Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wolfenstein: The New Order - Thoughts

[contains slight spoilers]

While I concluded that 2009's Wolfenstein was fairly unremarkable, 2014's sequel Wolfenstein: The New Order is quite the opposite. Machinegames took a big gamble by altering the standard formula, adding a pulpy edge to BJ Blaszkowicz's formerly plain narrative—but it succeeds! Europe's alternate future is a grim, dystopian world where the Nazis have infested every corner, the resistance against them diminishing slowly day by day. Despite ludicrous advancements like cyborg dogs and lunar bases, it's a setting that remains horrifyingly lifelike as well as tremendously engrossing. Oh, and the game is a ton of fun to play too.

The New Order shares Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's unfortunate folly of greeting the player with a turret section of all things (possibly the worst way you can open your game), but past the linear prologue the action really takes off. Scenarios will alternate between stealth, shooting and bouts of dialogue, the designers carefully making sure that each portion never overstays its welcome. After large fights you'll be treated to some captivating discourse and the moment your bloodlust begins to wax you'll be back in a concrete compound with some soldiers to slice up. There are some miscellaneous issues that will unavoidably stand out: cutscene transitions are jarring, stealth sections are largely shallow (Nazi soldiers make murmurs of curiosity upon finding an ally's corpse rather than trigger an alarm), and the lack of manual checkpoints means the game will send you struggling through difficult hallways over and over again. While these issues slightly mar the experience, The New Order remains fantastic at its core.

At this core sits the riveting gunplay, being one of the most holistically satisfying shooters I've experienced. Weapons are large and have a good weight to them, there's a smart judge of how much ammo is allotted to each gun, and upon being shot enemies animate as if they feel the bullets shattering their bones. Even with a small arsenal available (there's about six arms) it never becomes grueling to switch back to the standard assault rifle and burst into a room, both guns blaring raucously. A couple of minor variations exist to shake-up the routine FPS load-out—the shotgun is less powerful than you'd expect but holds 20 shells, the assault rifle has a rocket launcher add-on, and your laser cutter becomes stronger as you find enhancements. The rifle is perhaps the only useless armament, bereft of bullets for the majority of the journey and being outclassed by the multi-targeting the laser cutter, but it gets plenty of screen time on the moon.

Despite its Nazi-crushing exterior the game is shockingly heartfelt, with many of Blaszkowicz's inner monologues and interactions feeling strikingly thoughtful. From important story beats to some of the small conversations you'll overhear, there's an interesting array of subjects touched upon. At one point I was traveling through the sewers and overheard a man talking to a woman, telling her about his vacation in Africa with his wife, and the woman asks whether or not her favorite animal—the elephant—was still there. The man replies that he didn't see any, and the dialogue ends; the potential extinction of elephants in Africa is an extremely minor detail added to the world but paints a great picture of the Third Reich's recklessness towards anything but their own progress. Foot-soldiers are also commonly portrayed as nothing more than privileged men in a uniform, abstaining from using childish, dehumanizing derivatives. Of course it doesn't excuse their crimes, and there's some utterly demented commanders in charge of their forces, but it's nice to see the game approach something like Nazi infantry with such honesty.

The plot also does a good job at changing scenery changes often, ferrying you from one great locale to another. From a ruined bridge to a mock-concentration camp you'll engage with legions of soldiers, and from murky aqueducts to a surreptitious Hebrew hideout you'll spend time exploring and poking at the scenery. The comparisons to Half-Life 2 are surprisingly apt in this regard, as the game does its best to tell a story while keeping the setting varied, ending the tale on one hell of a heart-pounding climax. In direct contrast to Wolfenstein's final boss, The New Order's mechanized monstrosity shows how to make a nod to the older games while adding flourishes of its own, especially regarding the intense final phase. The melancholy ending that comes afterwards is pitch perfect, and caps off the experience most appropriately.

You'll find few big budget games in 2014 as full of charm, brutality and heart as Wolfenstein: The New Order (let alone a combination of all three). Machinegames did the impossible and made the bulky meathead of a protagonist actually likable without peddling some kind of sob story background, rarely forcing his emotions throughout the hardboiled journey. The guns take center stage despite the minimal assortment of them, although this isn't too surprising given the developer's pedigree. The New Order is a solid, frantic outing through and through, and quite possibly the best Nazi-killin' game yet.

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