Wolfenstein: The New Order hands-on - loud, violent and utterly idiosyncratic
Frank Zappa once said that you should never discuss politics or philosophy in a disco environment. Wolfenstein: The New Order ignores both the letter and spirit of this wise counsel, resulting in a game that attempts to comment upon conflict while also having a bit where you hammer a button to stab a Nazi robodog in the eye. Sepia dream sequences, impossible moral choices, a philosophising protagonist: this is either a phenomenal parody of over-earnest war games or a phenomenal accidental parody of over-earnest war games.
It opens in 1946, as BJ Blazkowicz wakes from a dream about a barbeque (yes, really) to find himself in the middle of a last-ditch Allied air assault on General Deathshead, a Nazi scientist-turned-commander responsible for prolonging the war with advanced technology. The tutorial has you scutter about an aircraft cabin, put out a fire, ditch the cargo, and gun down Nazi superjets using the nose turret.
Then, for variously improbable reasons, BJ and a friend leap from their plane onto a stricken troop transport, ditch into the ocean, and begin a D-Day-style assault on an entrenched position. Except the Allies aren’t trapped in their boats by German gun emplacements: they’re trapped in their wrecked planes by prowling Nazi robodogs. This is an absurd, adolescent – and honestly pretty entertaining – take on the period, something like the daydreams of a bored teenager staring out of a window during a history lesson.
BJ takes it all incredibly seriously. He addresses every situation with the gravity of an anvil being dropped into a bouncy castle, meditating on man’s inhumanity to man as he shoots coolant pipes off the exoskeleton of a charging cyber-Nazi.
After the first level he collapses into a 14-year vegetative coma, presented as a time-lapse of seasons passing in small Polish insane asylum. Within ten seconds of waking up in 1960 he’s pounding down the corridors of said Polish asylum with a machine gun in each hand. There’ll be as much hand-wringing as applause when this game comes out, I suspect.
Underneath, however, is a capable if familiar shooter. The levels are linear but with large individual combat areas, and the AI is sufficiently advanced to keep a decent player on their toes. Early missions are a little too narrow, but latter sections are much more promising. Most of the time you’ll be shooting through crowds of Nazis to reach their commanders – special foes that, if alerted, summon waves and waves of reinforcements. It’s a novel way to make use of respawning enemies without it feeling cheap or out of the player’s control.
Gunfights require you to move from cover to cover constantly, alternately peeking out to secure snap headshots and barrelling forward with a gun in each hand as you hoover up armour and health pickups to stay alive.
The game is loud. Guns crack and Nazis bellow, cover collapses, robots leak flaming oil and explode. Drone enemies buzz like someone receiving a text on a chainsaw set to vibrate. There’s also a visual noisiness to the game that can obscure enemies, corridors and hidden objects – but in a firefight, the full-on regular noisiness of the game seems to compensate. Point a pair of really loud things at the nearest really loud thing and you’ll probably be fine.
In this context, a quiet approach might seem foolish – but stealth is viable. Many combat areas are open enough to offer multiple routes, and throwing knives and silenced pistols turn the game into something closer to Far Cry than Quake. This is where the minigames come in: picking locks and hot-wiring electronics to unlock hidden areas, scouting for collectibles, scanning for clues to the next secret. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it’s nice to see a modern shooter break away from Call of Duty levels of linearity.
Scooting up a ladder, I discovered a sniper rifle tucked away in a hidden cache. Then, zip-lining across to another building, I discovered a second sniper rifle. Wolfenstein: The New Order’s respect for its own internal logic is such that, yes, you can dual-wield sniper rifles. Of course you can! You might not be able to look down the scope, and it’s far less accurate, but it’d be a lesser game if you couldn’t do it.
I can’t help but admire the game’s grim, bullish commitment to being entirely absurd. It feels completely in keeping with its tone. “This is the most serious thing that has happened,” BJ might say, while lobotomising a fetishised fascist with a pair of guns the size of pneumatic drills. “This is a statement about war or something.”