Wednesday, May 28, 2014

REVIEW - Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a purely traditional FPS.  It represents a linear campaign with nicely high production values, smooth and capable shooting mechanics, comfortable design and a surprisingly adept narrative.  There are no bells and whistles, here, but what's on offer is rock-solid, making The New Order an easy recommend.

Let us break it down.

Wolfenstein has been around since 1992 (actually, '81 if you want to get technical, which I don't), and while the series has had its share of good and above-par games, it was destined to never again attain the cultural resonance it achieved, then. Like Super Mario Bros., like Pac-Man and DOOM, everyone played Wolfenstein 3D twenty-two years ago.  It is one of the shared experiences of our generation - one of our Woodstocks - a ubiquity that is unlikely to be repeated by it or any other property, as video games and media in general become ever-broader.

No Wolfenstein game will ever matter as much as Wolfenstein 3D did, and does - but that doesn't mean a game can't recapture the wholesome, childlike delight that can only comes from shooting Nazis in the face, and watching their faces go, like, bla! 


And The New Order certainly does.  The developer is a young studio called MachineGames, which was founded in '09 by ex-Starbreeze folks and acquired by (publisher) Bethesda's parent company a year later.  Starbreeze, you'll recall, were responsible for the Riddick games and that early-7th-gen standout, The Darkness, which levels some impressively nuanced storytelling at its audience in a game characterized by heart-devouring shoulder-mounted demonic snakes (anyone who played that game will never forget the To Kill A Mockingbird scene).

The Darkness is a solid FPS, but what makes it special are those unforgettable story beats - and I'm pleased to advise you that Wolfenstein: The New Order boasts similar strength.

Set fourteen years after the Nazi regime won World War II and took over the world, the game permits one to fight against literally-impossible odds, and win - but the ridiculousness of playing David to the Nazis' Goliath is lost on no one, save the player-character.   This is a world in which everyone has abandoned hope, and only you, William "B.J." Blazkowicz, can give it back to them.

The game's roaring, teeth-gritting, blood-painting rampages are juxtaposed, here, against touching moments of quiet in the resistance safehouse.  Max Hass has lost his toys - can you find them for him?  Anne, whom you rescued from the work camp in northern Ukraine, has lost her wedding ring - and handing it back to her feels... beautiful.  The look in her eye - the appreciation - feels real.

You protect them, and they look to you as a symbol of strength, of resistance - and you come to love them for it.  None of these moments attain the game-stopping power of the To Kill A Mockingbird scene in The Darkness, but they resonate with the same human honesty and insight.  Beautiful additions that serves to absorb the player in The New Order's oppressive world.

It casts Blazkowicz as a tortured but endearing wrecking machine in the vein of Marv from Sin City, who will crush a skull with the same hand that offers a flower to a loved one.  Via an almost-whispered internal monologue, he reflects on his life, his boyhood fears and the terrible moments of hope he permits himself to suffer as a reminder of what he's fighting for - before diving back in to the bloodbath and carrying out missions no one could expect to survive.

Brian Bloom's performance as B.J. is selfless.  There's no guile of pride to it, and he takes no great pains to impress, but instead offers a quietly confident and capable performance as solid and unassuming as the game he inhabits - letting his actions speak louder than his words - and B.J.'s actions can be... eloquent.

He's simultaneously a canny exploration of the emotional state such a creature would suffer and an effective one-liner-crackin' action-hero he-man - his honesty as the former informing his believability as the latter - and he is thus a terribly effective avatar for the player to inhabit.  We can see our own humanity in him, and so his and our victories against the game's ridiculously-impossible odds taste all the sweeter.

Nearly every mission drops you in to an environment, Solid Snake-style, with nothing but a knife or a shitty pistol, and to obtain an assault rifle, you must pry it from the cold, dead hands of a Nazi who was better-equipped than you were, when you killed him.

The New Order supports two comfortable varieties of play - stealth and mayhem - and it's often possible to clear entire areas with nothing but a knife and some patience.

Stealth-killing enemy commanders ensures they can't call for reinforcements.

Environments are generally pleasantly open, offering a whiff (but not a full dose) of the wider level design of id and 3D Realms' heyday - always encouraging exploration with collectibles and lots of little secret stashes to find - and it's nice to enjoy an FPS that isn't a strictly linear hallway.

After sneaking about for a bit, cutting throats and nailin' silenced headshots, B.J. is soon loaded for bear with pistols (plural), assault rifles (plural), shotguns (plural), sniper rifles (plural!) and blades (you get it) - and he can dual-wield everything.  The game's stealth is somewhat perfunctory - it's no Far Cry 3 - but it works well.  When you're stalking halls with an assault rifle in each hand, zipping in to and dashing out of cover, however, is when the game becomes what it feels it was meant to be.

