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Wolfenstein – The New Order

Bloody Spectacular

Played on PC (Steam)

I could not have been less excited when I first heard about Wolfenstein:  The New Order (TNO).  The previous games, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Wolfenstein(2009) were mediocre, fairly forgettable FPSs.  They wreaked of ‘Product’, as if created to capitalize on the then current versions of the popular ID Tech Engine.  They weren’t poor games necessarily, but definitely unexceptional, and in my mind only ever reached the status of ‘passable’.  Mostly, they were devoid of creativity and passion.

My deflated attitude towards the series has only allowed The New Order to surprise me.  It is one of the rare games that I immediately started again after completing the campaign.

Machine Games realised that the Wolfenstein franchise is married to the first person experience – but rather than making another generic shooter, they used the well known FPS framework to make the most polished, intense, beautiful, surprisingly touching game of Wolfenstein they could achieve.

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The mechanics require only a brief mention because they are near perfect.  Weapons are tightly responsive, reliably consistent, feel powerful and look dangerous.  Combat is satisfyingly visceral due to the instant, intense audio and visual feedback from weapons, explosions and comical levels of gore.

The stealth is rewarding and satisfying.  Thankfully there isn’t any overpowered Batvision/Wallhack mechanic that will spot enemies for you.  No,  you have just your own vision and spacial awareness.

If you are conscious of your surroundings, noise and enemy positions then you can take out your targets in silence.  The concentration required makes neck shivving the next Nazi bastard feel all the more rewarding.

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You can always fall back on combat if stealth fails; clearing the room with sheer force and returning to stealth later.  Both strategies require skill so you never feel too stupid for setting off an alarm.

Stealth isn’t an option a lot of time – which is absolutely fine, Wolfenstein is a shooter after all.  

There is a restrained amount of enemy types but they are varied enough that you will find yourself switching tactics and weapons frequently to deal with the situation.

Levels are linear with limited exploration, however the game isn’t necessarily a corridor shooter either.  Combat areas are designed with openness to allow you run around and try different approaches.

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This contained level design works perfectly for TNO’s linear narrative – events are constantly moving forward.  This design works even in a mechanical and atmospheric sense – it allows for moments of quiet and exploration before attacking the next challenge.

There are no time filling crafting mechanics.  Upgrades are natural rewards that offer nice bonuses that help combat, but are not essential; so you aren’t punished for not exploring every nook and cranny.

There are no experience points and very little in the way of leveling aside from gaining perks in the combat style you favor the most.

Enemies range from normal cannon fodder to considerably challenging, but rarely so difficult to the point of being unfair (I played on the second to hardest difficulty, normal may be a bit too easy if you have played a lot of FPSs).

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There was the odd moment where I was thrown right into a situation in which I needed to bulldoze my way through with a degree of luck, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Even the usual boring parts of FPSs have had efforts made towards making them interesting.  At one point you are having a 3 way conversation over your headset:  As opposed to just standing there and listening, the screen splits into 3, showing your character and the two side characters in a Brian De Palma style cut, providing all points of view.

This adds nothing in a practical sense, but makes an otherwise boring exposition dump visually interesting.

The environments are absolutely gorgeous too.  Not just because of the high fidelity but also the amount of detail they possess.  Enemy locations are filled with Nazi propaganda, war documents, radio equipment,  computers etc…  None of which are thrown in your face directly, but subtly added to enhance the mood.  The rare outside areas are just as impressive with a consistent tone of oppression expressed via large mono toned blocked cities.

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Newspaper articles give information about the world and provide interesting alternate history scenarios, such as famous historical events, but through the context of a Nazi ruled world.

The most surprising element of TNO however, is that I cared about the characters.

I found the protagonist,  B.J, to be the least interesting of the central characters, probably because he can literally take a knife to the face without flinching – however, he isn’t the usual angry sociopathic grizzled soldier you find it most games.  He has genuine concern for his surrounding allies. He occasionally recounts his past to give some context to his current situation and even has flaws and regrets that help generate sympathy which made me actually like the man.

I usually find myself actively hating a game’s protagonist due to how astonishingly juvenile they are written, and though B.J has some immature qualities, he is very much selfless and somewhat sympathetic.

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Almost every secondary character is given time to develop.  Information is given on their past and how they formed their current attitudes.

