Developer: MachineGames / Publisher: Bethesda Softworks / Played on: PC / Release Date: 2014 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
If you’ve written off Wolfenstein: The New Order, I wouldn’t blame you. Hell, I’d done it too. It’s not hard to see why; attempts at series revivals (2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2009’s Wolfenstein) fall squarely into that “Pretty Good But Didn’t Rock My World” category.
Well, Wolfenstein: The New Order could rock your world.
It certainly rocked mine… for the 50 minute demo at least. To explain why largely rests on the pedigree of New Order’s developers. While Starbreeze is still there doing its thing, recall that most of the key development staff on Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness moved on to found MachineGames in 2009. These are the guys that turned a goggle-wearing sociopath and a demon-infested gangster into magnificent blends of storytelling and gameplay. Even now people fondly recall the “Jenny on a Couch” scene from The Darkness as one of gaming’s bright spots. And now those developers have Wolfenstein.
“When we decided to make a Wolfenstein game, we looked at what we felt Wolfenstein was when we experienced it twenty years ago,” MachineGames Senior Gameplay Designer Andreas Ojerfors said. “We tried to capture that experience and those feelings that we had and make a new game with that.”
My demo was equal parts classic Wolfenstein and hints that New Order will deliver something much more profound than shooting Nazis in castles… but this is Wolfenstein so we’ll start with that. The prologue opens with recurring Nazi killer B.J. Blazkowicz storming a Nazi stronghold (in a castle, natch) with a group of fellow Allied soldiers. The opening scene includes the requisite bombast for an FPS these days — B.J. and crew rappel up a wall, giving you the chance to shoot Nazis as they peek out of the castle’s stone towers to pop shots at you. Halfway up, a gunship loses control and plows into the wall above you raining down debris which you must dodge. OK ok, I’m awake now.
You’re then separated from your squad and proceed to explore the castle alone. This is New Order’s brief homage to classic Wolfenstein: you shoot Nazis with two assault rifles at once (and a minigun at it’s Wolfenstein-iest) and poke walls to reveal hidden passages loaded with Nazi gold. This section may be predictable, but New Order is immediately enjoyable thanks to its crisp shooting. id’s Tech 5 engine is used extremely well in New Order — not only does it look great but the guns feel responsive and powerful.
Another creeping realization dawned on me as I downed Nazi after Nazi… B.J. is actually a character this time around, and a very interesting one at that. You’ll clear a room of German-spewing villains only to have B.J. whisper poetic lines to himself as you reload your guns. And yes, I mean actual poetry. In between swiping a gold chalice and eating dog food for bonus health, B.J. will wax philosophic about war and how he is the divine instrument of justice in that raspy too-many-cigarettes voice of a man who’s seen enough war for five lifetimes. This is a hyper-hero, square-chinned and blue-eyed. The caricature is not unlike Brad Pitt in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds — a corn-fed visitation of American vengeance.
“There’s a lot of dark humor to it,” Ojerfors said. “We take the themes of the game and the narrative and the characters very seriously. But at the same time, what we’ve done with B.J. is we’ve taken a pretty flat character and given him a lot of depth. While he has a lot of depth and a rich inner life which you get to explore a little bit.”
That exploration occurs after the prologue. I’ll fast-forward a tad for the sake of spoilers so here’s the bottom-line — B.J. almost ends the war but barely escapes the castle, catching a load of shrapnel to the back of his head in the process. He’s rescued but comatose, spending the next 14 years in an asylum. He might have stayed a vegetable forever, had the Nazis not busted back in and slaughtered the asylum’s staff and made off with the only nurse that cared for you the past decade-plus. As apropos for a man of death like B.J., the violence wakes him from his coma.
And what’s the first thing he does after waking? Shove a knife in a Nazi’s throat. “Nazi scum,” he rasps, as a grungy guitar riff wails in the background and a bloody corpse hits the floor. It’s now the 60s, and B.J. must live in a world where the Nazis won and democracy is dead.
“It’s important to understand that it’s much more than a shooter,” Ojerfors said. “We call it a first-person action adventure because we think the game rests on two pillars. One pillar is old-school intense action, but the other is adventure. That pillar is more a revolution for the series. We see that as the player exploring the world of the New Order, what it would mean to live in a world where the nazis won World War II. It’s about exploring the world, the story, the characters, the alternate history.”
Following a bloody Nazi shootout through the Asylum’s interiors, the demo ended with an extremely promising setup for the game to progress. It’s all predicated around B.J., who has changed from a name and a gun to a fantastic character study. Here you have an 80s action hero that recites poetry while murdering people but now lives in a world where he’s not backed by a world power. There’s also a host of potential in seeing B.J. interact with his nurse of 14 years, whom he just saves at the end of the demo. How can a man skilled only in death express any kind of feelings?
If this all feels a little grasping for Wolfenstein, let me again remind you we’re dealing with the guys behind Riddick and Darkness.
“There’s the idea in literature and cinema of ‘show, don’t tell.’ But then there’s the idea of in games ‘play, don’t show,’” Ojerfors said. “That’s about conveying the story through the actions of the player instead of having this backdrop of theater on the side of what you do.”
Aside from story potential, the other aspect of New Order that has me excited is it’s combination of cultural styles. As previously mentioned, we have an 80s action hero fighting villains from the 40s transplanted into the 60s. Oh, and they have crazy mystical technology too. That setup, combined with cinematography and music cues that remind me of Tarantino’s recent work in grunge create an aesthetic that is unlike any other game. Yes, I just said that about a game where you shoot Nazis. In New Order, MachineGames created a world that I desperately want to explore even though I’ve only had a glance.
“The entire game is full of secrets because that’s something we love about the original Wolfenstein,” Ojerfors said. “It’s something that we feel is missing from games. It’s a way to reward exploration. This is very much a game about the adventurous side of exploration. There’s going to be tons of stuff to discover in the game.”
It’s tempting to dismiss Wolfenstein as a Pretty Good game about a guy that shoots Nazis. Nazi shooting does happen, but New Order is going to be a lot more than that. MachineGames could’ve made a Pretty Good Wolfenstein game, but that’s just not what they do.
“How can we pay tribute to the heritage of Wolfenstein in the best way we can? How can we make an awesome 2014 game out of Wolfenstein? How can we take Wolfenstein into the future?” Ojerford asked. “That’s what we want to do. The vision for Wolfenstein: The New Order we pitched to id and Bethesda a long time ago is the game we’ve made.”