A screenshot from Wolfenstein: The New Order. Image: Machine Games
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Wolfenstein: The New Order squanders a decent idea for a first-person shooter

It shouldn’t need to be said, but you cannot seriously address a topic like genocide via the medium of a game where you unlock a skill for stabbing cyborg dogs.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is to killing Nazis what Tetris is to stacking blocks. Presenting itself as a hybrid of elements of new and old first-person shooters, it tells the story of William Blazkowicz, an American soldier in an alternative timeline where the Nazis are winning World War Two with advanced technology. During a last ditch assault on the German HQ to prevent the invasion of Britain in 1946 Blazkowicz is severely injured and enters a catatonic state. He awakens in 1960 to find the Nazis have won the war and conquered the world with the help of atomic bombs and giant robots. Violent revenge ensues.

Nazis make a great foil for unspeakable acts of violence because they are the worst people in history. If you’ve got to do something horrific to a fictional representation of a human being then slapping a swastika armband on the guy goes a long way to nullifying any distaste that might be felt. The developers of The New Order seem to know that very well, and they run with it - and as a result the game is one of the most gleefully-brutal ever made.

Alas, though, besides being spectacularly violent, The New Order seldom manages to be much more than an average game. It teases with great ideas that it doesn’t pursue with enough conviction, and the result is a game that disappoints more than it impresses. Rather than going by the numbers to create just another bog-standard first-person shooter, developers Machine Games have tried to make changes to the formula - but the changes never go far enough.

The first and most important place where this happens is in the game mechanics, which are inspired by classic first-person shooters like the original Wolfenstein 3D. Such games are characterised by fast-paced action and an emphasis on evasion and accurate shooting, rather than soaking up hits then healing in cover. As such The New Order returns to a classic numerical health level, replenished by medical and armour pickups lying around the map or dropped by enemies. There is a little bit of health regeneration, just enough to gradually cancel out damage from catching a single stray bullet or falling a short distance, and it suits the game well. So far that’s just about perfect. However, one holdover from modern games is that you press a button to pick up items. In the older style games all that ammo armour and health would be picked up automatically, as if your character had a magical extra set of hands. In The New Order you have to pick it all up manually.

This sounds like a trifling difference, but it isn’t, it is the difference between having your eyes up and being able to move swiftly from one battle to the next, versus having to root through objects on the ground like a truffle pig after every fight. In a typical game where you’re not picking much up this wouldn’t be a problem, but when you’re grabbing items off nearly everybody you kill, as well as plundering boxes, racks and shelves for goodies, it is really noticeable. It slows down a game that ought to be aiming to go faster.

The combat itself is very entertaining - you can lean around cover and aim carefully using the sights on a weapon, or you can take a gun in either hand like a Second Amendment Godzilla and trade accuracy for volume. Different approaches work in different situations and when combined with the competent (if perfunctory) stealth system make for a game that offers more variety than a typical first-person shooter. The enemies range from armoured robotic guard dogs and soldiers up to big cyborgs and an array of tank like bosses. Enemy numbers are limited unless there are officers around as they call in reinforcements and this means you have to actively seek them out.

The combination of tried-and-tested elements from games old and new is at its best here, but again the sum of these parts remains about average. It is fun, but the moment-to-moment action is no better than one should expect it to be given that the first-person shooter genre has been having money and talent thrown at it for two decades. There are no great failings, but no great surprises either. Elements such as the upgradable laser rifle and the character perk system might have provided that next level but both feel underused.

Past the mechanics lies the setting, which is another missed opportunity. The game just doesn’t do much with it. By opting to go heavily science fiction there’s no sense that you’re actually in 1960, indeed there’s little sense that you’re in 1946 at the start of the game as giant robot dogs chase you around. Newspaper cuttings from the years between 1946 and 1960 fill in the gaps in the history but they do so very briefly and little is said about the wider world. There is very little sense of place either, with London, Berlin and Croatia all looking remarkably similar. This is explained in the plot, but it begs the question of why explain it at all - why not have places that look interesting? Even the more fantastical locations feel quite bland and are underused. You rarely see let alone meet civilians and despite the fact that the Nazis are in charge all over the world the only Nazis you fight are Germans. That in itself feels like a cop out. The Nazified world hinted at in the trailers and journal entries in the game isn’t present at all.

Good characterisation and story in a first-person shooter are a bonus, and in The New Order both these elements are serviceable, if not memorable. The hero is suitably likeable and the villains are suitably evil, which is all that is needed on that side of things. The supporting characters are well-written, well-designed and well-voiced, but their role is minimal which is a little disappointing. It feels like a lot more could have been done with them and their relationships. Also, the story tends to fall into the gaps between seriousness and parody. There is a level that takes place in a concentration camp that is just plain awkward and I have no idea how anybody thought it was a good idea to put that in. It feels like an ‘Allo ‘Allo Christmas special set amid the Warsaw Uprising.

Where the game shines is when it is throwing you into big set piece missions, steal a helicopter, steal a submarine or steal the identity of a scientist while he’s crossing a giant bridge on a train. That is what the game does best, and it should have played to it more. It shouldn’t need to be said, but you cannot seriously address a topic like genocide via the medium of a game where you unlock a skill for stabbing cyborg dogs.

When talking about games one word that comes up a lot is potential. Many games don’t have potential and are instead merely aimed down the safest proven route to optimal sales. Wolfenstein: The New Order, by contrast, actually did have potential, masses of it. There is an experimental quality to how it plays and in terms of its mechanics it can be seen as a step ahead of many of its contemporaries. If Machine Games learn the right lessons from The New Order the next game they make should be something very special.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times