Everybody says that 2014 was a poor year for video games, but the more stuff I try from it the more I find this hard to believe. Good or bad, at least it’ll have some mention in history. 2015 feels like it should have been renamed “The Year Of The Bland,” as most of the line-up has been functional but unimpressive titles getting added to major franchises like another prisoner being shackled to the end of a chain gang. Even the few good games like Fallout 4 and Tales From The Borderlands haven’t been revolutionary in any way, just well-made games that did exactly what we thought they’d do and nothing more.
The reason I currently feel endeared to 2014 is that I finally got round to playing Wolfenstein: The New Order, currently on Steam Sale for an impressive five pounds down from thirty-five, which is what prompted me to crack open my wallet, lean back to let the moths fly out, and shell over the cash for another venture into occupied Europe.
Wolfenstein is one of those series that I’d always known about but never really gotten into, but for those of you who are interested, it’s basically about Nazis building robots and monsters in the midst of World War II, whilst the allies work on kneecapping these little projects under the blanket of secrecy. If you go and watch the first scene of the Hellboy movie, you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about – mysterious artefacts mixed with ever-advancing science, psychotic German officers in leather coats and personalised gasmasks, allusions to hidden societies and a group of down-to-earth, culturally-diverse soldiers who are here to kick Kraut arse and save the world at the same time.
However, this has sort of been changed in The New Order. The alternate history-ometer has been ramped up to eleven as the prologue depicts the wardrobe-shaped hero Captain William “B.J.” Blazkowicz as part of a last-chance effort to defeat the Nazi menace in 1946. Backed by the final scraps of the allied forces, Blazkowicz assaults the robot-protected castle of mad scientist General Deathshead and fails about as hard as a person can without spontaneously combusting. His team is scattered to the winds and B.J. (stop snickering) has a piece of metal lodged in his head by a cheeky explosion that leaves him dead to the world.
So far, so miserable, but after that he spends fourteen years drooling in a Polish asylum as the Nazis trample all over the world, sticking a flag in every country that submits and punishing any of those that take too long to comply, including nuking the USA and attacking England with a skyscraper-sized robot, presumably because we kept apologising in an annoying way. But Blazkowicz finally powers back into action just in time to escape a German death squad and joins the underdog resistance with his beautiful nurse by his side, meeting up with quite a few of his old friends as he does so. Along the way he’ll journey from Nazi prisons to the depths of the oceans and even to the moon itself, all the while fighting the automatons of General Deathshead and duel-wielding machine guns like a boss.
This might sound all very silly, but that’s kind of the point. Wolfenstein knows how stupid the core concept is, but boldly wears it like a coat of arms rather than constantly hedge its bets with little justifications and weedy apologies for every little thing. And honestly, I like that. World War II has been a withered, paper-skinned husk to game writers for years, all of whom have struggled to draw any new ideas from it, but Machine Games took that husk and filled it with life again by running liquid nonsense through its veins.
Which isn’t to say it’s poorly written. As a matter of fact, The New Order has some of the strongest character writing I’ve seen from any game in a while, and proved that you can have a grizzled, warrior-soldier hero without sacrificing personality and depth, knowledge that would’ve helped when it came to creating entities like Solid Snake or Marcus Fenix. Blazkowicz comes across as tormented by what he’s seen, constantly having to remind himself of why he’s at war and not gruff as you’d expect, but quiet and saddened by his experiences. He seems more like a regular guy than anything else, and at one point confesses to running on a permanent level of repression, claiming that if he expressed his emotions properly, he’d never recover from the sheer enormity of them. Not to mention that when he commits certain acts of war in the game, he’s often visibly shocked or traumatised by what he sees – and that in itself is somewhat unusual. Upon causing some major act of violence, most FPS heroes would give it a stern glare before grumbling some one-liner and rappelling down to shoot anybody who had the poor judgement to try and defend themselves.
And the other characters are almost as complex as B.J. himself, making walking through the resistance HQ rewarding on its own terms, as you amass a little scrapbook of biographies. There’s the no-nonsense type that’s been inspired to fly aircraft after losing the use of her legs, the former German soldier who’s adopted a simple but kind-hearted giant, the elderly genius who believes that scientific enquiry is a form of worship and even an aspiring rock guitarist who might just seem a little familiar to those of you who notice the signs.
