Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering about how different films and video games would be if the Nazis had never come to power. For a start, we’d need to find some new cardboard cut-out bad guys to serve as cannon fodder for our heroes, and I suspect a lot classically-trained British character actors would be seriously underemployed. Secondly, there would be no Wolfenstein or any of the hundreds (if not thousands) of games that revolve around slaughtering entire legions of Nazi soldiers (or zombies).
Or going further, what if the Axis forces had actually won the war and we were now all ruled by the Third Reich? No doubt WWII films and games would instead feature infeasibly good-looking and heroic Germans mowing down hideous caricatures of Allied soldiers (at least it would keep the British thespians in a job). And maybe we would be playing games like Return to Castle Warwick and Commie Zombie Army.
But I digress. Last month I picked up Wolfenstein: The New Order (WTNO), released back in May. Having now completed the game, I thought I’d share some thoughts…
A brave new world?
The things that keep me awake at night are clearly not a cause for concern for MachineGames, who back in June 2009 acquired id Software and all its intellectual property, which includes the Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein series. Naturally, as a newly-founded company with no releases to their name, they figured the best place to start in a market groaning under the strain of far too many run-of-the-mill shooters would be to resurrect some ageing FPS franchises. And why not get the ball rolling with yet another Nazi-based shooter. And so WTNO was born.
The Swedish developer did make the brave decision of setting the game in a 1960s alternate reality where the Allies lost the war and the world is now ruled by a technological advanced Nazi regime. It’s all very reminiscent of The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick’s brilliant alternate history novel. They’ve also created the most story-driven Wolfenstein game to date and clearly attempted to introduce some depth and memorable characters to augment the pew pew carnage.
WTNO actually begins in 1946 in an extended scene-setting prologue. The Allies are losing the war. In a last roll of the dice, they throw everything at destroying General Wilhelm ‘Deathshead’ Strasse, the evil nut job masterminding the technology behind the Reich’s success. Once again you assume control of veteran Nazi killer BJ Blazkowicz, who apparently can’t remember how to do basic stuff so cue a tedious and overly long tutorial segment while in transit to the battle.
But the Allied raid on Deathshead’s compound is a disastrous failure and Blazkowicz is seriously injured while escaping, washes up in Poland and spends 14 years sitting in a corner of an insane asylum, in a vegetative yet semi-conscious state. During that time he falls in love with his nurse Anya, so when the Nazis come to purge the asylum and Anya’s life is threatened, BJ’s well-honed Nazi-killing instincts kick in and the bloodbath ensues. Obviously, his physical condition hasn’t deteriorated in the slightest.
It’s now 1960 and Blazkowicz finds himself in a dystopian world under the totalitarian rule of the Reich. A world in which the US surrendered after having the A-bomb dropped on it, The Beatles (Die Kafer) are forced to sing in German and giant robots maintain compliance. Unwilling to give up hope (killing Nazis is all he knows damn it!), he and Anya manage to hook up with the last remnants of the resistance. Delighted at having an invincible one-man army at their disposal the resistance devise a plan to strike back at the regime, which boils down to sending BJ on a sequence of missions that happily coincide with butchering countless Nazi soldiers.
Nazis dead. Nazi robot dead. Broke all your shit. Helicopter secured.
Let’s not beat around the bush, WTNO is a fairly formulaic shooter and its heavy reliance on cut-scenes, set-pieces, and scripted events results in some very linear gameplay. However, the combat is fast and furious, and most importantly fun. MachineGames have put some effort into designing the environments around exciting firefights. There is plenty of cover and often multiple flanking options, and your opponents use both well and move quickly to engulf you. The AI is certainly decent, though frustratingly the NPCs do sometimes get stuck on objects. Much of the cover is also destructible, which helps prevent the action from becoming too static. And there are a good mix of light, heavy and special units to keep the combat interesting and varied. It’s all happily punctuated by a variety of mini-boss fights (usually robots) and some spectacular set-pieces.
A nice touch is being able to dual wield nearly every weapon, which creates for some frantic gung-ho moments. Stealth is a viable option in the more open map areas and BJ is capable of some brutally-graphic knife takedowns – I do feel a slight pang of guilt when gutting a sleeping guard dog, yet nothing when I cut Fredrick’s throat from ear to ear (and he has a loving wife and two adorable little girls). You’re also able to use a suppressed pistol and throwing knives for more-ranged stealth kills. However, BJ is unable to hide bodies and it’s generally easier and more fun to just run and gun.
