Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wolfenstein: The New Order (and the Old Blood)

Perhaps the only thing missing from this game is the opportunity to personally
shoot Hitler in the face.
Wolfenstein is the grand-daddy of FPS, with Wolfenstein 3D one of the first serious exemplars of the genre, and a franchise which seems to renew itself once every decade or so. The latest revival began ahead of schedule with the largely ignored Wolfenstein in 2009, but this generation's serious entry is Wofenstein: The New Order, which brings the action of the series into an alternate 1960 in which the Nazis won the war and now rule the world.

Actually, we open with a chapter set in the last days of World War II, and the fact that this is in 1946 is a fucking sign. Long-time antagonist Wilhelm 'Deathshead' Strasse has pioneered a wave of advanced technologies which have brought the Nazis to the brink of total victory. Together with a company of infantry including Private Wyatt, and RAF pilot Fergus, series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz must infiltrate Deathshead's fortress and assassinate the general, but falls foul of what will come to be his most insurmountable foe of all, an unavoidable cutscene capture. Forced to chose which of his friends will be vivisected by Strasse, he escapes with the survivor, only to suffer a head wound which leaves him comatose.

Holy fucking shit I'M ON THE MOON!
Blazkowich spend fourteen years immobile in an asylum in Poland, until the Nazis come to close it down and take the inmates for experimentation. Driven by a desire to protect the nurse who has cared for him, Blazkowicz - displaying phenomenal muscle tone after fourteen years of immobility - starts murdering his way through the Nazis to save the girl. She takes him to her grandparents and they set off on a course that will lead them to the resistance, to a secret order of Jewish mystics, and even to the moon, before ultimately returning for a final confrontation with Deathshead.

Along the way, BJ has to fight robot dogs, cyborg dogs, supersoldiers, drones, and a whole lot of Nazis with a combination of light stealth and heavy firepower, including his new signature combination weapon and cutting tool, the LaserKraftwerk. There's a story, a romance, and you get to rock out with Jimi Hendrix in one of the timelines created by your choice at the start of the game. A lot of people get dead in the most horrible and visceral fashion that modern graphics technology can muster, and you spend what seems to be an awful lot of time looking down at a knife sticking out of BJ's chest, waiting for the QTE to strike back.

The Beatles may have gone German, but at least they got in trouble for not
thanking the Fuhrer before their concert.
The New Order is a very grim game, with lots of desperate gambits and bloody violence. At one point you fight your way through the burning Resistance HQ, past the bodies of your dead comrades, including a couple dead on a cot with a pistol by one of their hands. Then J plays the Star-Spangled Banner while he's gunned down by forces under the command of the crazed former head of the League of German Girls, whose face is all messed up from where it was squashed by a robot earlier in the game. Later on, her dodgy-moustached toyboy leers in your face after poisoning you, but you shrug off the drugs and brutally stab him to death. There's a lot of brutal to-death stabbing, with the takedown kills in particular leaving Dishonoured for dust and dual wielding - which you can do with everything from knives to assault shotguns - carrying a high chance of messy dismemberment.

Speaking of Dishonoured, my hours playing that game were a disservice here. Although there are stealth sections and it's always best to take out the commanders who can call in reinforcements before going loud, loud is pretty much where you always end up. This is not a stealth game and it isn't a game with multiple paths. It's a linear shooter, albeit a graphically impressive one. As a character, BJ Blazkowicz isn't actually that much more interesting for having a face, a voice and a love interest, and this does create a slight problem when he is surrounded by more interesting characters who keep getting killed.

Both of these two have more layers in their backstory than Blazkowicz, but by
the end of the game you will have shot one of them in the zombie face. I feel
it incumbent on me to save Annette because I don't want to let the only gay in
the franchise get eaten.
This goes double for the games stand-alone companion, The Old Blood, which is essentially the New Orderverse reboot of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, complete with the death of cool Brit Agent 1 (aka Wesley,) and a slight branching path where you can save either your resistance contact Kessler or his assistant Annette (because nuWolfenstein loves to make you choose who lives and who dies.) The one you don't get to in time becomes a zombie, as does Agent 2 (aka Pippa), another cool British character whose tragedy is all the greater, since it's her role to demand that you leave all your guns behind before going on a doomed undercover run, just to make sure that you have to watch her get clobbered by zombies because you can't shoot through a blocked gap to save her.

Don't get attached, folks.
So, yeah. It's more than thirty years since the first Castle Wolfenstein, and twenty since an identified BJ Blazkowicz first shot a Nazi in the face, and while The New Order and The Old Blood are decent fun and technically impressive, in terms of substance they aren't much beyond what Return was doing in 1992. The levels are open, but the plot still runs pretty much on rails. Also, you have to recollect your guns pretty much every level, even your spare knives and basic handgun don't seem to be basic mission equipment (although the laser cannon is thankfully essential,) which gets very, very old. As a die hard stealther, I also miss the Snooper rifle of Return, which leads to every level eventually becoming an arena.

On the upside, dieselpunk Nazi-punching, so it's swings and roundabouts.