Ah, B.J. Blazkowicz, my old friend, it’s been a long time. In this age of the reboots, it’s heartening to see a developer such as MachineGames with a pedigree in titles like the Riddick games and The Darkness trying to honour the legacy of one of the oldest (and greatest!) shooters of all time. It's also great to see further premier titles come from European developers.
Our protagonist is still a huge, American, ass-kicking, Nazi-killing machine, but Wolfenstein: The New Order also aims to bring some narrative depth and deeper characterisation to a world that still has plenty of life in it.
Our hero has suffered a very inconvenient 15-year coma, and wakes in the 1960s to discover that the Nazis have won World War II and brought the free world to its knees. Major technological advances have made this possible, and now (then?) we see an army of giant robots and robot dogs dominating the streets of London. This has much in common with the 2012 film Iron Sky: An alternate history gone wrong combined with a retro-futuristic aesthetic grounded in a very B-grade milieu. At the same time, the new trailer is somewhat confronting: with White House is draped in Nazi insignia, stormtroopers walk across Abbey Road, Hitler rants his usual kampf, and a helmeted Nazi soldier forces a kiss on a nurse in the streets of London. The shock of the familiar combined with rough Nazism can be confronting, and helps to establish the world of the game.
Blaskowicz has a new colleague this time, and also a new antagonist: an older female Nazi office who is accompanied by her “Freudian psychosexual toyboy companion”. The nudges and winks are not lost on a Wolfenstein audience, and the ribaldry denote a strong sense that this is a game that will not take itself too seriously. Given the obvious yoke of Nazi oppression, we assume that the narrative will be driven by the needs to kill as many Nazis as possible, destroy their robots, and bring down their regime. This balance between humour and the darker side of alternate history is precarious, though, and the developers assure us that it is being treated sensitively.
This reboot has also retained the core shooter gameplay that drove an entire genre, but has updated it to make it absolutely contemporary. The traditional health bar has replaced the now-common “hide-and-recover” mechanic, which provides a challenge to players who grew up playing Gears of War. At the same time, cover is degradable which forces you to athletically traverse the environment. Fortunately our hero is a very fast badass, and the usual sprint, crouch and jump abilities are nicely complemented by sprint/slide and stick to cover.
Weapons have also goose-stepped fiercely into the 1960s of the future. Most weapons have an alt-fire mode, which allows you to burn through fences or other obstacles, such as Nazi faces. There is a science fiction drive behind weapon design, so that electricity, explosives, homing projectiles, and some kind of red plasma ammunition all fill the screen with neon. It should be great to see the Nazis’ own “super weapons” turned against them. Most weapons can be dual-wielded which turns out be a great deal of fun: double shotguns are a particular highlight. The game still offers plenty of challenge, though, and it requires lots of mobility, accurate shooting, and searching in alcoves for health and ammo to survive even on moderate difficulty.
The environments are exactly suited to the narrative: what we’ve seen is a Western Europe darkened by Nazi domination. The Resistance has evaporated under the weight of the new Nazi technology, which (of course) calls for a new hero. Enter B.J. Blaskowicz. True to his original form he will be a lone wolf hero but he will also engage with (and presumable come to lead) the new Resistance, and hopefully this focus on the singleplayer experience will mean enhanced quality for the campaign mode. But it’s always a heavy investment, and if the campaign doesn;t meet expectations then the haters will always plead for multiplayer.
Given the tepid response to previous attempts to resurrect the Wolfenstein franchise, we can’t be sure whether The New Order is going to hit the note that is needed to rekindle interest in this old classic. Nazis never go out of fashion as villains, but it may well be that the original humour and B-aesthetic of Wolfenstein just doesn’t have the same traction as it used to. Shooters have come a long way since Wolfenstein first came across our screens, and this new instalment will need well-designed and innovative mechanics (including the alt-fire modes we’ve seen) to keep players interested in the gameplay as well as allured to the more obvious appeal of the world. However, I'll always give it a go for an old friend like B.J.
Wolfenstein: The New Order releases in December, 2013 on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.