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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism