Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review - Wolfenstein: The New Order

I was among the crowd of skeptics in the gamer community every time new screenshots or details emerged prior to the release of Machine Games’ “Wolfenstein: The New Order.” Like so many others, I felt that the 2001 release of “Return to Castle Wolfenstein” was the high point of the venerated series and that every release since simply failed to capture the same great experience. Despite this feeling, The New Order started to gain some critical and commercial momentum, so I decided to give it a try. It has definitely left a fantastic impression on me, and I am looking forward to seeing it all continue in some form after the revitalization The New Order has bestowed on the Wolfenstein series.

When I say impressions, the most literal – and arguably the most impactful – sense of it comes through The New Order’s visuals. The art and architecture of the game is simply breathtaking. A truly creative visual design team with vast imaginations turned in some of the finest work I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Throughout the game’s diverse locations – from sewers and prisons, to lunar research labs and Nazi work camps – players can’t help but think about what the world of the 1960’s would resemble if the Nazi’s had won World War II. Towering walls of concrete and the sprawling infrastructure of Berlin give players the sense of choking confinement, a visual tone that carries over to the story as well in order to solidify the impression that the Nazis control the world with a tightening iron grip. There is no escaping it. Besides the visual sense of confinement and control, the design team further immerses players by re-imagining popular 60’s culture with a German-influenced twist. For example, players can find albums in the world from a fictional band called Die Kafer and play their hit-song “Mond, Mond, Ja, Ja” from the pause screen. (The band’s album jacket is eerily similar to a famous photo taken along Abbey Road.) While the audio-visual presentation has no bearing on the core gameplay overall, the loads of subtle details in The New Order really show the development team’s dedication to crafting an immersive experience, and it truly pays off.

As with other noteworthy first person shooter games, the main attraction often involves pointing guns at enemies and squeezing the trigger, and The New Order fully satisfies this essential gameplay demand. The gunplay feels smooth and responsive, easily on par with FPS greats like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Halo. Adding to those series’ winning formulas, however, Wolfenstein also offers alternate fire modes for every weapon – which range from simply attaching a silencer to a pistol or selecting the rate of fire on an assault rifle all the way to loading incendiary shells in a shotgun or blasting rockets from an underslung launcher attached to your machine gun. Throw in the option to dual-wield two guns of the same type and The New Order lets you experience some truly brutal gun battles. There aren’t many games that let you barge into a room full of Nazis, shouldering two fully loaded machine guns, and tear everyone to shreds in a tornado of bullets. If you get a little too in over your head, however, thankfully The New Order has a useful cover mechanic reminiscent of the Killzone series’ combat design which lets you pop out and shoot safely. (Just don’t stay too long as enemy fire will wear cover away in time).  If stealth suits your play style more than running and gunning, The New Order also has some mechanics built in to reward sneaky players. By infiltrating a zone full of guards undetected, players can knife officers so that alarms will not be triggered once all hell inevitably breaks loose. There is no pure stealth option to gameplay, however, as I don’t think it would match the hero’s penchant for Nazi-slaughter. The designers at Machine Games have a way of guiding every action scene back to the gun, it seems.

Unfortunately, one of the guns featured prominently in the game ended up feeling the most useless and unnecessary. About 1/3 of the way through the story, players receive the Laserkraftwerk (which we’ll just call The Laser), which comes in handy for cutting through fences and crates to reveal secret areas and items, and by finding upgrades for the Laser, it can also become a very powerful weapon. But there’s a catch. Apparently the Laser projects so much energy through its beam that it can only fire once – twice if you’re lucky (I could never understand this inconsistency, actually) – before it runs dry. You better not miss! Thankfully, there are plenty of wall nodes scattered throughout the levels to recharge its ammo for free, but I often found myself unrealistically running away from firefights to recharge when I felt compelled to melt Nazis with the Laser. In retrospect, the game would have been more fun if I had just holstered the damn thing and use a more conventional Nazi-slaughtering tool.

I was pleased to find that the variety of Nazis to slaughter was fairly extensive, although a little sparsely utilized on the battlefields themselves. What I mean is, while the artists were able to devise some truly fierce opponents like the dog-tank hybrid “Panzerhunds” and the hulking, ironclad Ubersoldats (meaning “super-soldiers”), the encounters with these monstrosities were very limited. The Panzerhunds would attack in what felt like scripted events rather than full-on action sequences, while the Ubersoldats would mostly show up, unload their weapons in your direction while you ducked for cover, and then politely stand in the middle of a room and wait for you to fire enough shots at them from cover until they died. Most of the encounters in The New Order involve variations of a single enemy type: the heavily armored Nazi soldier. That’s it. While there’s no denying how fun it was to shoot them until their corpses littered the world, it would have been nice if they posed more of a challenge. Like the Ubersoldat mentioned above, I never once had to worry about a squadron of Nazis chasing me down when I dove for fresh cover or retreated to find my bearings and a stronger position. If players choose to approach the gunplay in The New Order tactically, foregoing simply run and gun grit, then this could lead to some serious disappointment. To truly enjoy the game, I found it better just to dive headfirst into the battles like a true madman would.

