Reviews PlayStation

Wolfenstein: The New Order Review - Sweet Carnival of Horror

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The horrors of war have turned into the toys of gaming. War is a reason to explode big things; it's a reason to shoot guns at "foreigners"; it's a reason to play with overpowering weapons. War drives conflict because it is conflict writ large, where the tapestry is a continent and the thread is dipped in blood. This game has grabbed that thread, making a noose where the old tropes of gritty war shooter now hang. Welcome to The New Order, the dark mirror and carnival of horror.

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War is everywhere in games: whether as a "craft", whether it's "modern" or "advanced", or whether you're fighting (?) wars themselves. Games tell us in their very titles that they're about war, war, war. Wolfenstein is not about war. As the characters tell you, the war is over. What we're left with is something far more interesting: A world after war, a people eroded to the bone by the rough reality of constant conflict where enemies are legion and allies are nonexistent.

Wolfenstein, as a franchise, birthed the first person genre as we know it. Nazis are so obviously useful as villains that it made comfortable sense they'd be the first to be shot in the face with digital bullets. In Wolfenstein: The New Order you continue to portray that first hero, BJ Blazkowicz. He's the biggest Nazi killing machine - something you're reminded of by other characters constantly. He's your typical gruff voiced mid-thirties white male hero, that's pretty much the staple of videogames everywhere. Yet, he's so much more.

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From the first moments of the game, Blazkowicz loudly whispers his thoughts, undermining the strong, silent player character we’re used to. Brian Bloom’s delivery, here, is one of the reasons this game is a masterpiece. He’s a performer who deserves as much fame as Troy Baker and Nolan North; there’s a subtle sadness underlying every aspect of this character.

Blazkowicz first introduces himself by yearning for an ordinary life, but you soon realise he’s longing for the impossible. War creates soldiers and “soldier” is an easy way for game creators to explain why your character is an efficient killing machine. Yet, why Blazkowicz is this skilled is not entirely explained – but that seems yet another wink at the sheer vapidity of modern gritty shooters. This is a world that creates people like Blazkowicz – after all, the only difference between Blazkowicz and 99% of other people in the game is that Blazkowicz has a higher health bar. The tragedy is he could never live in the world of his hopes. He could never have a life of white picket fences and children on swings. He is made of murder, he is Nazi death in human form.

His recognition of who he is, as opposed to what he wants to be, underlies everything that happens in the game. This nuance is the crack in the staple videogame action hero cliché that renders him interesting and believable. His frailty is also his drive – but it makes every moment with him more painful than any bullet.

The game is your usual first-person shooter: moving human-shaped objects must be eradicated, with hundreds of weapons. You move to cover, pull on levers, crouch, open fences. Large parts of the game can be completed with stealth and the game encourages its use to help level the playing field. But it works, too, as an all-out brawler. In a hearty throw-back to traditional FPS, there is no regenerating health. You need to pick up health-packs or be aware of their positions. There’s no health stations either. It was strange fighting this way, as you need to be more conservative, more careful. It suddenly highlighted how godly you feel when playing any game with regenerating health.

Naturally, this is more frustrating: when you have 20 health and three giant Nazi robots, you’re thrown no bones. Somehow, with ducking and diving, I was able to destroy them. It was sheer luck rather than skill. I don’t consider this a criticism of the game, so much a reminder of how bad I am at games.

Environments are huge. I mean, massive. This means there is often more than one way to tackle an objective, including secret entrances. The range of areas is another piece of beauty: from typical D-Day trench warfare to Nazi castles; from the horror and banality of forced labour camps to railway stations. But I’d rather not spoil the two most elaborate areas which I simply did not see coming and which really mark this game’s genius.

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The game looks gorgeous. On PS4 the cutscenes were truly breath-taking, though the gameplay itself is sometimes a bit rough. Yet, pausing the game at any time – as my screenshots show – gives you a glimpse into the game's beauty.

