazkowicz is a member of the US Special Forces at the end of the Second World War. Through superior technological advances the Nazi war machine has been able to beat back the Allied forces and the conflict has lasted well into 1946. In a last ditch assault on General Wilhem Strasse’s secret weapons laboratory, the allied special forces hope to put a stop to the terrible weapons that have been giving the Nazis the upper hand. BJ and his team come closer than they ever have to capturing Strasse, also known as “Deathshead”, before they are ambushed and taken prisoner. Barely escaping with his life, BJ is left with a severe head injury that puts him in a coma for fourteen years. After BJ wakes up in a mental hospital Wolfenstein: The New Order truly finds its footing and starts to unveil a world both terrifying and captivating.

The war is over and the Nazis have won. After dropping the atom bomb on Manhattan, the United States surrendered to the Third Reich and, one by one, the Allied forces were defeated. In the ensuing years there were resistance groups and insurgencies but eventually the Nazi victory was absolute. One of the more poignant points a resistance fighter makes in a journal entry stuck with me well after finishing the game, “How do you go on fighting when everyone is a Nazi?” It’s an incredibly unnerving idea that an ideology so horrible and so hated could become the status quo. Historically, this is exactly what happened within Germany leading up to and during the war. It is frightening to imagine that ideology on a global scale.

Mechanically, the game is a throwback to those early days of first person shooters. As opposed to the more modern approach of regenerative health and limiting the number of weapons BJ can carry at any given time, the game relies on health packs and armour pickups and gives you access to the breadth of his arsenal. It tries to blend these older mechanics with a newer presentation, but I found it rather distracting. These older ideas, like having to press a button to pick up every item in the game, can be quite annoying. Eventually I found I was used to it, but combing every room for ammunition and health seemed to kill the flow of the game. Yes, it encouraged exploration, but I would have rather been learning more about this world while doing so, instead of fretting about how many shotgun shells I have.

With that being said, the world of Wolfenstein: The New Order is incredibly fleshed out. The alternate history it presents is interesting, in a morbid sort of way. Throughout the game you’ll encounter pieces of architecture, art, and multiple media sources that add to the sense of scale and how vastly different this alternate reality is. News clippings document the fall of the allied powers and the stomping out of insurgencies - the majority of which are through the lens of the victors propaganda. Finding Die Kafer (The Beatles) famous album “Mond, Mond, Ja, Ja” and the announcement of their latest tour, “Das blaue U-boot”, are small quirky details that make this feel like a living and breathing world.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is very difficult, even on the normal setting. For shooter fans, I think they will see this as a challenge to tackle and something they could find very enjoyable. Personally, I felt it distracted from the story and the deeply realized world I was manoeuvering through. There were a number of encounters I stumbled into completely unprepared. Sometimes I would be low on health or ammunition or both and then be faced with a challenging boss fight or a staggering number of enemies to overcome. The issue is that after reaching certain checkpoints, I wasn’t able to backtrack and restock on supplies to be better prepared. This left me to choose between restarting the level entirely or dying repeatedly until I somehow squeaked through the encounter. Even with these knocks against the gameplay, I really admired the stealth mechanics implemented throughout. Having the option to either sneak past enemies, or perform gruesome takedowns to silently progress through a level was immensely gratifying, and far more rewarding than the “guns blazing” approach. As good as some of these mechanics are, the actual “game” is the weakest part of Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s the quiet moments in between all of the shooting that pull you into this world and make you care.

The game struggles with balancing the story it wants to tell and the core mechanics of the game. Blowing limbs off of enemies in blood soaked corridors one moment and then discovering a letter written by a dead comrade highlighting the loss and trauma of war is such a jarring change of gears. The story it tells and the characters it presents are downright incredible. These individuals and their interactions are tremendously well written. There are little character ticks, flaws, and dialogue which make each encounter memorable and evoke a sense of empathy from me without it feeling forced. The story Wolfenstein: The New Order tells is dark, mature, twisted, campy, disturbing, grotesque, and over the top. It brilliantly weaves through the insanity of the world it takes place in to tell a human story of how people survive amongst the madness and chaos of the world. At first glance, BJ is a macho action hero who comes across as a stale cliché, but this installment in the Wolfenstein franchise gives him a depth of character he sorely lacked. Being able to not only relate to him but to identify with his humanity and trauma, he becomes the vessel you experience this insane world through.

There is an interesting subtlety to the silliness behind Wolfenstein: The New Order. Yes, there are robot dogs, genetically modified super soldiers, and giant mechanical war machines, but how do we know what this alternate reality would look like? It is well documented that the Nazis conducted horrific experiments and research throughout their regime to advance their goals, with no qualms about how this research was conducted or the gruesome cost to human life it required. Who is to say if they hadn’t been given more time and resources that they wouldn’t shape the world in this way? The Third Reich had downright crazy aspirations and goals, creating super soldiers and having a base on the moon are some of the less insane ones.

