Nazis, robots, alternative timelines – on paper, Wolfenstein: The New Order (buy on Amazon) sounds like the sort of straight-to-video B-movie nonsense you’d bypass with a tired shake of the head were you to spot it in a video shop (if such places even exist any more). Yet it manages to be, as Sir Gaulian found, far more than the sum of its parts.
My first impression wasn’t good, however. By halfway through the opening level, I was questioning whether I’d even bother playing through the rest of the game. It opens with a classic beach-storming episode of the like we’ve played through hundreds of times before in dozens of WW2 shooters, and it quickly reminded me of the dire Return to Castle Wolfenstein from a decade or so ago. Yes, there are robot dogs: otherwise though, it could be any old Call of Duty or Medal of Honor game from the turn of the century. But then it gets interesting.
Hero B. J. Blazkowicz takes some shrapnel to the head and goes into a catatonic state. He wakes up 14 years later in a mental asylum, only to find that the Nazis have taken over the world thanks to some mysterious advanced technology. And its the chilling depiction of this world, along with some brilliant characterization, that really elevates this game to the next level.
Whereas previous Wolfenstein games had you gunning down Nazis just because, you know, they’re Nazis, here you’re given a reason to really hate them. The game presents you with a world where Nazism is taken to its logical extreme – the quest for a pure Aryan race is taken to levels of unimaginable genocide and repression, the development of nuclear weapons has led to the subjugation of America and the quest for lebensraum has ensnared the whole globe – and even other planets. Blaskowicz’s shock at waking up to this nightmare is palpable. He declares that he wants to join the resistance, to fight against the rise of the Nazis, but he’s given the chilling response: “What resistance?” The whole world has fallen.
It gives you an uncomfortable feeling of helplessness. How can you possibly do anything to change this horrendous world? Of course, the game gives you a conduit to do just that, but the way it explores the consequences of living in a Nazi-dominated world really provides pause for thought. What would I do in that circumstance? What could anyone do?
The plot and characters are also far, far better than they have any right to be for a ‘dumb’ first person shooter. Many’s the time that I’ve played through a game without giving two hoots about the other characters, mostly because they have the depth and personality of a wet lettuce (Halo is a good example). But here I really bought into the plight of these NPCs, mostly thanks to some excellent voice acting and a taut script.
Gameplay-wise, it’s also something of a revelation. The use of health packs came as a breath of fresh air after years of getting used to regenerating health – battles feel terrifically exciting as a result, as you desperately hunt for extra health while under fire. Dual wielding also feels fresh again, and opting for this over just using a single weapon has a big impact on the way you play the game.
There’s also room for a bit of black humour – the LPs you collect are brilliantly done, featuring Nazified versions of sixties singers, and the fact that the designers actually recorded the songs shows an amazing attention to detail. The only criticism I’d level at the game is that the collectibles are largely pointless – I would have liked to see more of the letters you find, detailing individuals’ struggles to survive, rather than various useless gold statues. Oh, and the ending… well, maybe that’s an article for another time.
All in all though, Wolfenstein: The New Order turned out to be a surprisingly affecting and eminently playable game that has managed to push the FPS genre to new heights. With this and the wonderful Alien: Isolation, my gaming year has already got off to a tremendous start.