Wolfenstein: The New Order
Despite the now 22-year old franchise it belongs to, Wolfenstein: The New Order is not a retro-style shooter; it isn't throwback; it isn't an homage; it isn't laced with knowing references to games from the 1990s.
Rather, it's an inventive and new kind of FPS, which moves with the pace of a rifle round and neatly packs in a story. It isn't turgid or prolix, nor is it frothy or insubstantial. The violence comes thick and fast but is interlaced with dialogue scenes and small, interactive hubs. Putting aside the original BioShock, and maybe the Half-Life and Portal games, this is perhaps the best first-person shooter ever written, not because it's insightful or relevant, but because it's taut and simple.
Compare it to the latest Godzilla movie, which takes a high concept - "Godzilla" - and ties it in knots. The writers of The New Order know precisely what drives their story: Nazis, and the killing thereof.
The game is consistently true to the concept. The story doesn't moralise or ruminate and the mechanics are all geared either toward shooting Nazis or increasing the player's willingness to shoot Nazis. By that measure, it's as harmonious and artistic as Gone Home or Braid. Though they aren't at all complicated, the story of The New Order complements its mechanics, and vice-versa. This is a game developed around a single, unmovable core principal, and that's what makes it work.
First, the combat
At first glance it might not seem a massive departure from the FPS standard: you aim your gun, you pull the trigger and the person in front of you dies. But there are several small details, laced throughout how you shoot and how you move, which make The New Order more engaging.
It's really little stuff, like how you can lean around corners, or get down prone and poke your gun under a door. It's the way you have to use the laser-cutting tool manually, scoring your own circle in the chain link fence and then kicking it through. It's the melee takedowns, which instead of being executed by pushing a single button require you to hammer R2 to repeatedly stab until your attacker is dead.
It's the throwing knives, the blood effects, the shotgun that blows a hole straight through a guy's chest cavity. It's an overused word in game criticism but The New Order is tactile. These little motions that are normally handled with a quick-time event or single input are slightly more complicated to perform, and it makes you feel much more inside your character's body. They might seem like gravy, like superficialities, but mechanics like these are what ingratiate the game world to you.
Once you're able to open doors, pick up items and move your gun in a way that feels natural, virtual realities become more plausible, and that sense of being there is vital to The New Order's story. If you didn't feel like you occupied this world, the emotional synapses the game is toying with simply wouldn't fire.
Devil in the details
It's why the game's opening is so brilliant. Rather than dropping you into a gunfight, which usually does nothing except make you excited (vaguely) The New Order begins inside a scuppered Boeing Flying Fortress. Your job isn't to hop on a gun turret and start shooting down planes. Instead you have to find a toolkit to clamp a fuel line that's leaking, then head to the cargo bay and slice some cable ties so that your pilot can jettison some weight.
Later, when trapped in an incinerator, you have to quickly look through the cabinets and drawers to find a key for the emergency exit. Later still, you have to grab a metal pipe, climb onto some shelves and physically smash the valves before the can fills the room with fire.
Like the real world, the world of The New Order is filled with mundane little things for you to interact with and touch. The devil is truly in these details. They mean that when you see a vista of Nazi-occupied London, or a firing squad murdering some prisoners, you react much more strongly, since this is a place that you feel as if you inhabit.
MachineGames is dealing with delicate subject matter here, so has taken great care to ensure players don't approach the game blithely - don't just play without thinking or caring. That you need a steady hand to aim, that the lockpicking, melee brawls and use of gadgetry are more nuanced than in other FPS games, are all conducive to keeping the player's mind awake.
This is the Nazi Party after all, and its atrocities deserve to be paid attention to.
The Gestapo's Last Orgy
But here there is of course one glaring problem. For all its tactility and economical storytelling, The New Order still runs with a hysterical, exaggerated alternate history plot line. The Nazis you kill are not the Nazis as you know them from history – they're Nazis who never existed.
The game is set, primarily, in 1960. It's an imagined universe where The Third Reich has won the Second World War and conquered the globe, expanding its interests into all of Europe and North America. In keeping with Wolfenstein franchise lore, the Nazis, as well as most of the world, also have in their possession lots of sci-fi technology – lasers, robots, armoured mech suits. It's a Nazisploitation kind of deal, like She-Wolf of the SS or The Gestapo's Last Orgy.
It's not the articulate, mature kind of world that MachineGames' development style would be best suited to. In short, The New Order would be better if it were a straight World War game. Its mechanics have the capacity to make virtual violence, virtual cruelty, feel impactful. But a lot of that power is taken away from the game by a narrative pretence that, frankly, is out of place in 2014.
Yes the science fiction wackiness has been a part of Wolfenstein since it was created, but that was more than twenty years ago. In the wake of The Last of Us, The Walking Dead and other properties like the Nolan Batman films and Sherlock, you'd expect a little more sophistication from The New Order.
But perhaps the makers didn't want to alienate the precious, cosseted hardcore fanbase.
- Gameplay: 10/10 – Varied and intelligent. So many different things to do, so many parts to move and objects to interact with. It all feeds into the greater picture.
- Graphics: 9/10 – Colourful, detailed, distinctive. Characters and environments all look fantastic.
- Writing: 7/10 – Dialogue is concise and surprisingly witty, but the overarching pretence prevents The New Order from becoming much more than schlock.
- Sound: 8/10 – Superb soundtrack, great voice-acting and, if you have the right telly, very loud gun effects.
- Replay value: 7/10 – There are collectibles to find and different approaches you can take to each level. You'd have to be pretty stony not to play this through a few times.
- Overall: 9/10 – A clever, tightly constructed shooter which unfortunately struggles with franchise baggage. Someone should give MachineGames a real World War game to build.
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