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Wolfenstein: The New Order

wolfenstein2

Formats: PS3. PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed)

Price: $89.99

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Developer: MachineGames

A new Wolfenstein is always a big deal, because it’s one of those key franchises whose legacy is directly linked to a seismic shift in the videogame industry. 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D, while not being the first FPS, was certainly the game which set the parameters of the genre as we know it.  I first saw the game running in the computer lab at High School, and it was like seeing our hours of playground conversations about the ideal game made real. It was, for many of us, a sign of things to come and I’d wager that it persuaded a lot of late-teen gamers to stick with the hobby. The Wolfenstein series has generally adopted new technology and gameplay innovations well, with only 2009’s lacklustre instalment letting the side down.

Thankfully, however, Wolfenstein: The New Order not only puts the series back on track but pound-for-pound of quivering Nazi gibs, brings the most sheer, unapologetic fun out of any release so far this year.

Once again you play as series protagonist B.J. Blaskowicz in his ongoing struggle against the Nazi war machine. We kick off as he and his comrades mount a daring assault on the compound of the notorious General Deathshead. The assault fails and B.J. takes a load of shrapnel to the head, sending him into a fourteen year-long coma. He awakes in an asylum to find that the Nazis have won the war, and now rule the world. With the help of psychiatric nurse Anya and a beleaguered Resistance, he sets out to strike back at the Nazi regime and take out Deathshead once and for all.

Developer MachineGames do right by id’s classic franchise, crafting a shooter that feels old-school yet still modern and completely satisfying.  The action strikes a glorious balance between all-out chaos and smart pacing, and the surprising validity of stealth as a combat option adds variety without diminishing the fun of going hell-for-leather. You also can’t fail to like a game that shows as much love for the dual-wield as The New Order, with every weapon in the game, knives and sniper rifles included, made  available for doubling up. Frankly, if you can’t crack a grin at wading into a bunch of Nazi scum for a bit of a double-auto-shotgun-assisted mayhem, you’re dead inside.

It isn’t all just brain-dead shooting either, with the presence of Commanders, who should ideally be taken out as quickly as possible lest they call in reinforcements, adding an element of planning to proceedings. The game’s health system also requires situational awareness, with a combination of limited regenerating health (Restoring to the nearest 20 health points you have) and Quake-style ‘overcharging’, in which health packs will add points over your natural limit of 100 but will immediately start counting back down. This means that you can maintain a ‘damage buffer’ that protects your core health when things get hot, as long as you can keep consuming packs. This becomes vital later in the game as you get increasingly outnumbered, and knowing where the health lying around becomes just as important as the weapons you’re using. This turns each big fight into a learning experience, encouraging exploration and adaptive thinking while still preserving the classic run-n’-gun feel.

The biggest surprise, however, is the quality of its writing. I won’t lie, I went into Wolfenstein: The New Order expecting a mess of a story, and fair it is; it just happens to be an unexpectedly charming mess. It’s unashamedly B-movie, yet a smart kind of B-movie that manages to juggle sci-fi craziness with strong characterization and, at times, genuine dramatic weight.  Besides, there’s just something inherently funny about a guy called B.J. ruminating on the existential ruin of war and the dissolution of self through duty, while lasering Nazi cyber-hounds on the Moon. He may be kind of the butt of the joke but without him, and the surprisingly genuine feeling relationships he shares with his comrades, there is no joke but noise.

The only point where MachineGames maybe push it a little too far is the much-harrumphed ‘labour camp’ sequence. The problem is that the prison evokes the idea of the Holocaust just by being there in the first place, even if the game does make an effort to keep the tone pulpy. It’s playing with connotations that are too strong to sidestep however, and one wonders if it may have been better for MachineGames to have staged the rescue in a less emotionally and culturally loaded setting, rather than do what they’ve done here and back themselves into a tonal corner that simply cannot be exited gracefully no matter what the intent.

That bum note, however, doesn’t diminish  The New Order’s many successes. There’s genuine magic at play here, and the attention to detail with which the world is drawn makes the simple act of walking around a joy, with architecture and even in-world dressing such as adverts and magazines consistently interesting and amusing. The game also makes great use of the alternate timeline, dropping in references to 50s and 60s culture amongst the Nazi aesthetic, with collectables including repurposed versions of these decades’ music. If three words could ever sell a game, surely they would be “Nazi surf rock?” Depending on how you handle an early decision in the game you may even encounter some unexpected references, both cultural and to Wolfenstein 3D, that aren’t immediately given away but if you’re observant will give you some of the game’s biggest ‘dumb grin’ moments.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a blast from beginning to end. It’s a game that proves that you can meld modern storytelling with old-school gameplay as long as you’re smart about it; proves that sustaining a single-player campaign for 20 hours is not a lost art, and most importantly of all and proves that eschewing multiplayer for a purely single-player experience is still a relevant design choice, and still works.

CAVAN GALLAGHER

9/10

 

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