Wolfenstein: The New Order also doesn’t shirk away from showing the absolute horrors the Nazis were (and could be) capable of. There were instances of torture and executions that were uncomfortable and unsettling but didn’t come across as something that was included for its shock value. There is a fine line the game walks in building this world, and even if at times it feels like it might be teetering over the edge into exploitation or torture porn, it quickly rights itself, and as a result has an impact most other games lack. What I found more disturbing than the overt displays of atrocity were the subtle details that could speak volumes. The ash hanging in the air near giant incinerators left me more unnerved and uncomfortable than anything else in my time with the game.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is an absurd game. At its core, it is a game about shooting Nazis in the face with large guns - a hyper violent romp through a world in which they won the Second World War. It sounds dumb. It is dumb. What shocked me was that underneath the cheesy one liners and robotic attack dogs there is an incredibly well built and fully realized world with some of the most fleshed out characters I’ve seen in a video game this year.

Wolfenstein: The New Order was recently released, so if you love action games and character driven stories, don’t even put this game on the shelf. Just play it.

 

Author’s Note:

(Wolfenstein: The New Order can be quite challenging and even frustrating at times. Unless you’re an old school shooter enthusiast, and as I feel the “game” is the weakest part of the overall package, my recommendation is to set the game to the easiest difficulty. That will make experiencing the story and the world much more enjoyable.)

 
Time on the Shelf - 3 Months.
Played on PC for approximately 14 hours.
Screenshots

Costume Quest - Dressed Up For Adventure

A psychopath tried to murder my sister and I when we were children.  We pressed the bell and the grotesque figure flung open the door, letting loose a scream that stopped my heart.  The thing above us brandished a meat cleaver.  I’d never seen a knife so large.  If this sicko wasn’t trying to kill us, it would have almost been comically large, glinting in the light of the street lamps.  My sister and I both spun and ran, our short legs pumping faster than they’d ever moved before.  Our capes billowed behind us as we ran.  She made it to the sidewalk and I was just steps behind her when we heard the sound.  It was a voice, both sweet and comforting, calling after us.  We turned to see our would be killer replaced by a woman, crouched down, apologetic eyes, and sympathetic smile turned our way.  A mother.  The rubber mask was in her one hand and the cleaver in the other.  My sister was four years old and I was six.  It was Halloween Night.

Playing through Costume Quest, from developer Double Fine, brought up this memory from my childhood, and many others:  The excitement of dressing up, the promise of epic hauls of candy, the anxiety of going out on the one night of the year when monsters, ghosts, and creatures-most-foul walk the night.  But the payoff was worth it, a pillow case brimming with sugary treats that would keep me awake long into morning.  All of this is perfectly captured by the quirky, self-aware, and downright charming experience that is Costume Quest.

Costume Quest tells the story of Wren and Reynold, fraternal twins, out for a night of trick-or-treating in their new neighbourhood.  All is not well, however, as a group of monsters from another dimension descend on the town to steal every last piece of candy for nefarious purposes.  When one of the siblings is kidnapped, mistaken by the monsters for a giant piece of candy corn, the other must embark on a mission, not only to save their twin, but also to be home for curfew and, of course, save Halloween.  As our hero ventures door to door rooting out monsters and collecting candy, neighbourhood kids eventually join in the adventure.  Luckily, the kids can transform into giant living avatars of their makeshift costumes to battle these monsters.  Equipping one of the kids in a cardboard robot costume has them transform into a giant mech, or, if they are brandishing a garbage can shield and cardboard sword, they appear as a towering and gallant knight.  The game never explains how this happens, but it doesn’t need to.  The cartoonish art style and smart, tongue-in-cheek story allow for the suspension of disbelief.  I was able to sit back and enjoy one more night of trick-or-treating, with the occasional fight with giant monsters thrown in for good measure.

Costume Quest is a very simple game that revolves around exploration and turn based combat.  It keeps its systems and mechanics straightforward and relies on the world it has created to keep the player engaged.  The text based dialog is delightful and oftentimes quite funny, showcasing the endearing humour Double Fine has come to be known for.  (Think Psychonauts or Brütal Legend.)  Whether it’s the victory dance the giant robot performs after battle or using a toilet paper attack to stun enemies, the game world is littered with little details that exemplify Double Fine’s unique approach.  The most gratifying game element was finding makeshift materials on the journey to unlock more costumes with new abilities.  Finding the right combination of costumes to fit my style of play was a lot of fun, even if the combat loop itself became a little stale as the game wore on.  Costume Quest could have benefited from a little more depth in its mechanics, to keep things fresh throughout, but the charm of the game was enough to make me want to see it through to the end.

What Costume Quest nails perfectly is the buildup of anticipation when you knock on a stranger’s door.  Will I get the treat and be rewarded with heaps of candy?  Or will I be tricked and set upon by a psycho with a knife?  The music swells at the perfect moment and I found myself clutching my controller with anticipation.  These feelings the game is able to evoke are what made the experience so enjoyable.  Even though the actual gameplay is simple, and it’s easy to progress, Costume Quest’s quaint art style and plucky attitude make it something special and memorable.