TNO isn’t afraid to slow down to facilitate this development.  Simple missions such as bringing a document from one character to another allows for some personal moments.  These interactions only take a few minutes but the writing is so effective that nothing more is required – nothing is wasted in this time, every word and motion is telling a story about the speaker.

These scenes made me want to grab every other game writer and developer and scream ‘This is how you make me care!  Calm down and just take two minutes out of your 20 hour game and you can turn a character I loathe to one I like!’ (looking at you Tomb Raider (2012) ).

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Time is given to portray one character’s struggle with survivor’s guilt.  Another is characterised  for their obsession with being mathematically certain (to their own personal detriment).  Other characters’ personal issues are also given time to unfold.  There is a recurring theme whereby people are being mentally and physically haunted by their past.

The roster of supporting characters can change depending on a choice you make during the first chapter.  This choice changes a couple of secondary characters (and some upgrades).  However, both scenario’s characters are written well.  Though admittedly I had more fun with the Scotsman in my group.

A noticeably meaningful connection between character and gameplay occurs when You (B.J) unintentionally upsets a disabled character.

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This character, Max, was found by a reformed Nazi and taken under his care.  During a scene where B.J uses loud machinery, Max leaves the room upset and scared from the noise.

Shortly afterwards B.J finds one of Max’s toys, whereupon an objective marker is ticked and 3 more toy icons appear on the interface.  No explicit incentive is given for finding the rest of these toys.  No experience, guns, bonuses or anything else is offered.  However, I was still determined to complete the quest.  I wanted to make up for the incident and was genuinely happy when I returned the toys to Max’s room.

This quest can be completely skipped, but the fact that I took the time to search the base for the rest of the toys with no other incentive other than wanting to cheer up a character – just shows how much the game made me care.

I also wanted to mention the gloriously foul mouthed Scottish pilot Fergus.  Very rarely have I heard so much inappropriate language from such a likeable character.

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Conversely, the antagonists in the TNO are practically cartoon characters.

They are intensely psychotic, intimidating, violent and devoid of humanity.

They have little complexity or depth – which isn’t a criticism.  Thier deliberate monstrous disposition is so one-dimensional that they can be outright despised without guilt.  They are cosmically beyond redemption and their demise is, without a doubt, for the good of humanity.

The 2 or 3 primary antagonists have little actual screen time, but when they are on screen they absolutely steal the show through their colorful lunacy.

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In fact, outside of the main protagonists, every other aspect has it’s ridiculousness dialled to 11.

The environments and situations get progressively over the top as the story develops – from sneaking around a futuristic U-boat to flying to the actual moon.  Locations are occupied by not just normal Nazis, but super soldiers, robots, Nazi dogs and Nazi robot dogs.

Amazingly none of this detracts from the serious moments.  To refer back to the above statement about effective writing – TNO understands how to use tone.  The villains are comically evil, using cartoonish technology and as such, are appropriate recipients of the over the top violence that you can inflict.

The violence inflicted on the innocent and victimized is more appropriately disturbing and upsetting.  Apart from one key moment where required, the violence towards the protagonists and the resistance group is much more straightforward, feeling vastly more cruel and  brutal.  It has none of the silliness of the violence towards the antagonists – allowing it to carry more weight and generate for sympathy for the victims.  Seeing a grenade launching Nazi explode into blood is comical, whereas seeing a regular Nazi soldier unflinchingly put a bullet in a bed ridden mental patient is harrowing.

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I have some criticisms, but these are so minor that they were difficult to even remember.

There is a collectable mini objective whereby you can find Nazi treasure and enigma codes.  I found these to be pointless and just a cause for the ‘collection anxiety’ one gets when given a check list.  These provided little actual benefit and I would have preferred if they were just altogether omitted.

Also, the weapon selection wheel had a slight delay when switching between weapons, which isn’t really useful when having to swap to another gun when running out of ammo mid fire firefight.  It added tension definitely, but rather cheaply.  Most FPSs allow for unrealistic instant weapon swapping using the number keys; and since B.J can comfortably duel wield double-barrelled automatic shotguns, this is a bit of realism that would not have been missed.

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Again, this is really nit picking an otherwise phenomenal experience.

Wolfenstein the New Order is a AAA high-budget game created with great effort and care.  It tries very little new, and this is it’s greatest strength.  It perfects what it’s got and takes time to make you empathize with its characters and become absorbed in its amazing, well polished, fantastical world.  Mechanically solid, fluid and fun. Aesthetically fascinating and compelling even on an emotional level.  This is one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played  in long time.