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What a Wunderbar World

If there’s one thing I can claim to be a decent expert on, it’s on the first-person shooter genre. I’ve played a wide variety of them since I was around 11 years old and can point out minute details in and specific game mechanical variations between every one. I feel the difference in the nebulous “heaviness” of a character I’m playing as in a Halo or Killzone title. I notice small, inconsequential idle animations, and other stuff like recycled weapon reloads in a franchise sequel for Battlefield or Call of Duty. But let me guess: this is normal, isn’t it? Ha, it probably is for all I know!

Regardless, I have a natural inclination for and place in my gaming heart for first-person shooters. They are usually the most visceral, immersive, and engaging of experiences for me when it comes to any other genre. Over the past few years though, it’s hard to come by that one FPS that reaches this ultimate goal…that does something unexpectedly great. Sure, I enjoy the bombastic entertainment that franchises like Call of Duty provide each year even though they’re trashed by most people, don’t hold my interest for long, and fail to make meaningful impressions (unless we’re talking about aspects of Call of Duty 4, World at War, or Black Ops). However, when it comes to something like BioShock Infinite’s Burial at Sea: Episode 2, I could tell you all of the reasons why it’s a thrilling, substantial expansion that even surpasses my enjoyment for the main game. You could say it pleasantly surprised me, going beyond the expectations I had for it after playing the first episode.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is another FPS that pleasantly surprised me this year. In fact, it’s the most surprising game of 2014 for all of the right reasons.

I had to adjust to the quicker than usual speed of the character and didn’t expect much from the story for the first two hours, but it grew on me in so many ways I don’t usually expect from a FPS. I empathized and cared for the cast of characters, fell in love with the mix of modern and archaic FPS mechanics and features, was taken aback in a fitting way with how the Nazis are portrayed in all their evil and schemes through an unadulterated lens, and so forth. These are just a handful of the positive remarks that have been floating around my head since I finished it a couple of weeks ago. All of this tells me this isn’t your run-of-the-mill FPS, so I believe it needs to be reviewed, especially since it appears to have gone under the radar. After all, my last personal review – my thoughts on The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning – was posted over a year ago! Let’s close out 2014 with a word on the wonderful Wolfenstein: The New Order, even if I’m a bit late to do so!

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That’s the LaserKraftWerk. It makes enemies explode. What more could you want?

Gameplay

The FPS market is oversaturated with unoriginal titles that rely on conventional, typical gameplay we’ve come to see over and over again these past few years as I’ve insinuated above. However, every now and then a title will come along that does something entirely new with how we think about the FPS like Portal, or mixes classic and modern mechanics in an interesting way like the Metro series. MachineGames goes for the latter, dangerously concocting an assortment of uncommon, older gameplay features found in the original Wolfenstein 3D while improving on it with fitting adjustments and features found in today’s shooters. Thankfully, the resulting gameplay turns out to be a seamless, responsive, and satisfying mix that’ll please both new and old fans of the genre. The older elements are noticed in how normal movement is more quickly paced, the addition of a weapon wheel, and health and armor packs. The packs are the most blatantly old school additions and are taken directly from the first Wolfenstein. Health packs build up your health count and even “overcharge” it past the maximum amount if you find extra ones lying around, and armor prevents your health from draining as quickly; the more armor you have, the more your health count will resist depleting rapidly. It’s a bygone stamp of FPSs, but it works so well with this game in making you feel like a tough tank or a mere mortal. The balance shifts throughout the game on higher difficulties in a satisfying manner. It’s honestly more investing and realistic (from a video game perspective at least) than regenerating health, and since you need those two resources, you’re forced to explore and take in the environment more often to find health and armor, which I believe is a good thing that made me pay more attention to how I was approaching combat and each level. I must mention as a side point that the weapon wheel is a bit finicky. I chose the wrong one by accident on occasion during intense shootouts, which was an annoying inconvenience, but it was functional overall and I kind of got used to it over time.