At the end of those Halloween nights of my youth, there was always a moment of catharsis, a realization that I had faced my fears.  The psychos, the goblins, the teenagers.  I had made it through the gauntlet and come out the other end with my prize.  I think most of us can relate to what it is like to sit on the living room floor, dividing up the night’s spoils, and concocting a new battle plan to acquire even more candy the next year.  This is why Costume Quest succeeds.  It plays to the childlike fun that is Halloween.  Dressing up as pirates, ninjas, and robots and using the power of imagination allows us to spend one night every year in a fantastical world.  I’m eagerly anticipating Halloween this year and, thankfully, Costume Quest 2 should be out just in time.

If you miss the fun of trick-or-treating, or if you just really love candy, you should take this game down off the shelf.

 
Time on the Shelf - 3 Years and 8 Months.
Played on PC for approximately 8 hours.
Screenshots

Darksiders II - The Horseman of Mediocrity

In my time playing Darksiders II, I had this nagging sense that I was stuck in a comic book. The art style and aesthetic borrow heavily from artists that defined the 90’s comic scene, such as Joe Madureira and Todd McFarlane. The protagonist, Death, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, felt ripped right from the pages of Spawn, both scythes and muscles appropriately and absurdly oversized. The action and sense of scale are over the top, like a hyper violent Saturday morning cartoon, and the story tries to spin a tale that is grandiose but often stumbles and comes across as disorganized. Humanity has been destroyed and Death’s brother, War, stands accused of the crime. Taking on the quest to prove his brother’s innocence, Death no longer serves “The Balance”, and thus cannot access the full extent of his powers, but must still discover a way to restore humanity. Or something.  It was all a little muddled, much like a soap opera walked-in on six seasons too late.

Darksiders II is a very typical action role-playing game, almost paint-by-numbers in its construction, which is only saved from complete mediocrity by aesthetics and setting. The art and character design is simultaneously cool, but forgettable, so it was a shame that the entire experience is tainted by frustrating gameplay. For instance, the combat system is easy to learn, but difficult to master, partly because it is bloated. There were just too many moves and combos to remember and only a choice few are really needed. As for the game’s progression, there’s equipment to find and upgrade, a skill tree to unlock, and gold and treasure to be had. But these systems and mechanics remain bland and uninteresting, adding to the pervasive sense that the game’s developer - the now defunct Vigil Games - was simply checking off boxes.

Additionally, Darksiders II borrows heavily from Nintendo classics The Legend of Zelda and Super Metroid. Imitation is not always the best form of flattery. To progress through the story, Death must make his way through a series of dungeons: Solve puzzle, find key, open door, kill boss. Repeat … Except, a lot of the puzzles aren’t fully realized. On more than one occasion I would think back and realize, “I don’t think that’s how you were supposed to solve that.” The game simply lacks the polish to clearly define to the player what can and cannot be done in each environment.

It feels as though Darksiders II tries to cram in as much as possible without anyone noticing. Multiple types of collectibles? Sure. A combat arena? Why not! A late game section that’s just a bad third-person shooter? Throw it in there! By the end, there’s just far too much excess game that weighs down the player’s experience in Darksiders II.

There are also a plethora of technical issues that a larger budget and longer development time could have cured. The biggest culprit is sloppy camera controls, which made combat a chore. It was easy to lose focus on Death and even the enemies he confronts, and I constantly felt lost amidst the action. And then there were the bugs: Often I would become hung up on geometry or stuck in between two objects, or I would encounter an enemy that could mysteriously walk on an invisible floor or get stuck in a wall. I even came across a bug that prevented me from completing a boss fight and was forced to reload to a previous save.

And, speaking of boss fights, there are plenty of them. My playthrough notes, multiple times, contains the phrase, “Fuck these boss fights,” because each fight comes with a massive difficulty spike that rudely interrupts the overall experience. This was particularly unfortunate as the bosses are the most memorable enemies in the game. Additionally, Death gratifyingly executes each boss in the most violent and diabolical way possible; again, harkening back to the exaggerated comic book influences.

As stale as Darksiders II can be at times, it is at least partially redeemed by the utterly fantastic characterization of Death. Voiced by actor Michael Wincott (The Crow, Alien: Resurrection), Death has an arrogance and a gravitas that is befitting a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Even though he has been weakened, he is still the penultimate destructive force throughout creation. Struck low, he reminds those he encounters that he will always be above them. His fate just lies entwined with their own until his quest is complete. Wincott’s gravelly portrayal of Death made me believe that this being could confront the very forces of Heaven and Hell, carve a bloody path through them, and emerge victorious on the other side.

Darksiders II is... fine. That was the thought that kept cycling through my mind every time I would sit down to play it. The gameplay is good, but not great. The story is interesting, but not enthralling. The art style is unique, but forgettable. It is the type of game that would never see the light of day in 2014. As with the film industry, middle tier developers have been squeezed out of existence as blockbuster productions have leapt forward in cost and revenue. It is no longer wise to invest in a project that won’t be bigger and better than the last one. If you’re not going to do Avengers or Call of Duty numbers, then don’t even bother. The middle may have fallen by the wayside, but this has allowed a surge of independent content - mostly quirky and packed full of creativity - to replace it. Our ability to access and consume content has changed drastically in the last decade and it seems the middle ground is less and less likely to appear again. Darksiders II is the last glimmer of an industry that will never return to its former self.  