The New Order provides very comfortable first-person shooting - almost mundane in its assortment of standard weapons, grenades, alt-fires and inviting explosive canisters placed just so - but that is also what permits it a lovely, classic feel to its action.  If you love the feel of a good first-person shooter, you'll love this.

It progressively pits you against ever-more insane odds, its difficulty only spiking at a single room towards the end of the game (puts you up against like fifteen goons with a single pistol, a sniper rifle and almost no cover) - that aside, it's a comfortable gradient that steadily escalates its demands and ensures you're consistently pushing at your comfort zone, getting better, gleaning more satisfaction.

There's little to its mechanics - tesla grenades, explosives and energy weapons are effective against the regime's mechanical horrors, and that's about as strategic as it gets - but within its simplicity, The New Order achieves the arcadey first-person sweet spot one desires of an id game.

Shotguns feel proper, for example.

Emerging from cover with an assault rifle in each hand, putting a bead to an enemy's feet and holding down R2 so the kick of the gun zips up his torso, swooping your view around to another and holding down L2 - zzzzip!  Feels good - feels vital and powerful and sharp - and when a door opens to a flood of enemies and you jam down both triggers, sweeping them with an obliterating hail of pain...

Swooping around a corner to greet a Heavy enemy with the taptaptaptap roars of automatic shotguns in each hand...

Well, there's always been something wholesome about killin' Nazis.

"I'm gonna' ask you one question.  You are gonna' answer that question in a way I find satisfactory, and if you do not, I will saw your head off with this here appliance."

There is an argument to be made that The New Order fails to meaningfully reflect on the most abhorrent chapter in human history.  MachineGames certainly seem capable of investing its villains with the same humanity and depth as its heroes, if it chose, and mining emotional gold - but that's not what the game sets out to do, and is in opposition to its ambition.

The New Order enjoys its dichotomy - the larger-than-life characters, the quiet moments of relateable humanity juxtaposed with its ludicrous gibs and nostril-flaring action - it's got a slightly-exploitive high-budget B-movie vibe, and it plays it well, thanks in part to the immediate accessibility of its central conceit.

Here, Nazis serve much the same purpose as zombies - they're fun to kill, and you never feel bad about it. The fact that Nazis were (are?) real people with real feelings, real families, real hopes and dreams - who found themselves following orders to the point of abject horror - doesn't enter in to The New Order's fantasy.  Everyone in a Nazi uniform is evil.  Period.

This is pulp entertainment - it would be Tarantino-esque if its lead villains were more characters than (entertaining!) charicatures - and it leverages the universal appreciation for symbols of Nazi fascism as icons of evil to great effect.

The Nazis, then, fill the same emotional space as The Empire in Star Wars and the hordes of Mordor in Lord of the Rings.  Taking the place of space wizards or regular wizards, here, are... learned Jews.  Not kidding.  Wise Hebrew men, of an ultra-secret society which guards almost-supernaturally powerful artefacts that offer humanity hope in its battle against the global darkness of the regime.

Exploitive?  Yes.  It also ends up feeling strangely emotionally honest - classic, traditional, good-versus-evil stuff - which makes it feel right and righteous when you pull the trigger on the Laserkraftwerk ultra-weapon and watch an assault trooper explode into saucy bits like he just got hit with that awesome gun from District 9.  You know the gun.  That gun.

I appreciate that quality of entertainment - the classic and the pure entertainment - but more than that, I appreciate shooting Nazis with dual-wield laser rifles while storming their awesome base on ze dark side of ze Moon!

MachineGames have announced their existence with one of the most entertaining shooters in years.  It's aesthetically sharp, with bold art direction, striking set pieces, great presentation on PS4 and a rock-solid, silky-smooth framerate, thanks to the beautiful scaleability of id's Tech 5 engine (Rage).  It's a sharp, smooth, comfortable FPS that deftly rides the sweet spot of its genre with impactful weapons, capable enemy AI (when they're armed with guns - not so much with batons), satisfying challenge, canny pacing and genuine, viscerally thrilling action.

It's a cheeky, pulpy, zany fun-park ride of a game with a cast of crazed and crazy villains, a lovable, rag-tag band of heroes, remarkable moments of quiet, honest character exploration and the guilty pleasure of enjoying it when a bad guy's head explodes.  It's an entertaining story, smartly told, well-paced, well-written, well-acted (for the first time in years, I actually stopped playing a game to listen to an audio diary every single time one became available), with a great dynamic soundtrack that turns into straight metal when the action starts to roar.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game that entirely achieves what it sets out to do.  It breaks no new ground, but it's a title that manages to do a heritage that reaches back to the birth of its genre proud.  It's excellent.

Boom boom boom boom.

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