09/06/14 – Xenonauts is taking a very long time for me to crack, mostly due to my being unable to decide whether the funding system is unnecessarily harsh or just outright broken (currently leaning towards the latter). I will try to get something up this week. Even if it’s “science”.
If you asked me to pick words to describe the latest entry in the Wolfenstein series, the chances are you could probably predict most of them before I’d even said anything. They’d be words like:
Historically this little collection of verbs has been all the series has ever reached for; it’s been content not to take itself too seriously in its Nazi-slaughtering exploits, and focuses instead on providing simple, low-brainpower fun. What you might not be expecting, however, is for New Order to add an additional word onto the end of that list, and that word is:
Perhaps it’s the contrast with the traditional comic-book nature of the series (and New Order is no exception to this) but I think this newest Wolfenstein game has turned out to be one of the smartest, most expertly assembled shooters I’ve played in a good long while. It has all the violent things you’d expect from a Wolfenstein — killing Nazis with knives, killing Nazis with guns, killing Nazis with lasers, blowing up Nazis etc. etc. – and it supplies them in a familiar and well-polished form. At the same time, though, it makes excellent use of its setting through a thousand little world-building touches and some hugely above-average characters and writing to get you invested in the bits that happen in between the Nazi killing, i.e. the plot.
One thing that surprised me about New Order is how much it embraces its setting. I knew it took place in an alternate 1960s where the Nazis won World War 2 and conquered the world, but I’ve been conditioned by a hundred substandard sci-fi series to expect alternate universes to not be treated as the “real” timeline; to have the writers get their kicks killing off all of the established characters (which they could never do in a proper episode) and then hammer a technobabble reset button at the end of the episode to switch everything back to normal. This is a lazy approach to a really interesting concept, and Wolfenstein rightly spurns it; when you start the game you’re already in an alternate 1946 where the Allies are losing the war thanks to Nazi wonder-weapons. The 1946 prologue segment takes about an hour and has three functions: as a tutorial, as a scene-setter (much of the advanced technology you later encounter is shown off here in prototype form), and as a love-letter to the original Wolfenstein titles, since much of it involves stalking Nazis through a dusty, decrepit castle that’s full of hidden passages and secret rooms. Then Shit Gets Real and series protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz finds himself catapulted into the North Sea with a hefty chunk of shrapnel lodged in his brain, sending him into a fourteen-year coma. When he wakes up, it’s 1960 and the Nazis have crushed almost all opposition to establish a global empire.
Now, the interesting thing about this setup is that in the context of the Wolfenstein universe there’s no “alternate” about it. There’s no time travel shennanigans, no do-overs and no reset buttons; what’s happened has happened and all B.J. can do is take up the fight where he left off. This lends everything that takes place in 1960 a sense of permanence that New Order uses to great effect in the subsequent missions, especially when coupled with the extra little touches scattered throughout the game that gradually build up a picture of what happened while B.J. was taking a nap. Some of these are the now-standard snippets of written text, usually in the form of newspaper cuttings, but New Order also chooses to communicate a lot through visual subtext – for example, the Nazi buildings are all made out of concrete and have a brutalist look similar to Prora, while their fortifications are very reminiscent of the flak towers that were built to defend major German cities from air attack. Mixed in the with fantastic elements of Wolfenstein’s DNA is a deep awareness of classic sci-fi like The Man In The High Castle; the Nazis haven’t just used their technology to build weapons of war, they’ve also achieved great feats of engineering like a bridge linking Gibraltar with Africa and a colony on the moon. This is why I say that New Order is an intelligent game — it’s very well-read and confident enough in its own intelligence to build a coherent world that would almost be believable if not for the giant death robots.
Having set up the world it then goes about populating it with characters that are, if not exactly masterpieces of writing, certainly far more well-rounded than the one-note supporting cast found in your typical Call of Duty title1. There is still a group resisting the Nazi regime, and while it only consists of a half-dozen people you get to know each of them in between B.J’s missions to single-handedly slaughter every Nazi on the planet2, which makes it all the more horrible when bad things start happening to them. New Order impressed me with its restraint in not going for any of the obvious emotional gut-punches, and yet nevertheless it manages to cram in some really understated, stark moments. It doesn’t shy away from showing how awful an uninhibited Nazi regime might be, and while it does get a bit over the top in trying to shock you with gore at times it’s the bloodless parts that are the most effective horror; the bleak reality of the Nazi prisons and concentration camps, and the casual way the Nazis dispensed with thousands of human lives. This is a really heavy topic for a videogame to tackle, especially one as traditionally superficial as Wolfenstein, and its very much to New Order’s credit that its treatment of it, while not perfect, didn’t come across as crass or cheap.
