MachineGames has turned the prototypical first-person shooter into a stealth-action-adventure game – with surprising results.
I would have loved to have been in the room when MachineGames, the developer of Wolfenstein: The New Order, pitched their vision for the game to the suits at Bethesda; to see their faces as this upstart from Sweden offered to turn the archetypal and prototypical first-person World War Two shooter into a stealth-action-adventure game set in an alternate version of the 1960s.
As Super Meat Boy developer Tommy Refenes remarked on Twitter: “I never thought I’d play a Wolfenstein game where I collect toys for a manchild.”
I’m not sure whether Refenes is happy about this state of affairs – but I am. Wolfenstein is everything I hoped it would be from a studio that counts former Starbreeze personal among its ranks. It has the same dark brutality, and simple but effective stealth and exploration mechanics put to good use in The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, mixed with the heartfelt (if ‘B’ movie-esque) storytelling of The Darkness.
The combination of these two elements might not make for a wholly unique experience. But for those of us who loved Starbreeze at its peak, MachineGames continues this heritage.
Alongside its blend of influences, Wolfenstein: The New Order is also a cocktail of the serious and stupid. Beginning with an air assault on arch-villain General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse’s castle – a nod to the series’ origins – it’s only five minutes in before lead character BJ Blazkowicz is leaping between planes mid-air, manning turrets to take down giant robot dogs and violently backstabbing unaware enemy troops.
When we join the story, it’s the end days of WW2, with this being the decisive battle. Without spoiling anything, it doesn’t end well. Blazkowicz and co. are captured. He’s caught in an explosion which puts him into a coma for 16 years, during which time the Nazis go on to achieve global domination.
When Blazkowicz awakens, he sets out to join the resistance – a quest that takes him in and out of prison (where Riddick’s influence is most keenly felt) to Nazi-occupied London and even the Moon.
It’s a thrilling ride, but between violent bursts of visceral action, MachineGames ensures there are moments of calm, of reflection, and of exploration. These are most apparent in the chapters set within the resistance headquarters. Used to break up the game’s main missions, these levels task you with completing errands for your comrades (yes, including a hunt for lost toys) which take you deeper into the underground complex. While exploring, you’ll catch snatches of conversations taking place above ground, offering a glimpse into the lives of those living under Nazi occupation.
You’ll also discover newspaper clippings, audio diaries and handwritten letters, that flesh out the world and fill in the 16-year gap between Blazkowicz’s defeat and his resurgence. Cruelty and brutality prevail in a world ruled by fascists, and their barbarism is fully on display when Blazkowicz infiltrates a forced labour camp. In a memorable scene, the player looks on while a robot prison guard grabs the corpse of a dead women by the head and carries it, swinging, to a disposal facility – all while a worldly-wise Jewish man ruminates on the futility of hope in such a place.
Mechs, super soldiers and metallic canines aside, it’s all fairly believable stuff and gives you, as a player, a sense of moral justification for the horrors you inflict in revenge. The game is positively gleeful in the means with which it gives you to do away with Nazis: from the ability to dual-wield any weapon, including sniper rifles, to the stab-happy stealth kills, which see human skulls perforated several times more than is strictly necessary to ensure death.
On several occasions, you might think it all a bit much. But it’s entirely in keeping with the character of Blazkowicz – a man whose prime motivation is to take out as many Nazis as possible through whatever means necessary. He has a softer side, too, shown through hazy daydreams of a happy future home life for him and his love interest. But the game shuns the easy route for a darker ending that’s more in keeping with its overall tone.
All told, Wolfenstein is a bleak game – but there’s a beauty to its visual direction, from the overcast and downtrodden skyline of Occupied London, to the low-set sun that lights the forced labour camp, through to the contrasting light and shade of the Moon’s dappled surface.
Its control scheme is equally as finessed as its art direction, particularly in its well-implemented lean system, which allows for a greater degree of cover management during particularly hectic gun battles.
The game’s main shortcomings are its long load times (at least on PS3), which serve to unduly punish failed experimentation in combat with excessive bouts of thumb-twiddling. There’s also a feeling that a lot of the interaction and exploration of the world is quite shallow. Missions tend to be short, contained affairs with only limited opportunities to go off course, while side-quests handed out by NPCs are token affairs. It’s still more than most modern FPSs offer, but compared to Riddick and The Darkness, it comes up short.
That said, it’s a confident first outing for MachineGames – a development house that displays the same care and attention to world building that marked Starbreeze out from lesser studios. Hopefully, global domination awaits.
Quick Rinse: Darren Gargette is over the Age of Consent and so, without Regret, doesn’t stand on Ceremony before playing MachineGames’ 2014 Wolfenstein: The New Order (PC version). He’s left suffering with Shellshock: