Original gaming Nazis go 21st century
By Steve Boxer
Wolfenstein: The New Order’s reinvention of the original first-person shooter successfully melds the best of old-school gameplay with modern production values – and explores one of the great “what-if?” scenarios
In games terms, you can’t get more seminal than the precious, ancient examples that spawned entire genres – especially if the genre in question happens to be the first-person shooter, which even now occupies a (some would say unhealthily) dominant position in the industry. On that basis, you could propose 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D as one of the most important games ever since it was, simply, the original first-person shooter – instantly rendering the otherwise side-scrolling, sprite-based technology of the day redundant – and it launched developer id Software into stratospheric realms.
But the legend of Wolfenstein 3D and its successors Doom and Quake played out in a previous millennium – id Software is now owned by Zenimax Media, parent company of publisher Bethesda, and its revered leading light, John Carmack, has left the company to concentrate on his Oculus Rift headset. So the decision to revisit the world of Wolfenstein, via the game Wolfenstein: The New Order, could be seen as brave at best and foolhardy at worst.
Reworking an icon
At least Bethesda’s approach to Wolfenstein: The New Order makes an awful lot of sense – as opposed to the muddle-headedness which led to the last attempt at a Wolfenstein-exhumation, 2001’s lame, generic Return to Castle Wolfenstein. For a start, The New Order hasn’t been developed by id Software, but instead was farmed out to Swedish developer MachineGames, staffed mainly by ex-luminaries of StarBreeze, most noted for making Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. Both of which, conspicuously, were praised for having much more substance than the average FPS, particularly in terms of storyline and atmosphere.
Jens Matthies, MachineGames’ Creative Director, is acutely conscious of the responsibility involved in remaking such an iconic game: “We are huge fans of Wolfenstein 3D, and we wanted to make sure that we stayed true to the spirit and legacy of id Software’s original with everything we did in The New Order.” But the key part of that rather bland statement lies in the phrase “Spirit and legacy”. Because, luckily, MachineGames has also taken some liberties with The New Order.
One thing that games do better – at least in principle -- than any other entertainment medium is to allow imaginative and lengthy exploration of “what-if?” scenarios. And Wolfenstein: The New Order explores perhaps the mother of those: “What if the Nazis had won World War II?” Most of its action takes place in a 1960s world subjugated and ruled by the Nazis – who, by then, have developed robot dogs, drones, giant genetically and cybernetically-enhanced super-soldiers, and all manner of equally twisted means of asserting their iron grip. The original Wolfenstein 3D famously featured Nazis as the baddies that nobody could possibly have any empathy with, thereby establishing what has become a wearisome gaming cliché, but The New Order atones for that by having as much fun with a Nazi theme as is humanly possible.
Matthies acknowledges that MachineGames threw itself into that aspect of The New Order – which evokes echoes of the sheer lunacy that was The Darkness – with glee: “We tend not to limit ourselves creatively. Wolfenstein has always been about the over-the-top and outrageous, so The New Order carries on in this great tradition. The game is incredibly wild, and we are very proud of this.” Indeed, the game’s imaginative exploration of a world ruled by the Nazi Party – in which horror (early in the game protagonist BJ Blazkowicz encounters his nemesis General Wilhelm Strasse, aka Deathshead, and witnesses the sort vileness that would have ensued had Josef Mengele’s work been allowed to come to fruition) and blackish humour (a run-in on a train with a Rosa Klebb-style Nazi and her unutterably camp toy-boy) mix in absorbing fashion.
When pressed about what makes The New Order different from countless other first-person shooters Matthies, unsurprisingly, is keen to talk up how it manages to shoe-horn a proper storyline into the relentless action: “It delivers a mature and personal story matched with stellar shooter mechanics, yet still grounded in the gameplay roots that made shooters fun in the first place. I think it blends brawn and excess with wit and heart. The level of integration between the gameplay and the narrative is of a style rarely seen in a FPS.” Which is certainly true in this age of predominantly multiplayer first-person shooters.
Next-gen meets old-school
But Wolfenstein: The New Order remains resolutely single-player-only – thereby opening itself up to accusations of being hopelessly rooted in a thoroughly superseded age of gaming. Matthies defends that decision disappointingly wishy-washy manner: “We feel it’s our duty to deliver the best possible experience to the gamers out there, and focusing on single-player allows us to realise our vision – to make single-player the best it can be.” But at least that shows integrity on MachineGames’ part: tacking multiplayer elements onto games merely in order to tick boxes is even more unforgivable.
So how long will it take to play through Wolfenstein: The New Order, and where will any replayability come from? Matthies says: “We have tons of secret areas and collectibles, in keeping with the Wolfenstein tradition, but the biggest reason to replay would perhaps be to explore the alternate timeline. Early on in the game you make a significant choice, which alters the vibe of the rest of the game to some degree. We think of it as an alternate ending, but instead of just having a different ending-cinematic, it affects the game as a whole. An experienced player doing a speed-run could probably beat the game in 10 hours, but a player who likes to explore the various locations and the deeper game systems can easily spend 15 hours or more on a full play-through.”
We played through the first three chapters of the game, and Matthies’ contention that: “We think that Wolfenstein: The New Order is both old-school and modern in the best ways,” appeared to hold true. It swiftly became obvious that the ways in which it remains true to the original game should please first-person shooter connoisseurs. Difficulty levels, for example, are strikingly high: enemies are plentiful, well armed and endowed with decent AI, so it pays to make use of the ability to take cover and lean out of it. But as a counter to that, BJ Blazkowicz is endowed with an almost comically destructive armoury – pretty much any gun, no matter how big, can be dual-wielded from the off. And those guns can be loaded with different types of ammo – the more exotic, the more scarce, naturally – plus upgraded with silencers and the like.
As in the original game, you have to collect more or less every bullet left on dead enemies, along with every shard of their armour (in the true Wolfenstein spirit, once your armour has been used up, you’ll start taking health damage, although you can “overcharge” your health beyond 100 per cent). It’s vital to search for health packs and armour, and although it’s far from being an open-world game, it never feels like it’s rail-roading you, with plenty of secret areas to explore, often stuffed with rewards like ammo stashes. There’s also a system of Perks (the ability to throw back grenades being one that we acquired).
Unsurprisingly, the story features prominently in the earliest stages, giving MachineGames the opportunity to throw in all manner of gameplay variations, such as turret-shooting from a plane; avoiding falling objects and shooting through windows while scaling a building; and the odd bit of switch-pulling puzzle-solving. Once the game settles into its stride, though, it demonstrates a decent flow, with intense fire-fights punctuated by more exploratory and story-advancing sequences. Some areas take a more open-world approach, requiring some tactical thinking. For example, you often encounter densely guarded Nazi command posts, in which it pays to employ stealth to take out the senior officers, as they will keep on calling for reinforcements as long as they remain alive.
Stealth features to a surprising extent – it’s also a good idea to creep around in order to scope out secret areas containing ammo stashes before entering into a full-on fire-fight. And of course boss-battles abound against all manner of fearsome and freaky foes, which initially seem incredibly daunting, until you manage to formulate a coherent plan of attack (which is how bosses should be). Little humorous touches abound, even in the midst of fire-fights – you can snatch a health boost from eating food left out for the attack-dogs you just had to dispatch, for example.
Past video game attempts to blend the most striking virtues of old-school shooters with modern production values have usually fallen short and sometimes been completely disastrous (the mess that was Duke Nukem Forever springs to mind). But Wolfenstein: The New Order is a rare beast which manages to pull off that feat with distinction. 21st-century gamers may scoff at its lack of multiplay, but if they actually played it, they would find a storyline, sense of flow and challenging, absorbing gameplay which combine to make modern attempts at single-player modes in first-person shooters feel cursory and one-dimensional. Wolfenstein: The New Order won’t go down in the annals as a great game, unlike its illustrious predecessor. But it is a decent attempt at rewriting history – both in its subject-matter and its reinvention of a seminal franchise.
• Wolfenstein: The New Order will be released on May 23 for PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. Each copy of the game will also include access to the Doom 4 beta programme.