2022 has arrived, and with it the promise of lots of new games and the first update of what I've been playing in the new year. I recently wrote about my most anticipated games coming up in 2022, but release dates are vague right now and as I write this none of those have been released yet.
Instead, in January I continued to catch up on or revisit some games from the last several years. I played Ensemble Studios strategy games Age of Empires III and Halo Wars for the first time, I revisited the shooters Wolfenstein: The New Order and Shadow Warrior 2, and replayed the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot for the first time since it was new. In February I'll have something to say about new games, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on the older ones I've played so far in 2022.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition (2005/2020)
Developed by Ensemble Studios, remastered by Tantalus Media and Forgotten Empires, published by Xbox Game Studios
The venerable strategy series Age of Empires has sprung back to life in some style recently. Remasters of the first three games were released between 2018 and 2020, and last year saw the arrival of Relic’s long-awaited sequel Age of Empires IV. I’ve been making my way through those remasters for the last year, and having arrived at Age of Empires III it’s definitely the one I gravitate to most. In large part this is due to the setting. The colonial wars in the New World are a fascinating subject that games have rarely covered. Being able to play as Native American peoples is quite special, and interestingly the remaster brought in experts to make this portrayal more historically and culturally sensitive.
I’ve had some misgivings, though. The difficulty in the remasters campaigns doesn’t seem right; on medium most missions are completely trivial but on hard, many are cruelly difficult. As with other Age of Empires games, I also tend to feel that too few of the units really stand out and have distinct uses. At the same time, the game looks superb for something that originally came out in 2005 and the mission design is pleasingly varied. The expansions are particularly worth a look, as they delve deeper into the Native American perspective and then move on to new and unfamiliar settings in Japan, China, and India. It may sometimes be seen as the red-headed stepchild of the Age of Empires series, but III is definitely my favourite entry.
Halo Wars: Definitive Edition (2009/2016)
Originally developed by Ensemble Studios, remastered by Behaviour Interactive, published by Xbox Game Studios
After Ensemble Studios finished Age of Empires III, they were given one more task before they were shut down by their mighty owners, Microsoft. It was a seriously challenging one: to make a Halo real-time strategy game specifically for the Xbox 360. What they came up with was Halo Wars, which I also played in January. Ensemble devised a surprisingly workable control scheme for the 360, but it came with a cost. As you might imagine, the gameplay is radically dumbed-down compared with the average PC-focused RTS. Unit choice is small, buildings can only be placed in specific locations, many common commands are absent, and the mission design is basic.
To add to that, Halo Wars is positioned as a prequel and so struggles to add anything significant to the sprawling, confusing Halo mythology. What can be said for it is that Ensemble did a fine job of translating the familiar series elements into units on an RTS battlefield. The iconic warthog even has the distinctive skidding and bounciness as it tears around the landscape. Another interesting element is the music - regular Age of Empires composer Stephen Rippy created a wholly new soundtrack which nevertheless has that special Halo feel. With just 15 missions, Halo Wars is much too short and basic to recommend to most strategy fans but it is an interesting curio, especially for Halo completists.
Shadow Warrior 2 (2016)
Developed by Flying Wild Hog, published by Devolver Digital
In anticipation of the long-delayed third game, I’ve been revisiting the first two entries in the rebooted Shadow Warrior series. I had a good time with the first instalment back in December, which was easily one of the more successful retro shooter revivals of its era. Somewhat surprisingly, Flying Wild Hog decided to radically re-tool the formula for Shadow Warrior 2 and to me they ended up with something of a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of situation. They made loot a big part of the sequel, including over 70 weapons (!) and constantly drowning returning hero Lo Wang in more upgrades than he can swing six katanas at. The semi-open world structure seems unwise in retrospect, because it results in environments that feel quite hollow and soulless.
Despite these drawbacks, Shadow Warrior 2 is still an entertaining sequel. Flying Wild Hog preserved and expanded upon the splattery combat of the original, with improvements to the controls making the mayhem that bit smoother. The visuals are also frequently brilliant, particularly for a game from 2016. With the built-in photo mode, it’s easy to capture some stunning and varied vistas in the occasional moments of downtime. Having played the first two games, I’m now tempted to think that a hybrid of the two could be the ideal scenario. Happily, from what we’ve seen so far, Shadow Warrior 3 may be going down exactly that route. We’ll find out when Flying Wild Hog gets their Wang once more, at some point in 2022.
Tomb Raider (2013)
Developed by Crystal Dynamics, published by Square Enix Europe
When I last played the first 2013 Tomb Raider game, it was still quite new and I didn’t really take to it. Compared with Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) it felt overly gritty and self-serious, and I missed the warmth and humour that Keeley Hawes brought to the role of Lara Croft. Revisiting it several years later, I’ve mostly come around to Crystal Dynamics’ fourth game in the series. Having re-played the preceding Legend, Anniversary (2007) and Underworld (2008) for a series of articles in 2020, I can now see the 2013 game in its proper context.
I still see a number of systems in Tomb Raider that for me, add little to the game except complexity. The experience levels, weapon upgrades, and quick-time events strike me as unnecessary fluff which detract from an otherwise lean and focused game. It also too often feels as if the game is “playing itself”, yanking control away from the player in the interest of seeming “cinematic”. With those objections aside, I’ve enjoyed the game far more the second time around. The mysterious Japanese island is a superbly realised setting, and the game has a real sense of adventure. I’m looking forward to giving Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) and Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018) a go later this year.
In the meantime, you can read my fairly deep dive into Tomb Raider here, or listen to the audio version which is episode 52 of my podcast.
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood and Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014-15)
Developed by MachineGames, published by Bethesda Softworks
It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally come around on the Wolfenstein reboot. For a long time, I struggled to reconcile the wildly over the top B-movie adventures of the game with the blunt seriousness of its tone. Honestly, it’s difficult to take commentary about the rise of fascism with the due seriousness when you’re firing a laser gun at a supersoldier inside a Nazi moon base. I’ve now got over this weird dissonance, and can just enjoy The New Order for what it is: a very competent and spectacular shooter which genuinely captures the classic Wolfenstein feel.
I’ve found that it also helps to prefix the game by playing its prequel The Old Blood, which was originally intended as two DLCs but eventually became a beefier standalone expansion. At about six hours, the expansion greatly expands on the part of the story set in 1946 and adds in various remixed elements from one of my favourite games, Return to Castle Wolfenstein. This time around, I’ve also noticed more connections with MachineGames’ past. Previously, the Swedish studio was known as Starbreeze, and developed the cult classic The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004). The section of The New Order focused on escaping a work camp in Croatia feels very reminiscent of that game.
While I still find the story a bit disjointed and a bit too obviously indebted to Half-Life 2, there’s a lot to like about The New Order. The weapons feel appropriately muscular and the upgrade system anticipates the 2016 Doom. I also really appreciate the deft blend of stealth and action phases in mission design, and the ability to lean and to slide. These movement tricks seem an obvious way to help firefights feel intense, and I’ve always been dismayed that so few shooters incorporate them. The idTech 5 engine is looking surprisingly long in the tooth in 2022, and the texture quality and pop-in are very poor; but in general I now see these Wolfenstein games still stand up as some of the better big shooters of the last decade.
Thanks for joining me on this quick recap of what I played in January; look out for the next instalment at the end of February, which will contain at least one shiny, brand new release. Next week's article and podcast episode will be the new entry in my "Read This" series on books I really recommend. It will focus on Damnation Alley, the classic 1969 post-apocalyptic novel by Roger Zelazny.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.