Not great. Not terrible. Just... fine. The game doesn’t try to be a flashy big budget blockbuster, nor does it feel like an independent niche title. It just sits somewhere in the middle, with a big dumb grin on its face, content to have some fun, share its story, and ride off into the sunset. Darksiders II might not be the most memorable game, or even the most proficient in what it sets out to accomplish, it is just a product of a different time, one that I’m quite content is now behind us.

My time with Death was memorable, and somewhat fun, but Darksiders II tries to do too much; and suffers for it in the end.  I recommend leaving this game on the shelf.

 
Time on the Shelf - 1 Year and 10 Months.
Played on PC for approximately 23 hours.
Screenshots

To The Moon - A Fleeting Memory

To The Moon is an ambitious game trying to deliver a poignant tale of regret, love, and the decisions that shape our lives.  The story is endearing and at times powerful, unafraid to tackle subjects rarely covered in video games.  Its execution, however, is bogged down, hamstrung by poor mechanics, systems, and controls.  As a result, the affecting narrative never finds traction, and ultimately falls flat.

Harkening back to the days of the Super Nintendo and Playstation, To The Moon has a simple aesthetic and art style.  It shares not only its looks, but also its play style and control with Japanese role playing games (JRPGs) of the late 80s and early 90s.  Developed by Freebird Games and released in 2011, To The Moon tells the story of Johnny Wyles who enlists the Sigmund Corporation to fulfill his dying wish.  Doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts are tasked to enter the memories of the dying man and implant a false memory that would have him live out his life without regret before his death.  To The Moon is like a less action-packed Inception, but told in reverse, as in the movie Memento.  The game explores Johnny’s most recent memories first, unravelling necessary exposition and narrative before thrusting further back in time.

To The Moon operates like a traditional JRPG, but without combat.  Exploration is the driving force that resolves the plot a piece at a time.  The doctors must find keepsakes in these memories to create connections to past experiences.  It’s a fun idea that flounders amidst poor execution.  Mementos and keepsakes are never clearly marked, forcing directionless exploration.  Controlling the characters in their aimless wandering rapidly becomes a chore, because which paths characters can, and cannot, move through isn’t always clear.  I found myself growing more and more furious with every futile mouse click.  There was even a section near the end of the game that completely switches HOW the game is played, going from meticulous point and click, to frustrating twitch based keyboard controls.

Traversing the environment was downright exasperating and felt like it was there to pad out the game and not advance the story.  Not having a clear objective of where to go or whom to talk to just felt … old, like something games have overcome in the last two decades.  If To The Moon were more about the moment to moment experience of playing, and less about the story it was telling, then this wouldn’t have been such a sore spot for me.  Unfortunately, however, the game tries to find a balance between gameplay and story, and the overall experience is hurt as a result.

To The Moon contains a beautiful love story full of genuine emotion.  This is made all the more heart-rending because, as the game constantly reminds the player, regardless of the failure or success of the protagonists the “real world” outcomes for Johnny Wyles remain the same.  Johnny Wyles is destined to die, and changing his memories will only allow him to die happy.  Such a proposition speaks to the choices we make and the people we become as a result, and also the regrets that we carry in our lives.  Will changing what we remember change who we are, and therefore what is real?  Living a life without regret is an enticing idea, and creating an artificial life full of “corrected” memories a fascinating concept.

I must also applaud the game for tackling such complicated subjects as mental illness and the repression of trauma.  Video games often relegate such themes to explaining the actions of the villain.  (See how evil he is?  He’s mentally ill!)  It’s refreshing to see characters having to deal with these problems in their daily lives, and seeing their portrayals be realistic, rather than caricatured.  That being said, I still felt these avenues were not explored enough.  The issues involved were too much of a footnote, and could have benefited from further examination.

Gathering my thoughts about To The Moon is quite difficult.  I want to praise it for the story it tells and the risks it takes in doing so, but I did not experience this game in a vacuum.  To The Moon tries to pull an emotional response from the player but feels forced.  Other projects such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or Gone Home accomplish the same intention by solely concentrating on either gameplay or story telling.  As a result, the emotional gravitas isn’t watered down.  To The Moon, on the other hand, lacks focus and pulled me out of the narrative every time I encountered its atrocious game mechanics.  The developers should have gone a step further and abandoned the more ‘gamey’ parts of traditional JRPGs.  If they had trimmed the fat, they would have allowed the game to zero in on the story it wants to tell.  Instead, it all comes across as a missed opportunity.

After my playthrough, I spent a lot of time asking myself whether the revelations at the end of To The Moon were worth the time I invested playing the game.  Was the story impactful, and did it help me question my own regrets and decisions in my life?  The answer is “no”.  If Freebird Games had cut the extraneous gameplay elements and focused on a tighter narrative, this game could have been something special.  Now, it’s just another one of my memories, one I’m hoping to have the Sigmund Corporation erase when my own time comes.

Unless you’re a diehard JRPG fan or have loved Freebird Games’ previous work, I’d recommend leaving this game on the shelf.

