I never knew Walter "Bill" Heap. My grandfather, like all my grandparents, died before I was born, so I didn't get to hear any of his war stories first-hand. I'm told that, despite being decorated for his actions in the Second World War, he spoke of arbitrary and unglamorous experiences; of men drowning in harbours miles from the action because gangplanks collapsed beneath them. Things like that. Less Hemingway, more Vonnegut.
Wolfenstein: The New Order has moments where it tries to remind you that war's chief consequence is suffering. Among its furious gunfights and science-fiction slaughter, it introduces reflection, romance, sadness and sentimentality. Sometimes it even manages to pull these off, while other times it misses the mark, in much the same way that it is sometimes an exciting and accomplished first-person shooter, yet at other times it falls flat. It's an interesting game and, while I don't think there's a lot to make it stand out, there is quite a lot to say about it.
A favourite topic of alternate history authors is the allies losing the Second World War and Axis forces running rampant across the globe. Much like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Wolfenstein: The New Order imagines space-faring, atomically assisted Nazis running the planet. The science-fiction side of things is turned up to eleven, with laser weapons, giant robots and genetically enhanced super-soliders all part of an alternate 1960s in which racial purity is paramount and the Beatles must sing in German. As William 'BJ' Blazkowicz, you join forces with what little resistance still lingers, fighting to bring down the New Order and define a future that has more in common with our own.
The game begins as a very showy series of set-pieces, a prologue set toward the end of the war that has you pressing X to close a valve, X to pull a lever, or even X to climb into a plane's nose turret and shoot at Nazi jets. It's all very prescriptive, and although you soon have a gun in your hand and the freedom to run around shooting people, Wolfenstein: The New Order does like its set-pieces and cut-scenes. While the latter are often cheesy, the former throw up a few neat moments, including roping up the wall of a fortress and piloting an awesome giant robot.
All these scripted events mean that this is mostly a game on rails, taking you from point to point with the minimum of distractions, secrets or alternate routes. Though a few examples of these do exist, they won't keep you off the the path laid before you for very long. If you were to go back and play the original Wolfenstein 3D, you'd discover that the contrast between the two is remarkable. Its ancestor serves as a reminder of just how sprawling first-person shooters used to be, along with how much of their expanse was entirely superfluous, existing only to be explored. In comparison, Wolfenstein: The New Order, like many of its peers, is rigid and claustrophobic.
Things do open up for some of the larger gunfights, with dozens of Nazis dashing around hangar bays, giant underground atria or an expansive submarine bridge, and it's here that Wolfenstein: The New Order is at its best. Bullets whizz, everyone ducks into cover and grenades bounce off nearby walls. Rifles thunder as canny Nazis try to flank you, armoured and augmented soldiers striding forward as you fire round after round into their massive torsos. Your cover is blasted away so you scrabble for protection, you stun robots with deftly hurled Tesla grenades, and you sidestep a charging soldier and use your melee attack to bring him down.
The best of these firefights are in large areas across multiple levels. In one underground rail depot I found myself pinned down in a control room, overlooking the scene. I had some Nazis peppering my walkway from below, other Nazis running up the stairs to close me down and, if I sat in cover for too long, a couple of cheeky Nazis trying to flush me out with grenades. It felt like I was facing a coherent fighting force.
Sometimes things don't hit that sweet rhythm. Things can be quite monochrome and, combined with fogging on some levels, this can make spotting targets difficult. Sometimes you're just firing at muzzle flashes in the hazy middle distance. On higher difficulty levels, enemies inevitably take a lot of damage to bring down, but this just makes your roaring weapons feel weak and underpowered. On lower difficulty levels, you're too much of a bullet sponge and can act almost with impunity.
The balance of lethality isn't quite right, then, and it's not the only thing. The collectibles that litter the game are just a diversion and the potential for character advancement is also quite limited. There are perks that can be unlocked to provide bonuses, such as faster reloads and greater magazine capacity, but these don't make any great difference to anything. The stealth perks can be more useful, but Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn't present many opportunities for sneaking, with the majority of environments clearly not built for it.