The modern touches to The New Order don’t feel arbitrary at all, but add layers of depth to how I could approach gunfights. You can aim around and above cover, which is shockingly not as hard as it is to do in other games that have tried to make it feel natural. All you have to do is stand near the cover, slightly point in the direction you want to lean out of, and hold down the aim button to look to the side or over something. You can also stand in place and lean in any direction you please by holding down another button, which includes kneeling to shoot under door jams and whatnot. You can also slide by holding down the crouch button while running, have different firing modes for certain weapons, and play out levels in a stealthy style. Indeed, while some places will be best suited to going out guns blazing, there are opportunities to take sneaky approaches by using your knife, silenced pistol, and throwing knives. With all of the mechanics I’ve mentioned in this paragraph, they honestly make this component of gameplay a worthwhile, fun strategy to adopt once in a while, which reminds me of the basic aspects of stealth gameplay in Dishonored, which I really enjoyed back in 2012. It’s not the most satisfying kind of stealth since it’s pretty bare in how you can accomplish it, but landing those difficult throwing knife kills and silenced headshots are wonderful. When it comes to going loud, you bet it’s a heck of a lot of bombastic fun, too.

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The Panzerhund (literally translated as “tank dog” in German) is legitimately terrifying when it chases you. Look at those teeth! LOOK AT THEM!

With the weapon wheel, you’ll have an arsenal of weapons and ways to wield them. Sure, the assault rifle is great on its own, but why not go akimbo? You can do that with the pistols and even the shotguns as well, but I usually kept to a single gun for medium to long-range combat, and duel wielded for close encounters. The guns have satisfactory weight and their own pros and cons; I was constantly switching between them all, which made me realize that they’re balanced well since I rarely preferred one firearm to another. Shootouts end up being explosive, adrenaline packed, and chaotic in good ways because of what you can do with these weapons, and it’s not just limited to these. Grenades and Gatling guns are other options, but what you end up having with you for most of the game is the prototype LaserKraftWerk: a strange laser gun that functions as a semi-automatic sniper rifle-like weapon and a laser cutter that melts through thin metal gates and ducts. The latter is something I’ve never seen in a FPS before, which makes you pay attention to the level layouts to see if you can take alternate routes and find secret passageways. What’s unique about it though is that you will find parts for the device throughout the campaign that slowly upgrade its capabilities until it becomes not only a laser cutter, but an equally necessary weapon.

With all of this guided by the snappy yet graceful controls, you’ll be navigating through a large majority of levels that have clearly set objectives to meet, but are designed with intent as open areas that allow you to tackle various situations in your own way. I noticed plenty of times when I could have taken a stealthy approach by going through a narrow path to the side of a level’s section and other instances when I knew that taking my foes head-on would be best. There’s also a great amount of verticality to levels with many places having multiple floors to traverse, opening up for more interesting and varied combat and stealth. Lastly, while the AI may have acted stupidly sometimes, I was nevertheless impressed with the enemies in how they quickly plunged out of my line of fire and moved around the environment to confuse me on the second-to-hardest difficulty level. There’s just a display of dead solid gunplay and FPS mechanics in The New Order, making this one of the most fun, satisfying shooting experiences I’ve had in a while, let alone 2014.

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Blue eyes. Blue eyes everywhere. It’s weird because some of these characters aren’t even German!

Story

Old and new characters return for a sort of reimagining of Wolfenstein. You are Captain B.J. Blazkowicz, and you have signed up with the Allies to assault the forces of General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse on his island. However, everything goes south when he’s captured after storming Deathshead’s castle. Blazkowicz manages to escape, but is fatally injured in the process as shrapnel is lodged into his brain from a nearby explosion. He’s then brought to a mental clinic when found floating near a shore, but isn’t killed since he cannot be identified. Soon after, all of the Nazi forces unveil their technological advances in robotics and war machines to win World War II. It’s not until 14 years later that Blazkowicz recovers from his mental state, driven on by a certain situation that sparks his pursuit to find a small resistance force fighting against the Nazi regime. It’s the 1960s and the world is a strange, evil place. It’s up to B.J. to fix that by killing as many Nazi scum as possible and eliminating Deathshead for good.