 
Time on the Shelf - 2 Years and 6 Months.
Played on PC for approximately 5 hours.
Screenshots

Thomas Was Alone - Moving Up And To The Right

My grandfather was a gentleman of the Old World.  In a modern era that had moved on, he never let go of his chivalry or his sense of fashion and style.  Any time he wore a suit, it would have a flower in the breast pocket.  If you came to his home, you couldn't leave until you'd had a meal and a drink.  He had a firm handshake for every man he met, and kissed the hand of every lady.  For as long as I could remember his hair was white.   He was a serious man, a hard worker, and he had lived through horrid conditions in Soviet prison camps during the war.  But when he made a joke that my grandmother wouldn't like, he would get a devilish smile and clandestinely share a wink with me.

In his early 90's, before his health started to fade, he would still flirt with the women he'd meet.  But not how we think of men making a pass at a woman these days.  He favoured subtle, gracious compliments that would make a woman smile and blush.  It was the kiss on the hand that did it.  You never see that any more, or if you do it's disingenuous and sleazy.  With him it was always earnest and that came across quite clearly.  I think that's why after playing through Thomas Was Alone, I thought so much about my grandfather.

This game shared that earnestness and magnetism.  There was no hidden agenda in what it set out to accomplish.  It was always its true self and exuded charm on every level, and just like when my grandfather would share a secret wink with me, it was hard not to smile back.

Thomas Was Alone, developed by Mike Bithell, is the tale of anthropomorphic blocks, individual artificial intelligences, which slowly become aware of their surroundings.  They must work together to explore their world and discover a sense of purpose.  They exist in two dimensional space, have the ability to jump, and are, more often than not, ‘moving up and to the right’.  This recurring theme, touched on throughout the story, seems to ask us whether fate is an actuality, or if we can wrest control of our actions from the unseen Architect of our lives.

All of the blocks have their own properties: some jump higher than others, some can float in water, and they come in a variety of sizes, but they are all imbued with personality through the expert narration of humourist Danny Wallace.  The core mechanics of Thomas Was Alone are incredibly simple, but it shows how powerful story and narration can be as a tool.  I eventually found myself not referring to the blocks by their colours or properties, but by their names.  Personifying the blocks with their own temperaments and emotions, I almost felt a sense of cooperation, as if playing as part of a team, when solving puzzles.

Amazingly, narrative alone achieved this, cleverly teaching the rules of the world while introducing new characters, each with a different personality and new mechanics to progress the story.  The voicework is consistently witty, funny, and heartfelt, and is a testament to the phenomenal writing and performances which are at the heart of this game.

The puzzles in Thomas Was Alone are intelligent in their progression and build on what is previously learned.  And then, just when I thought I had everything figured out, the game turned around and played upon my own preconceptions.  These later sections challenge what is expected of a platforming game.  That, and the recurring theme of fate, sets this game apart from similar titles.

Thomas Was Alone has a simple art style, smartly blended with the powerfully moving soundtrack composed by David Housden.  At every point, the score perfectly matched the tone of the story.  When the mood needed to be somber, the music conveyed it, but it could also be playful, or powerful.  Near the conclusion, it was the music which most contributed to my sense of adventure as I banded my team of anthropomorphic blocks together, like the heroes at the climax of a movie who unite to overcome all.

In Thomas Was Alone, story and narration are everything, which shows how simple elements can dramatically change our perceptions.  It was so powerful I empathized with inanimate objects.  The moment I caught myself referring to these blocks by name, I laughed out loud and realized they were no longer blocks, but characters, and I became invested in their journey of self discovery.  What was really happening though, was that I was becoming more aware of my own journey.

Mike Bithell described Thomas Was Alone as “....a game about jumping and friendship.”  For myself, it was so much more.  It was a story about what it means to be human and the journey through life that we all navigate.  There is no unseen force moving us “up and to the right”.  How we live our lives moment to moment dictates our eventual outcome.  That was something my grandfather never forgot, and his sincerity and passion for life are something I aspire to.  It was hard for him to convey these lessons to me with words.  It was his actions that would resonate with me as I’ve grown into the person I’ve become.  Surprisingly, it was these lessons of sincerity and living moment to moment that I found encapsulated in this game, and for that, I’ll forever cherish my time with it.

So, if you’re a fan of puzzles, humourous storytelling, and, yes, jumping, you should definitely take this game off the shelf.

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Time on the Shelf - 1 Year and 10 Months.
Played on PC for approximately 5 hours. 
Screenshots

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - A Trip Down Memory Lane (With a Fully Auto Laser Hand Gun)

“The year is 2007.  It is the future.”

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is the manifestation of every fantasy and wet dream I had in 1992.  I was seven years old and up to that point, my consciousness had been filled with nothing but the throbbing synth and pulsating action of 80’s movies and cartoons.  Cyborg was the buzzword du jour, dinosaurs were of the man eating variety, villains only knew how to steal nukes, and lasers were everywhere.  So many lasers.  Blood Dragon nails exactly what it sets out to accomplish.  It is the realization of my wildest fantasies from childhood and for the brief time that I spent playing this game, lost in its world, I was seven years old again, and it was perfect.