As a result New Order is an unexpectedly dark game in places, and at times I didn’t think this sat that well with some of the arcade environments the game sets you up in – one moment you’re watching a suicide bomber take out a Nazi installation in occupied London, and the next you’re shooting Nazis with lasers on the moon, or exploding them with rockets while listening to an account of one woman’s attempt to resist the Nazi regime by covertly killing as many as she can (despite being a spin on the hoary old audio log concept this is one of the best bits of the game because it’s so damn personal). It’s a tone thing, and one that’s bugged me before in shooters like Bulletstorm; it tries to tackle some really serious themes but is hobbled by its heritage as a series where most people expect to blast Nazis in the face with a minigun. Fortunately for New Order, though, I think it just about gets away with it because the part where you blast Nazis in the face with a minigun is really, really good.
When you get down to the actual act of killing Nazis, Wolfenstein is as arcade as they come. There’s quasi-regenerating health (it’ll regenerate up to 20 percent of your health bar) and iron sights, but these are practically the only mechanics it assimilates from modern shooters; otherwise we’re talking the classic setup of health pickups, armour pickups and as many weapons as you have number keys. New Order wisely lets you carry around all of them at once and while the pistol is fairly useless the others are all pleasingly situational and remain useful throughout the game; they’re the standard machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle etc. but there is some imagination displayed in how you can use them. First, there’s a variety of alternate ammo and fire modes that drastically change how each weapon works – shrapnel ammo for the shotgun bounces around corners and can catch bad guys hiding behind cover, while the alternate fire for the assault rifle turns it into a rocket launcher. Second, any weapon in the game can be dual-wielded; you can’t wield two different types of guns at once and the tradeoff is no iron sights and a reduced movement speed, but it’s extremely useful when there’s a big tough enemy that you want dead quick.
Pride of place amongst the weapons has to go to the Laserkraftwerk, though. This is New Order’s equivalent of the gravity gun, except it fires lasers so it’s inherently better. When you first find it it’s just a tool, used to cut through chains and fences, but you periodically find upgrade parts (that B.J. physically sticks onto it) which give it new abilities such as bouncing shots, a tesla upgrade that instantly ices most of the smaller mechanical enemies in the game, and a scope that autotargets and fires off the entire battery to one-shot even the miniboss baddies. A nice touch is that while there’s a low-energy continuous cutting mode for chopping holes through metal panels that you want to get past, if your (or the bad guys’) laser bolts hit those metal panels or other background pieces of scenery during a firefight they’ll burn a hole in it just the same; this becomes important when you or they are trying to use it for cover and it gradually starts to resemble swiss cheese.
There’s a couple of awkward bits about the gunplay in New Order – I really didn’t get on with the contextual lean system where you automatically lean when you iron sight near a corner, although I did appreciate that a lean system of some kind had at least been included – but it’s mostly extremely pleasing. The large number of weapons you carry around both provides variety and gives you options; the large variety of enemies you face require you to think on your feet and employ the right weapon for the right bad guy. Basic mooks can be taken out with just about anything, but armoured baddies like robots and super-soldiers have armour plating that has to be shot off (or punctured with the Laserkraftwerk) before you can kill them. You can do this by hitting them with a very large quantity of standard ammo – one of the occasions when you’d dual wield assault rifles or shotguns to unload as many bullets/shells as fast as possible – or by using one of your high-power options like rockets or the Laserkraftwerk; being able to actually think about which weapon to use for which scenario is something that New Order exploits to its fullest extent, and something that the pathetic two-weapon restriction found in most modern shooters can’t hope to match.
And of course because this is Wolfenstein, New Order is a quite astonishingly violent game. There’s the standard selection of gibs and other dismemberment, but some of the knife takedowns are also quite the expression of B.J’s issue with Nazis. As previously mentioned the horror aspects of the series are played up to their fullest, to the point where it actually made me wince a couple of times during cutscenes. I’d almost accuse it of being unnecessarily gratuitous if the rest of the game wasn’t so well-judged. It’s not without its flaws – having to pick up ammo by pressing E instead of just running over it was a really stupid design choice, and some of the checkpointing was extremely suspect given that you can’t manually save in New Order – but ultimately Wolfenstein: New Order is that rarest of things: a triple-A title that isn’t content to simply meet expectations, or even exceed them, but instead tries a few things that are genuinely quite fresh and new and rewrites the series playbook in the process. The end result is a little uneven, but it it’s still one of the best single-player shooters I’ve played in the last couple of years.
- Wolfenstein even features the first sex scene I’ve seen in a triple-A that was reasonably natural, played mostly for laughs and didn’t exist solely for the titillation of the player. Bioware should be taking notes. ↩
- The game makes a subtle joke about this when he catches sight of an old swastika tattoo approximately one second after meeting one of the resistance and unthinkingly decks the guy through reflex alone. B.J. really, really hates Nazis. ↩