More worryingly, the game still lacks technical polish. Sometimes you notice enemies caught on the scenery, which at least can work in your favour - at one point my life was saved when a giant metal hound that was supposed to chase me down got stuck on a corner, endlessly running on the spot - but can also get you stuck from time to time, necessitating a restart. At least it doesn't happen to your AI allies, or in any case didn't happen to mine. Several times I did discover enemy soldiers unwilling to walk through doorways, though, and instead staring at me, guns lowered, in some sort of inert frustration as they remained rooted to the floor. It usually happened in tighter areas, particularly corridors, of which the game has no shortage.
Most of the time things hummed along just fine, but other technical troubles included plot-critical NPCs never appearing, the same cut-scene playing twice, the guards in the Wolfenstein 3D Easter egg firing bullets out of their stomachs, some objects being incredibly fiddly to pick up, and enemy units clipping through closed doors to such a degree that I could easily shoot limbs that extended, like those of a phantom, as they protruded into the room. Wolfenstein: The New Order may not have too much in common with its ancestor in a structural sense, then, but it's certainly evocative of an era when games rarely felt all that rigorously tested.
It's a shame, because although the game is sometimes rough around the edges, you also find many examples of fine craftwork and attention to detail. Machine Games' vision of this alternate reality is all red banners, brushed metal and weird technology. Nazi-occupied London is grim concrete, grey in the evening light. A general's headquarters is adorned with busts and propaganda posters. Everything is appropriately oppressive, though many areas can be a little too tight and cluttered and only occasionally do you really get a sense of size, of grandeur, of the scale of post-war Nazi might. When you do though, it's a powerful effect.
Less impressive are the plot and the characters, which often feel like they exist only to amplify the opportunities for violence and sensationalism. There are grizzled veterans and twisted geniuses and plenty of wicked torturers, but few characters who have a sense of depth. BJ himself whispers corny exposition that is as likely to have you rolling your eyes as it is feeling any empathy with him. To its credit, there are a few plot twists and surprises along the way, none of which I want to spoil, but the game rarely achieves the pathos that it's trying so hard for.
Plot aside, Wolfenstein: The New Order would be a gruesome game anyway, with its knives to the neck and its giant robots crushing the skulls of captive prisoners, and there's no denying that it deliberately reaches for so many of the opportunities that telling a tale of Nazism presents. At one point I found myself under a pile of corpses, in a furnace, within a concentration camp. On another occasion I had to suffer a far crueller version of Sophie's Choice as I chose which of my friends would be mutilated by a sadistic Nazi doctor-general. There's a fair amount of watching people die and being helpless. And while there is almost no direct reference to Hitler, Himmler, the Holocaust or to so many examples of the war's inhumanity, their shadow looms large across the game and they're repeatedly reflected in its unfolding.
I wouldn't say it's offensive, but Wolfenstein: The New Order isn't a very tactful game, even though it's often trying to be. The plot, with those many cut-scenes (and with quite a few moments of downtime that turn into fetch-quests), often features abrupt and rather bizarre turns. It might be a sudden sex scene, humour out of nowhere or an unexpected suicide bombing. At one point, halfway through assaulting an enemy base, I had to stop and select a scalpel to make progress. It turned out that my character decided the time was right to halt shooting and cut a serial number out of his arm. This is a game that does everything it needs to to earn an 18 certificate but rarely manages to achieve a sense of either gravity or maturity.
But it is trying, and I do respect that not everyone out there is making games where one minute you're using a laser to make a Nazi burst and the next minute you're collecting toys for a man with a mental disability. This plot, its many cut-scenes and set-pieces, is clearly where much of the game's heart lies. It's had so much invested in it, even if it doesn't quite deliver.
"War is not nice," Barbara Bush supposedly said, and it's often difficult for creative media to get across just how nice war isn't. Wolfenstein: The New Order has all sorts of war stories it wants to share with you and it knows how it wants you to feel, but it's not convincing. Its stories are more sensational than poignant. It's a decent shooter with a good few impressive moments, but it can be buggy and it doesn't offer much you can't find elsewhere, with little to tempt you back when it's over. Where it most tries to stand out, in its narrative and setting, it often comes off as juvenile. Overall, it's built on an impressive world but it doesn't do enough with it, and as a result it's curious, but hardly compelling.