It goes without saying that the premise for the game is banal and clichéd not only for Wolfenstein, but also for a FPS in general. You’re an unstoppable man with a plan that can take on all of the Nazis to kill a single man, really. I judged the game for this, but regret doing that. While you can simplify the game’s story to sound like any other FPS, there is a heart and depth to the narrative that is almost spellbinding in how it actually works. You have the most ridiculous of premises. It’s an alternate history world (I’m a sucker for this kind of fiction) where Nazis rule the world and have all kinds of robots, a base on the Moon, laser guns, and other things I cannot mention due to spoilers. At the same time, the dialogue is smart and intelligently written, the characters are worth caring about, and the way in which the Nazis are portrayed makes you think about their deeper goals and what they could’ve accomplished if they’d defeated the Allies. To me, The New Order is a paradox. It should not exist nor work with its conflicting story elements, and I would say that it goes a bit too far out there for its own good. However, it still works. That blows my mind.

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You’d think B.J. Blazkowicz is an emotionless meathead. Turns out he has a fairly layered personality as an introspective, thoughtful individual.

Why are all the aspects of the story I mentioned great? The dialogue doesn’t feel scripted or overly serious. There’s natural imperfection, emotion, and authenticity to it that lends to conversations between characters seeming real. My favorite aspect of it is Blazkowicz, whose lines are usually conveyed to the player through his thoughts, something that is rarely done in video games (The Batman: Arkham games come to mind though). While the main character you play as in FPSs is usually a boring vessel or someone that serves as a mere force for moving the story along rather than an interesting personality, I came to be fascinated by B.J. and the deep characterization that came through hearing his ponderings. You get to understand his outlook on life, what he fights for and desires, how he trudges on through his pain, and so on. While he may be the unrealistically macho man in his actions and appearance, there’s a history and meaning behind him that allowed me to relate to him unlike any other FPS protagonist. The side characters are not as fleshed out as him, but they were sufficiently covered enough to where I cared for whether they died or not. In one section of the game, I instinctively shouted, “No!” as someone I liked risked his life to save someone, and during this scene I had to protect him from the Nazis around us, which I vehemently did. It’s not often I feel this way for any side characters in a FPS, but with such a diversified and colorful cast of characters – including a woman bound in a wheelchair and a brain-damaged man – I’m thoroughly impressed with them and commend MachineGames for taking the extra step to fill in an area so underdeveloped in this genre.

Deathshead is terrifying as the main antagonist: a man who has lost all humanity to feel empathy for anyone, viewing people as animals to experiment on. It reflects in his disturbingly humorous disposition in the face of atrocities, and you grow to hate him alongside other characters like the insane Frau Engel and her lapdog lover named Bubi. They will certainly tell you of their fascist and racist ideals, but their goals and reasons are not without logic or reason. As you look at what their order has accomplished in such a minimal time and how they’ve been morally and intellectually shaped by Hitler’s world, you’ll give pause at how well MachineGames portrays the Nazis. Sure, you get to kill loads of them to your heart’s content, but the game isn’t mindless. It’s filled with newspaper clippings and files you can read that delve into this alternate world, which is plausible in a few areas of how Nazi culture could have evolved and swallowed up others in its wake, how it could’ve shaped and guided society and scientific research, etc. You get to have all of this with a well-paced campaign that engrosses you in an intriguing, horrifying alternate reality. The game’s a lot like Spec Ops: The Line in how it deceives you with its generic outer shell. You gotta crack into it and peer inside to uncover what’s special about it.

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Shootin’ Nazis in glorious HD. Smashing.

Visuals

At a solid 1080p resolution and 60fps, I cannot complain about the game’s performance. It runs very well on the PS4 and looks the part with sharp textures, great lighting, good mo-cap with the characters’ gestures and mouth animations, etc. It doesn’t reach the levels of games like Killzone: Shadow Fall or The Last of Us, but The New Order has it where it counts with only minor missteps in some texture detail here and there. But that’s not what I want to put at the forefront. What the game excels at visually is not in graphical fidelity, but in its art and aesthetic direction. It may be amazing to scale the wall of a Nazi castle in the beginning level, but when you enter the 1960s and see what the Regime has done to the world, you’ll be astounded at the vision the developer has for it. The Nazis were known for their rigid, luxurious, monolithic architecture and excessive symbolism, which is reflected in the design of the cities you explore, the prisons you find yourself in, and even the base you explore on the Moon. There’s a looming, harsh look to it all that’s even reflected in the robots you fight, weapons you wield, and uniforms the Nazi leaders and soldiers wear. Everything is in reds, blacks, and grays, conveying a strong yet lifeless vibe to the environments. These may sound like negative criticisms, but it all adds up to creating an awful (using the archaic definition here) world. It’s fascinating and sometimes breathtaking to behold, sure, but it’s scary. I’ll remember The New Order for its faithfulness to Nazi iconography and style, but it’s the creative liberties taken with it that are the most memorable.