In Blood Dragon, all out nuclear war between the Soviets and the Americans is a reality and American cyber-commando Rex Power Colt is sent to a mysterious island to investigate the activities of a Colonel who has gone rogue.  None of that is important.  The plot is absurd, hamfisted, and campy and it revels in all of those things.  It is a script out of a bad 80’s movie, complete with the appropriate stereotypes and clichéd story beats.  It’s hard to stress how important these things are to the overall experience.  Blood Dragon, developed by Ubisoft Montreal, balances its ludicrous aesthetic with solid gameplay mechanics borrowed from the more grounded Far Cry 3, while at the same time offering a tongue in cheek commentary on game culture, derivative action movies, and video game conventions.

To describe the world of Blood Dragon without relying on video or pictures is rather challenging.  The best thing to do would be to imagine if we took the designers behind the original Tron movie, Depeche Mode,  and James Cameron and locked them all in a room with arcade cabinet games, keyboards, and tabs of acid.  The result is an island soaked in neon hues with a soundtrack that never fails to amp you up before you take on robot sharks, cyborg villains, and dragons that shoot lasers out of their eyes.

This game never takes itself seriously.  There were moments that were laugh out loud funny and still others that were downright groan inducing.  The great thing though, is that the developers want you to groan at those moments.  By using the formulaic tropes of the 80’s action genre as a weapon against its audience, the writers propelled me along on a rollercoaster of nostalgia that left me with a dumb smirk on my face.  Even the 8-bit cutscenes bring back memories of standing on my toes to read the scrolling text at a gloomy and smoke filled arcade, pumping quarter after precious quarter into those unfeeling machines as they goaded me onward.  “Continue?”

Blood Dragon isn’t without its flaws.  As a standalone download title, it’s somewhat hamstrung as it relies on the systems from the titular Far Cry 3, on who’s skeleton it is built.  At times it can feel like the exact same game and to a point, it is.  You still have enemy outposts to clear, hunting and assassination side missions, collectibles to find, and skills to unlock as you progress.  Yet even with all of these shared traits, the game is unabashedly different.  As a cyborg, you don’t take fall damage, you can breathe underwater indefinitely, sprint faster, and let’s not forget DRAGONS THAT SHOOT LASERS OUT OF THEIR EYES!

The blood dragons add an interesting dynamic to Far Cry’s combat mechanics.  As one of the more powerful enemies, taking them on directly can be a challenge.  The more stealth minded players can lure them into enemy patrols or camps to wreck havoc and take advantage of the ensuing chaos.  In fact, the ability to turn the environment against your opponents is one of Far Cry’s strongest features and I was happy to see it utilized again in Blood Dragon.  Will I shoot open a cage holding a captive cyber-panther?  Or should I start a wildfire and let it drive the enemy out into the open?  It was incredibly satisfying when I’d plan out and stealthily take down an entire outpost with my neon purple bow and arrows.  The varying ways I could tackle any given encounter with the tools at my disposal allowed for flexibility that at times was critical.  Trying to stalk an enemy patrol from the jungle could change to a full on assault with a laser minigun in a heartbeat, but coming out victorious on the other side was always gratifying.

The game’s soundtrack provided by the band Power Glove borrows heavily from 80’s pop and movie soundtracks but somehow they manage to leave everything I hated about those genres behind.  Much like the movie Drive or the indie game Hotline Miami it captures the essence of what made the music of that time resonate in your chest, but at the same time transports it into the present.  Even casting The Terminator’s Michael Biehn as our hero, Rex Colt, transports me back to those years and gives the game a sense of authenticity.  Every line delivered throughout is either a cheesy one liner or an over the top monologue.  

Being seven and inserting a new cartridge into my Nintendo Entertainment System, there was always a rush of adrenaline as I knew I was about to start a new adventure.  My imagination would run rampant as it spun stories just from looking at the box art.  The ultimate power fantasy was always just out of my grasp, hindered by the technology of that time.  The world that Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon inhabits is where I wanted to be transported to, and finally I have.

This game is a friendly reminder of a happier time and place, when I didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments or job interviews, and the most pressing matters were G.I. Joes and Transformers and the hope that the next digital adventure would be as wildly entertaining as my imagination.  As I’ve grown up, not only have my own personal tastes changed, but the way we tell stories in movies, television, and games has also matured.  This game isn’t hurt as a result, but it’s made all the more special.  It’s a trip down memory lane with a fully auto laser handgun.

Blood Dragon is psychotically fun.  It’s insanely over the top and I love it for that.  Seeing a title like this is refreshing and I hope more studios take the risks that Ubisoft Montreal has in experimenting with presentation and reminding us that games don’t have to take themselves seriously.

If you love first person shooters with a unique sense of style and humour or if, like me, you were born before the Berlin Wall came down, you should take this game down off the shelf.

 
Time on the Shelf - 1 Year and 1 Month.
Played on PC for approximately 15 hours.
Screenshots

Arkham Origins - A Flawed Love Letter

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Playing Batman: Arkham Origins felt like meeting up with a friend I haven’t seen in years, someone I had been close with until our lives took different paths.  It was quite jarring at first.

We share an awkward silence and stumble over our words as I rack my brain for the next thing to say.  After that initial uncomfortable moment, though, one of us tells an old joke and it’s like we’ve never been apart.  This sense of something foreign yet ultimately familiar was in the back of my mind through my entire playthrough experience.

