This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Wolfenstein: The New Order.
What has the video game industry got against the historians of the future? Is it because they've never come back and given us jetpacks? That's just being entitled, isn't it? And yet we still insist on naming games specifically to fuck with future archiving systems. Like the last time Wolfenstein came around, it was just called Wolfenstein, an experience I found so mediocre that I had to write the review in limericks to stop myself gnawing my hands off at the wrist.
But on reflection, if I thought Wolfenstein represented an apex of mediocrity in shooters, I must have been severely lacking in imagination back then, before the Modern Warfare genre had fully completed its slide into that dark unpleasant pit where there is only meaningless violence and a complete absence of Nazi space wizards. The sheer lack of self-awareness in spunkgargleweewee betrays an ugly paranoia that still exists in people today, whereas Nazi space wizards just illustrate how thoroughly we've gotten over those Nazi twats and can be free to blow off their limbs and fuck the stumps without worrying about whether it might be a bit weird.
So Wolfenstein: The New Order, more fun for the future archivists. What are you gonna call the next one, The Slightly Newer Order?
The series has shifted from secret history of World War II to flat-out alternate history, which is immediately brought across by the prologue being a desperate last-gasp attempt to prevent Nazi victory in 1946, their electropunk wizard technology having reminded them to bring a few more woolly sweaters to the Russian front. Our hero, William J. Blazkowicz (the weird thing I noticed is that very few people still call him B.J. in this game, I guess he's had enough of it being mistaken for an instruction in the communal shower), misses his chance to kill the Nazi space wizard and gets a chunk of shrapnel lodged in his meaty head like a dislodged filling in a Jersey Caramel. After spending fourteen years in a Polish asylum trying to squeeze the shrapnel out by thinking about it really hard (the kind of fourteen years during which nobody ages a fucking day, but never mind), he leaps back into Nazi-killing action with a machine gun in one hand and his nurse on the other, who fell in love with him from all those romantic arse-wiping sessions.
New Order has some surprisingly strong story-telling chops. One of the many advantages of Nazis is that you don't have to justify shit. "Hey, this guy's a Nazi, would you like to drown him in his own piss?" the game might ask. "Sorry, did you say something? I was busy drowning a Nazi in his own piss," we might reply. But despite that, New Order puts the effort into making hating Nazis feel fresh again. One of the first things we do is watch a soldier shoot a room full of hospital patients before we stab him right up the lebensraum, and the principal villains only need to smile and play card games to become infinitely hateable.
Meanwhile, the range of characters in the heroic resistance are almost universally flawed and sympathetic. I was drifting through Resistance HQ playing the "guess who's going to do the inevitable betrayal" game, but every flash of antagonism belied only the frustrations of rational people in an irrational world. Even Captain Meathead, who spends the whole game talking in a grizzled macho whisper and tanks cutscene injuries like they're butterfly kisses, comes across as pained and exhausted by it all, fighting to kindle the last embers of hope in a damp forest as Fritz prowls around with a Super Soaker full of cold spunk.
But I do have a criticism in that I'm not completely on board with the goal the heroic resistance are working towards. They seem to be mainly focused on bringing the smackdown on the chief Nazi space wizard's creepy ass, but the Nazis have conquered the world. They've won. They've written all those history books they were supposed to write and hung up their little swastika-patterned socks. I don't think they're going to be good enough sports to hand the world back just 'cos we killed their creepy dad.
I'm detecting a whiff of the old Uncharted syndrome in that I think the developers locked down a vague end-point of "killing creepy Nazi space dad wizard" and then filled the intervening time with a bunch of cool vignettes, figuring out after the fact how the plot connects them. This is most apparent just after B.J. nicks a German U-boat for exciting voyage-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea action, only to discover that they can't use the nukes until they get the launch codes, which for some reason are on the secret Nazi moon base! 'Cause it's not like you'd ever need something like that close to hand! The President's only bloody handcuffed to the launch codes 'cause he loves to accessorize! You know, at that point, B.J. is basically Tintin on protein shakes.
The gameplay is that you shoot the baddies and the baddies shoot back. Also a standard suite of stealth mechanics; use the silenced pistol that will completely ruin your day if you miss the head by one-quarter of an inch, or use a throwing knife that can land squarely in the left butt-cheek and instantly ragdoll the guy. But it all works well together and doesn't call for further comment. What I did find interesting is that there are map screens for each level, and map screens in meathead shooters have been rarely seen since the preferred method of navigating mission shooters became to set every one in a fucking corridor with Christmas lights dangling overhead in case players get distracted by an overly-decorative skirting board. But Wolfenstein: New Order actually has levels with multiple routes and secret paths to reward exploration. It's almost like it manages to combine the positive qualities of older level-by-level shooters with those of more recent fare, possibly by going around with a fishing net and collecting a bunch of babies that got thrown out with the bathwater.
I'm a little bit iffy on the dual path concept where you have to decide which of two characters to save near the beginning and that changes which one's in the resistance later on, as well as which one of two lock-picking minigames you have to do the whole game for some reason. I don't want to have to play basically the same game twice to see the paltry handful of alternate scenes and pathways I missed that ultimately change bugger-all. Fool me once, shame on you, InFamous: Second Son!
But in the end, I'm actually a little surprised by how much I enjoyed Wolfenstein: New Order. In my mind, I put it alongside Resistance 3 and Escape from Butcher Bay (I've started mentally cutting off The Chronicles of Riddick part from that title in the hope of reducing the spread of infection), the upper tier of the meathead shooter that no, it doesn't really do anything new, but puts its pieces together skillfully and balances the weak underlying narrative with a somewhat picaresque approach that paces out its peaks and troughs competently. That's about all I've got really, but just for old time's sake:
- With the Wolfenstein series updated,
- It's straightforward enough, I can't hate it,
- For the goodies I root
- And the baddies I shoot
- And their corpses I leave desecrated!
- The master race of masturbation: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Admittedly 'Wolfenstein' isn't *exactly* the same title as 'Wolfenstein 3D' but I think the 3 in there just muddles the issue further
- All I want to know is whether or not MechaHitler is still canon
Extra: Humble eBook Bundle 4Edit
Hey, remember my second book, Jam, about an apocalypse with jam in it? Well, for the next few days, it's part of Humble eBook Bundle 4! Maybe you can get it and all of these and pay whatever you want. Well, at least 10 bucks to get Jam, but it's for charity, you monster!