The madman I’m referring to is none other than the reincarnation of B.J. Blaskowicz, the long-standing hero of the Wolfenstein franchise. The designers at Machine Games pay homage to the series roots by designing B.J. as a beefy all-American boy who enjoys nothing more than killing Nazis left and right. One might assume that he sounds like a caricature, and I would agree to that assertion throughout every Wolfenstein game up until The New Order. In this particular story, B.J. has been given a voice and a real human soul. Throughout the story, he is often mumbling some truly dark and existential ponderings. This is a man who has suffered and has witnessed suffering and cruelty. His whole life has revolved around righting Nazi wrongs, after all, and by the time players encounter B.J. in The New Order, he is literally a broken man. Thankfully for B.J., though, he is not alone in his struggles. He will encounter a wide variety of allies throughout the story who share his desire to sever the Nazi’s chokehold on the world. These people weren’t dropped in just to fill story roles. Every one of them felt human and real, with their own desires and flaws. Every one of them had a clear resolution and purpose in the narrative. (Even Max Hass, the strong “Lenny-like” simpleton proved to be more than occasional comic relief. He had a complete character arc, which – in the end – almost brought me to tears.)

While it’s true that each character had their own gestures and voices that made them memorable, I felt that The New Order’s antagonist, General Deathshead, was truly among the devious villains I’ve ever encountered in a game story. While I would never personally condone eugenics or wholesale genocide, the dialogue of Deathshead was written in a way to make it obvious that he truly believed in the purity of his own megalomaniacal cause. Lines such as “In work like this it is easy to be tempted to sense compassion… we must learn that this is pointless instinct not fit for the master race!” and “Can you imagine the splendor of… the intelligence of the human brain amalgamated with the efficiency and obedience of the machine!” really characterize him as a man defined by his agenda, and the horrific acts players witness him perpetrate on screen will truly create a driving need to bring him to justice. Sadly, I wish Deathshead had more of a presence in the game. He is absent for a significant portion of The New Order. Thankfully, while he is “off-screen” an equally compelling sub-villain named Frau Engel takes over for players to direct their anger. Machine Games managed to nail down the eloquent evil of the Nazi high command. Frau Engel commits some of the most chilling atrocities with the warmest of motherly smiles spread across her wrinkled face. The effect of the game’s evil characters truly makes the experience memorable.

Perhaps my single gripe with the experience overall is that I could not accurately define the tone of the narrative. “Am I supposed to be laughing?” is a question I had to constantly ask myself. There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect between the heartfelt, soulful character interactions and the on-screen, gonzo action. This confusion was only amplified by the constant sense that I was somehow missing some deep meaning in the story, as if there had been a big plot twist that was working beneath the surface throughout the experience that was never paid off by the end, or maybe I was just too dumb to notice. Either the game was trying too hard to have a deep meaning and it became lost in its own ambiguities, or it was only pretending to have one it knew it could not achieve. On one hand you’re a beefy Nazi-killing machine, emptying mags full of ammo into a sea of Nazi soldiers, sinking throwing knives into Nazi skulls from across the room, sneaking around and slitting Nazi throats undetected, and then, after everyone’s dead, you stop to catch your breath and survey the carnage before you realize: you are Nazi-death incarnate. This kind of gonzo action, which piles literally thousands of Nazi corpses at your feet throughout the game, makes the game feel downright silly… But then on the other hand, you’re just a lonely man whose sole purpose in life was taken away. You’re broken because you awaken in a world where the bad guys won, where you must literally face the realization that everything you bled for in the war was lost and all your friends died for nothing. It’s a pretty powerful foundation for story, actually, and the game really does build something great on top of it. In the end, however, I just didn’t know which tone to expect in the scene around the next corner, and therefore I never quite knew how I ought to react emotionally when it came.

My advice to anyone who begins playing Wolfenstein: The New Order is to decide early how they plan on absorbing the story. Create a solid interpretation of its tone – either irreverent or serious – during the first mission and then let the world seen through that lens immerse you. I wish I had because I believe an already stellar gaming experience would have been made all the more enjoyable. (It would have saved me a lot of head scratching.) Will I ever play The New Order again? While Machine Games thankfully did not throw in a multiplayer mode, in order to focus on crafting an engaging story (which they achieved), I am most certainly eager to play again to see how one very important choice in the first mission could be made differently and how that would flavor the rest of B.J. Blaskowicz’s encounters in the visually stunning Nazi-controlled 1960’s world.