Audio

It goes without saying that a high-profile game such as this is going to have great sound design, ranging from every gunshot to every footstep. There’s no need to talk about the excellent work in this category, like with the eerie mechanical grindings and whirrs of the Nazis’ robotics and strange technologies. I’ve heard that it did not fair as well near launch, but patches have fixed this issue since then. On the other hand, the music and voice acting need to be highlighted for how extraordinarily great they are, going above what is average and expected of a FPS. For a game with such a ridiculous, clichéd premise, the voice work shocked me in how authentic and believable it is for all of the characters. It helps that the story’s resistance group consists of a wide variety of personalities like the lofty, intelligent Set Roth and sarcastic, determined Caroline Becker. Deathshead and Engel are utterly disturbing in their insane demeanors; Blazkowicz’s reflective wisdom sounds intentional, if you will, through his internal thoughts. My point is that the characters are not only distinguishable in their personalities and appearances, but also with their voices. The music is…well, if you were expecting an orchestral soundtrack with some dubstep wubs thrown in, you would be sorely mistaken.

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I’m getting a Joker vibe coming off of Deathshead. He’s certainly insane and evil enough to take his place.

Michael John Gordon helps set The New Order further apart with a score that has a mix of songs that are either acoustically driven with guitars and subdued strings or metal fused with loud percussion (which is actually done via heavy techno sounds) and disturbing machine-like sounds. “Ransacked” is a compositionally excellent demonstration of the latter, and “14 Years” is a short yet eerily beautiful and catchy example of the former. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from a game that could’ve gone with the most predictable of musical themes, but it wraps every moment of it with fitting tracks that amplify the emotions I felt while playing. There are even songs you can find as unlockables throughout the campaign that are alternate versions of popular songs between the 1940s and 1960s by various artists like The Beatles, Martha and the Vandellas, and so forth, characterized by German instruments and lyrics (which even have Nazi themes in most cases). It’s disappointing that you have to look hard to find these tracks, but they’re worth a listen and make you consider how a Nazi world would’ve influenced the music industry had the Germans won.

Lasting Appeal

Would you like to know how else this game isn’t like a typical FPS? There’s no multiplayer or co-op component. All it can boast is a single-player campaign. Ah, but this isn’t your average 5-hour long romp through action and explosions. Think three times that number: The New Order has a 14 to 16-hour long campaign, and this isn’t padded out to make up for its lack of other modes. The work solely focused on the campaign shines in the game’s polish, scope, daring direction, and every level. We need more FPSs like this because half of the time, additional modes aren’t necessary. That’s why The New Order is as good as it is and worth every penny.

Conclusion

Although I’ve made Wolfenstein: The New Order sound like the savior of the FPS genre, I wouldn’t say it’s without fault. I do think the stealth gameplay – while fun – is somewhat bare in how you can play around with it. Despite the ridiculousness of the story, much of it is somewhat plausible, but my suspension of disbelief eroded with a few weird moments and contrived aspects that seemed out of place. I could nitpick at some gameplay issues, too, but they pale in comparison to what the game accomplishes. I heard someone recently say that MachineGames throws out all of the expected rules, modes, and stuff FPS games “need” today to succeed and instead creates one that is unexpected yet wonderfully fun, surprisingly deep, and packed with more ingenuity than you’d ever expect. The New Order feels like a fresh experience by a new developer in a classic genre saturated with old ideas. The developer should be applauded for this massive feat since it is the developer’s first game, which I did Nazi coming at all….sorry, I had to say it!

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This review was originally published on my Google Blogger website.