Arkham Origins takes us back to when Bruce Wayne was a younger man.  He’s already donning the suit and cowl and has his high-tech toys ready to deploy against the criminals of Gotham, but he’s still just an urban legend.  He and a young Captain Gordon are at odds as they try to bring order to the city: one is outside the law and the other works within a corrupt and rotten police department.  Batman’s origin story has been told countless times in comics, movies, cartoons, and games.  Thankfully, Arkham Origins doesn’t hit the same story beats.  Instead of telling us why Bruce Wayne became the Dark Knight, this game asks, “Should he have?”

Black Mask, one of Gotham’s most notorious crime bosses, has finally had enough of Batman’s interference in his crime syndicate and places a bounty on the Caped Crusader’s head.  Eight potential assassins have one night to kill the Batman and earn themselves the 50 million dollar prize.  This key plot point, which most of Arkham Origins’ marketing revolved around, was one of the weakest aspects of the overarching story.  I’ll come back to that shortly.  The villains they highlight are bland and uninteresting.  Even as a long time Batman fan, I was left scratching my head over who exactly some of these assassins were.  Black Mask, The Riddler, Deathstroke, and The Penguin were the only standout villains.  Whenever another forgettable wrongdoer was stealing screen time, I found myself thinking, “Why do I care about this person?”  I’m looking at you, Electrocutioner.

This third installment of the Arkham series was developer Warner Brothers Games Montreal’s first time at the helm of the franchise and, in some ways, it showed.  This is very much the template that Rocksteady Studios used for the first two Arkham games, down to the same character animations, assets, mission types, and challenge maps.  WB Montreal improves upon the formula in some ways, but falls short in others.  Facial animations and character models look absolutely stunning throughout but the combat wasn’t as tight or as refined as in Arkham City.  The timing of attacks and counters were slightly off and I found Batman became more like a punching bag and less like a crimefighter.

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Traversal around the open world also felt cumbersome and frustrating, and I was left wanting points to grapple to.  More often than not I would find myself losing momentum and falling to the streets, but this was somewhat alleviated by the inclusion of a fast travel system.  When the combination of grapple-glide-grapple-glide and attack-counter-combo actually worked, I felt like a badass, but those moments were few and far between.  My biggest technical complaint involved consistently falling through the geometry at one specific travel point on the map.  No matter how many times I tried to go back to that spot, I would glide, fall, or walk through the world and this prevented me from completing a couple side objectives.  As frustrating as this was, it still didn’t take away from how much I enjoyed this game.  Finding collectibles, chaining attack combos, saving the day, and feeling like a superhero will always keep me coming back to this franchise.  More Batman is always a good thing.

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The Arkham games are empowering.  In an industry that has never been able to nail the superhero genre, this latest installment captures that concept brilliantly.  When I was six years old, I put countless hours into playing Superman: The Man of Steel on the Commodore 64.  Playing is the wrong word.  I consistently failed at any attempt to get beyond the first level.  I kept at it and kept coming back in a vain attempt to step into the Man of Steel’s tights and save the world just one time.  I was never the hero.  It took almost two decades for a video game to get that right.

Arkham Origins is the first time in the series that you are the World’s Greatest Detective.  The same elements of detective vision and setting up crime scenes returns, but for the first time I felt I was solving a case.  The game still holds your hand from point A to point B in finding clues, but the presentation is different enough that these moments were propelled to the forefront of my playthrough and left me wanting more.  Where the game fell short was in its tedious, unclear, and downright frustrating boss fights.  I never want to fight Bane (or a Bane-type hulking monstrosity) in another Batman game again.  Ever.  Seriously.  I get it.  Batman can punch things.  Let’s move on.  Even the fight with Deathstroke, as repetitive and frustrating as it was, felt much more in line with the canon of that character.  It showed that he was a combative equal to Batman and had to be beaten with skill and timing.  Fighting Bane was essentially an exercise in futility.  Every button press gave me the sense that Batman was inept, slow, and useless.  A far cry from the man that can kick the crap out of Superman.  (Go read The Dark Knight Returns!)

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Throughout the game we play as a young and angry Bruce who is determined to wage his lone war on crime, with a relentless fervor that goes beyond obsession.  Right from the start, his motivations and methods are being questioned, even by his closest allies and confidants.  This thread runs throughout the rest of the game and becomes all the more poignant as the story reaches its climax.

Arkham Origins is a very good Batman story.  At first it seems bland and run of the mill, but halfway in there is a dramatic change in the plot.  The story moves from Batman stopping dull, lackluster villains to his first shocking encounter with a psychopath, the likes of which he’s never dealt with before:  The Joker.  We watch their first confrontation as Batman witnesses the Joker’s madness unfold and begins to comprehend the depths of his depravity and his unwillingness to relent.  This is a character examination of these two men and their relationship and, frankly, it’s one of the best I’ve seen since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.  It conjures one of the most important questions fans should be asking themselves:  Why are these two “destined to do this forever”?

