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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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