Phil Hartup on videogames

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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.

A screenshot from Wolfenstein: The New Order. Image: Machine Games
A screenshot from Wolfenstein: The New Order. Image: Machine Games

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.

Tags:Gaming