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Long time fans of the Arkham games and the Batman animated series will lament the loss of veteran voice actors Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker) and I admit I was one of them.  Again it comes back to that pervasive sense that my old friend was somehow not the same.  I was relieved to find that Roger Craig Smith imbued the Bat with the raw intensity that this younger and less experienced incarnation would have, and Troy Baker’s take on the Joker is downright frightening.  He brings markedly darker undertones to the Clown Prince than I was expecting and I was enthralled with his performance from start to finish.

Arkham Origins is a love letter to Batman fans, but it is not without its flaws.  It is more of the same great action game that I’ve come to love and contains within it a story that surprised me in it’s complexity.  Like that old friend of mine, it might be awkward and strange when we meet up, but its always going to be a fun time.

If you were a fan of the first two Arkham games or are a fan of fun action games with a compelling story, you should take this game down off the shelf.

 
Time on the Shelf - 6 Months
Played on PC for approximately 15 hours.
Screenshots

An Introduction: How To Write About Shelves (Or Why I Don't Play Video Games)

Being an adult is fucking awesome.  Many of us pine for the days when we were children and had fewer responsibilities and all the time in the world to imagine, play, and create.  Not me.  Sure, there are times when I wish I didn’t have to go to work, pay my bills, or make logical decisions, but the pros of being an adult far outweigh the cons.  In this modern sci-fi wonderland, I can order candy on my phone and have it shipped to my house.  That alone would blow the mind of six year old me.  I don’t have to worry about bullies.  Or cliques.  The one great secret that adults keep from children is that nothing in high school is important.  (Aside from education.  That’s kind of important.)  The fads, the gossip, the assholes who locked you in the bathroom.  Once you’ve graduated you realize that there’s this massive other world out there that doesn’t care about your past life.  There’s only one thing that makes me jealous of my younger self.  That kid played an absurd number of video games.

Having a full time job and consistently working overtime dramatically reduces the time I have to game.  I just can’t keep up and I feel like I’m being left behind.  I also don’t write as much as I should.  Smashing those two problems together in the Large Hadron Collider of my mind, I came up with Shelved Games.  This website is a new and exciting endeavour for myself, one that has been gestating at the back of my mind for months.  It is an experiment that will hopefully serve two purposes:  the first, as an outlet to get me writing more and to hopefully develop the skills necessary to make myself a competent writer, and the second, but probably the most important of all, is to get me playing more terrific games that I’ve missed over the last few years.  Video games have been a constant in my life since the age of six.  They’re a great form of entertainment and a way to escape the responsibilities and pressures of the real world, but they’re also a medium to discover new and exciting types of storytelling.  That’s what keeps me coming back: the stories.  How does a game go about telling its story?  What other mediums does it borrow from?  Does it hit you over the head with it?  Or is it more subtle?  Lying underneath the polygons, systems, and mechanics.  Just waiting to be discovered.

None of my backlog of games are actually on any sort of physical shelf.  I’m not a dinosaur.  The name ‘Shelved Games’ serves the purpose of getting across a mental image.  The shelf we all used to have.  Either tucked into our old entertainment cabinets underneath an abnormally large CRT TV or near the bottom of a bookcase that our parents allowed us to use as long as we didn’t mix up the encyclopedias.  An assortment of old Nintendo, Game Boy, and Sega cartridges meticulously ordered and reordered.

Some gamers still have this shelf today.  It’s probably mixed in with your Sopranos DVD’s and your LaserDisc copy of Highlander.  Most, though, have replaced it with a digital shelf.  Steam Library.  Xbox Live Arcade.  Playstation Plus.  It seems that every few weeks we have another way to access our favourite games and collections as technologies evolve.  I recently took my first crack at building a gaming PC, which was exciting and nerve wracking in its own right, so the majority of the titles that I’ll be exploring will be on PC.  Valve’s digital gaming platform and storefront, Steam, has caused a resurgence in gaming on the PC, but at the same time its frequent sales of premium software is the exact reason I now have a “pile of shame”.  I suppose having access to a multitude of great games and at great prices is an amazing problem to have.  Even if it means missing out on some true gems.  That won’t stop me from trying to play them all, though.

The writing that I intend to put up on the site (hopefully in a timely manner), won’t specifically focus on game reviews or news or rumours, but on my own experiences with the games I play and how these interactions affect me personally.  There won’t be any scores.  Sorry to disappoint, but you’re going to have to read the entirety of a post to discern for yourself whether you agree with my opinions.  

I hope to stay on top of this project and will strive to post to Shelved Games as frequently as possible, aiming for deadlines every week or two.  No promises though.  Unfortunately video games don’t pay the bills.  Along with written pieces, I aim to be active on my Twitch live-stream channel so that you can experience some of these great games with me as I gather my thoughts about them.  

Most importantly, I want to hear from you.  If you have questions, critiques, comments, or ideas please feel free to share them with me.  The more feedback that I receive about this endeavour, the better the site will become, so don’t hesitate to chime in.  Do you want to see longer and more in depth opinions?  Or maybe more frequent but shorter snippets examining what I’m playing?  More live streaming on Twitch? Check out the About section to find all the ways to get in touch.  You can follow me and Shelved Games on Twitter to find out when new content is going up and when I’ll be live-streaming.

So, if you’re ready, let’s go take a look at what’s on the shelf.