Small details, too, are worth noting:

You acquire a powerful laser weapon (the LaserKraftwerk) which at first allows you to cut fences and thin walls; but as you play and explore, Blazkowicz finds new parts that he attaches. He does this in real time (i.e. as you play) and these additions become permanent. You're soon able to take down robots and explode people from afar.

In non-combat situations, when you’re with allies, they will often have extensive conversations. You can walk in on one or leave at will. But you’ll witness a well-performed, excellently-written scene. Almost every character has depth, class, snark mood changes. Every performer is excellent.

With this, it should be pointed out that women are the most level-headed, most terrifying, most interesting characters: whether allies or villains. There’s no sexy Nazi or scantily-clad ally: it’s intelligent, battle-hardened women. Even the sex scenes are done well, with genuine love and affection between Blazkowicz and his love, the brilliant Anya. I basically only had to “save” one – Anya - but for the rest of the game women are either issuing me orders or are using their wits to work out intricate missions. (Indeed: Men are the bumbling fools and the ones being objectified.)

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There’s a maturity to this game that perhaps younger gamers will miss. But for those tired of modern gritty-shooter tropes, nostalgic for traditional FPS, and looking for some kind of respect for gamers, The New Order delivers.

I highly recommend you know the stories of the two previous Wolfenstein games: The complete reboot, Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) and, its sequel, Wolfenstein (2009). Deathshead, Caroline, BJ, etc., are all recurring characters and you’d be quite lost – as I was – if you at least don’t know how BJ first encounters these characters.

The story of a world dominated by Nazis harkens to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in High Castle. What’s fun is discovering just why the Nazi’s suddenly won, what the world looks like and what a small band of passionate individuals can achieve.

It’s an action FPS, with explosions and guns. And yet, there’s no multiplayer. This game is so long, so big, you can see just why. Resource management is one of managing finite resources. The priority for the team at Machine Games was clearly on telling a single-player story as best they could.

Mission variety isn’t the point. And my only major criticism is how difficult it was to know what to do. You will be using your map a lot, assuming you find one. But goals are not clearly marked and I seemed to always stumble into them – rather than know what the hell I was doing.

There were also a few occasions of unfair checkpointing – which made my careful management of knives and Nazi backs feel futile. After dismissing my plans, I just went in guns blazing to achieve the same results except faster.

Shooting feels messy and gory – environments get destroyed and your enemies are often smart. There is not that much variety in enemies – rather just different uniforms and bigger robots. I had little problem with this, but it still means seeing the same targets for your bullets.

Guns feel mostly solid, though it often felt like BJ was holding pea-shooters as opposed to heavy weapons.

The game is long. But it’s made longer when you’re aware of choice: In a few sections of the game, your choice and actions determine the rest of your experience. I’d rather not say how or why, but I can say that this makes it utterly replayable. This isn’t just the existence or non-existent of a character or level. It’s a change in tone, which alters things so subtly.

This is just another example of Machine Games caring more about making quality than any group of team has any right to.

It plays beautifully, even if it sometimes handles like a lazy cat. Everything that it works within – the world, the story, the characters, and so on – is a mark of brilliance. It’s adult and respectful of gamers, especially in its portrayal of women (unlike some recent games). It’s long, packed with content and immediate replayability. It’s the first time I’ve seen a sexual and romantic relationship in a non-RPG game handled this well, between two people who view each other as equals. The cutscenes are some of the classiest and elegant I’ve seen (BJ’s montage in the mental hospital is cinematic genius).

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I expected this game to be a generic shooter. I was long bored of shooting Nazis. But Machine Games slapped me in the face with quality and said “Continue?”. This is a sad, frustrating, beautiful, brilliant game. This is the benchmark for modern shooters. Every shooter is within the shadow of the very first Wolfenstein; but now every modern shooter must meet the standard set by The New Order. I pity anyone bringing out a shooter this year.

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