The weapons BJ has at his disposal are the usual FPS assortment, and aside from the laserkraftwork (a welding tool that is sequentially upgraded to become a formidable laser cannon), not particularly inspired. Presumably, in order to fit in with the sci-fi theme, the guns are all oversized and cartoonish in appearance – they take up a hell of a lot of screen space. However, they all handle well, sound meaty and fit a defined role. That is, all except the scoped marksman rifle, which seems fairly redundant as the maps rarely allow for longer-ranged combat. There is a perk system that allows for some character advancement, but it seems a little out of place and the bonuses it grants don’t exactly make the difference between life and death even on the harder difficulty levels. Although the combat challenges required to unlock them can be a fun distraction.
The graphics and sound are mostly very good, though not exactly groundbreaking; astute use of shadows, bloom, blur and particle effects creates an immersive atmosphere throughout the game. The environments are varied and interesting, and the game doesn’t linger too long in any one place. It’s all very well realised and appropriately oppressive – lots of concrete monstrosities, technological marvels and imperial splendour (I particularly enjoyed the trip to the moon base). There is certainly an attention to detail that makes the environments feel authentic. Also, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised at how good the guitar-based soundtrack track is – a nice blend of rock, metal and acoustic that fits in well with the mood of the game.
A vain attempt at depth
The narrative manages to hold the game together and does enough to keep you interested. But at the same time, it’s all over the place — it’s a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s part homage, part Call of Duty-style blockbuster, part story-driven adventure; it flip-flops between the horrific reality of a barbaric regime, tongue-in-cheek graphic violence, out-of-place sex scenes, the Nazi obsession with racial purity, Jewish mysticism, dumb comedy moments, metaphysics, touching character interactions, and pointlessly drawn out encounters with over-the-top comic book Nazis. It’s like the Indiana Jones films on crack.
Between missions BJ returns to the resistance HQ, situated beneath the streets of Berlin. It’s something that breaks the momentum of the game and is used as an unsubtle device for character development. It also involves a lot of fetching stuff for people and you start to wonder whether you’re playing the tutorial again. Although a nice touch is the Easter egg that can be found by sleeping in one of the beds – Blazkowicz has a nightmare that thrusts you into a level of Wolfenstein 3D.
WTNO does feature an assorted collection of intriguing and fleshed-out characters. Fergus Reid and Tekla stand out thanks to some brilliant voice acting and great dialogue. But other characters are little more than tired clichés, such as the gentle manchild with the strength of a bear and the ex-Nazi who has seen the error of his ways and now acts as an overly protective father to the manchild. While other characters simply exist for the purpose of later dying heroic and/or tragic deaths in contrived emotional scenes that you can see coming from a mile off.
And the effort to furnish BJ with some complexity amounts to a lot of gruffly-voiced philosophical mutterings about morality, suffering, sacrifice and the horrors of war, and childhood memories about barbecues and swimming. And apparently, he hates Nazis. It’s a bad impersonation of Max Payne impersonating Colonel Kurtz. This all punctuates the gleeful massacring of Nazi grunts, something that Blazkowicz clearly derives pleasure from. “Wake up, you’re dead!”, he says as he plunges his knife into the chest cavity of a sleeping guard. Let’s face it, he’s a fucking psychopath.
Also, I must admit that I’m slightly fixated by the disclaimer that flashes up briefly at the beginning of the game. It somehow jars. Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that MachineGames are in anyway condoning or glorifying the Nazi regime. There is not a sympathetic Nazi character in the game and the regime is portrayed as unambiguously evil. In fact, you spend the entire game killing the bastards.
But I do feel that the developers have managed to unintentionally trivialise the Nazis and their crimes. This is a game that paints every single Nazi as a one-dimensional comic book character; they’re grossly overacted and exaggerated and so they’re are not real or believable. And there are awkward moments that don’t belong in such a cartoonish game — such as being tattooed with a number as you enter a forced labour camp and later finding yourself under a pile of mutilated bodies in an incinerator. These are moments that have no gravity to them and feel almost comical in their execution. They certainly lack tact and something I feel the developers should have steered clear of. This is hardly the right vehicle to reflect on the seriousness of the Holocaust or other Nazi war crimes.
WTNO is a surprisingly well made, fun and entertaining game. It’s an old-school shooter that pays homage to its predecessors – its a nice nostalgia trip. But these days I want a bit more from my games than running around and shooting Nazis in the face for 10 hours. Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy? To be fair MachineGames have tried hard to do something a bit different with the latest Wolfenstein title. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work out. For me, the series peaked in 2001 with Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but the gaming world has moved on a lot since then – there’s only so much you can do with a series based on massacring Nazis. Is WTNO something I will dust off for a replay in 5 or 10 years time? Probably not.