Mind you, he only appears if you make a certain choice, which is one of those things I’m not entirely on board with. During the prologue you have to pick which one of two allies get killed, and certain aspects of the story change depending on whether you’ve got the angry Scotsman or the nervous American backing you up. I understand why they implemented this, they want us to feel responsible and experience some of the weight of our actions, but I think this would have been more impactful if poor choices on the player’s behalf had led to them dying as a result, rather than stopping the story to make us drop Damocles’ Sword on one of the poor bastards. I’m all for player agency within games, but this isn’t an RPG. Wouldn’t it have been better to allow us to see all the content in one go? Whilst I’m sorry I missed it, I don’t feel the need to go back and immediately power through the campaign all over again, especially as I suspect not enough will have changed to make it worth the effort.
And that’s also a shame, because The New Order is surprisingly short, especially for a game that was being sold at standard retail price when it came out. What’s there is pretty damn good, but I had finished the main campaign in nine hours and there wasn’t anything left for me to do except replay the best missions and rewatch the sex scene a few dozen times. And though there’s a least three emotionally-charged moments that raise Wolfenstein from “good” to “excellent,” like all narrative based on surprise and shock, they can’t help but lose their impact over time and repeated viewing.
But what about the mechanics of it all? Wolfenstein is a game about visually spectacular set pieces, mixed around the core gunplay. One thing that delighted me from the get-go is that you can duel-wield any weapon, including lasers, shotguns and assault rifles, and there’s moments where the game mixes things up, such as scaling the side of a building on a grappling hook, shooting enemies with your free hand and swinging to avoid debris.
It also helps that you’re not fighting dull shooting-gallery enemies. Nazis tend to eschew silly notions like cover and will often chase after you, making it all the easier to charge straight back and gun them down with exhilarating glee, and there’s robot dogs and armoured mechs that provide more of a challenge, strafing around them or looking for the fuel tank on their back to pop like a balloon.
But Wolfenstein is actually a surprisingly hard game, and something about me suspects it ended up harder than the developers intended. Health only regenerates a little bit, and medpacks and armour are often thinly spread or even just hard to distinguish among the environments. And whilst in cut scenes B.J. has the kind of physical endurance that would put a granite statue to shame, in gameplay it’s rather startling how fast you can get cut down by enemy fire. This is perhaps one of the reasons that The New Order lets you lean around cover to shoot people, rather than having to walk out fully and get your big chin blasted off.
Of course, the other reason you can peer around fences like a nozy neighbour is that there’s stealth, which is quite organically mixed in. Certain missions depend on it (such as sneaking through a prison camp with only a knife to defend yourself) but at time you’ll come across rooms full of enemies and you’re free to pick as many of them off as you like before you get spotted, using the holy trinity of stealth kills – the backstab, the silenced pistol and bizarrely powerful throwing knife from Call Of Duty, which as always can land in a man’s pinky finger and kill him instantly. Or maybe beneath the helmets they’re all Edwardian ladies who just faint at the sight of violence.
In hindsight I wonder if the stealth mechanics could have used a few more redrafts on the design document – it would have been nice to be able to distract enemies, for example – but it’s certainly not badly designed and what’s there works well enough that I’m happy to play stealthy when the option comes up.
Finally, gameplay is shaken up every now and then with bizarre action vignettes, such as piloting a giant robot, fighting flying drones in a space suit on the surface of the moon and even shooting down zeppelins with AA guns, all of which last only a moment, but who cares? There’ll be another one that’s just as good in ten minutes. And though all of these spectacles are different, they’re all close enough to the core gameplay that it never feels schizophrenic or misplaced.
In short, Wolfenstein: The New Order has been a rather nice surprise. I was all ready to play yet another military shooter with delusions of grandeur and half-hearted character arcs, but The New Order is an inspiring blend of old-school shooters and modern FPS. Perhaps it realised that the way to have your cake and eat it too is to make it thick and flavourful enough to last – and you do that with layers. Layers of depth, layers of narrative, layers of gameplay, and a thick Nazi jam on top that any player is happy to go at with a big knife. I know I was.
Little nitpicks about length and a couple of rough-around-the-edges game mechanics aren’t enough to make me forget that The New Order has a great story, heartfelt characters and gameplay that’s all too willing to drop everything and have some genuine fun.