Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raucous Reich – Wolfenstein: The New Order

My colleague and fellow SF enthusiast Shlomo is an avid aficionado of alternate-history fiction, relishing stories in which significant historical events are given the “what if” treatment: what if Lincoln or Kennedy had survived their assassinations? What if Russia had been the first to land on the moon? What if the September 11th terrorist attacks had never happened? Perhaps the most well-known example is the enduringly fascinating question of “What if the Nazis had won World War II?”, which has been explored in countless books, films, graphic novels, and video games – notably in the last case through the classic first-person shooter (FPS) series called Wolfenstein. The latest incarnation, Wolfenstein: The New Order, is the most well-equipped of the series to tackle this intriguing premise, and does so with intensity, humour, polish, and no small amount of teeth (though I’m not sure it would be up Shlomo’s strasse, so to speak – I expect his review of the game would be altogether different).

1992 to 2014: the evolution of “B.J.” Blazkowicz
If you’d like a primer on how to properly update a classic, look no further. Wolfenstein 3D, a DOS game from 1992, has the honour of being widely recognized as the title which introduced the “run-and-gun” archetype that would become the norm for all first-person shooters to follow. You played as William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, a square-jawed Allied soldier, and fought through hordes of goose-stepping foes in an effort to escape the Nazi prison known as Castle Wolfenstein. Novel concepts for the genre that were introduced here included the ability to retrieve weapons and ammo from fallen enemies, hidden items and treasures scattered throughout the world, and a paranormal take on traditional WWII narratives, in which the Nazi war machine obtains eldritch technology to enhance their plans for world domination. In Wolfenstein: The New Order we see what happens when these plans come to fruition, as well as a return to many of these classic gameplay elements, bringing Blazkowicz into the modern age with an updated look and a deep fondness for the old-school style of design. Unlike many modern shooters, which progress in a linear fashion (the game world restricted to branching corridors that are interrupted by story sequences), Wolfenstein retains the design of its predecessors, dropping the player into a closed but sprawling area which can be cleared of enemies, combed for hidden items and collectibles, and finished whenever you choose. The difficulty is a blast from the past as well, rewarding a more courageous and skillful approach with unlockable modes and special content, and punishing the diffident or reckless player with lighthearted scorn (the easiest difficulty level is called “Can I Play, Daddy?”). For any player, the gameplay is just pure, unrestrained, psychotic fun: in the first ten minutes of the game I was pumping screaming hot lead of every imaginable kind into everything within sight bearing a swastika, ripping a B52’s flak cannon off its moorings and wading into a German trench, barely breaking stride to hock a potato-masher into a gun nest, a howling one-man engine of war. As with many FPS games, notably Halo, you can dual-wield weapons – but in Wolfenstein, you can dual wield any weapon. Shotguns? Sure. Rocket launchers? You bet. Sniper rifles? Why not? It’s ludicrous, but that’s part of the appeal. Nazis have always made for perfectly detestable antagonists, and in no media product is it more satisfying to watch them die. Blazkowicz is an instrument of righteous fury and you wield him with impunity against the forces of greed, bigotry, hubris, and evil – and it feels great.

The graphics (which is quickly becoming an fairly antiquated term; “visuals” or even “CGI” is probably more accurate) certainly fit the “next-gen” bill, depicting this fantastical alternate-history 1960 with stunning, stylized, hyper-realistic fidelity. The quality of the cutscenes (also known as cinematics; these terms refer to the computer-generated story scenes which glue disparate gameplay sequences together) are a standout feature here. The dialogue perfectly suits the tone, the acting (and the motion-capture technology required to deliver it) is convincing, and they blend seamlessly with gameplay overall. The cutscenes are so good, in fact, that I sometimes found myself impatient to beat a level just to see the next one. To give a small example: the intro gameplay sequence sees Blazkowicz storming a Nazi stronghold only to escape an exploding room by falling hundreds of feet out a window into the sea. The next cutscene depicts his convalescence in a Polish asylum, showing the seasons changing and life bustling around his catatonic form in a dreamlike time-lapse that was jaw-dropping in its unexpected poignancy.

Wolfenstein combines over-the-top, ridiculous, Rambo-style action and a tongue-in-cheek tone with serious thematic material including but not limited to war, torture, and an extended version of the Holocaust – the Nazis won, remember, so their ethnic purge is not only allowed to continue, but enhanced by new technology and bolstered by the bloated coffers of a victorious Reich. It handles these serious themes – such as the near-complete extinction of the Jewish people – in a way that curiously doesn’t clash with the more absurd touches; it knows how preposterous the idea of a “one man army” is, and uses this devil-may-care tone to pull you into this heightened alternate world, before engaging with some genuinely thought-provoking commentary. The characterization of Blazkowicz in particular exceeded expectations, showing exactly what might happen, physically and psychologically, to a man whose past, present, and future are as bloodstained as his. Just as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds aimed to provide an (exaggerated) outlet for Jewish grief and rage, Wolfenstein knows enough to remind the player of the reason why violence – even in gleeful excess – might not only be a necessary reaction, but a cathartic release.

The game shows clear signs of having been made with effort, care, and precision; there’s no apparent laziness or corner-cutting of any kind on display here. Wolfenstein’s original developer id Software (and birthplace of another FPS icon, the notorious DOOM series), passed the rights on to Swedish rookie developer MachineGames, and it’s evident that they are not only dedicated game-makers, but passionate fans of the series. A friend of mine remarked when playing the game, with a degree of surprise in his voice, that “they really tried with this.” MachineGames nimbly dodged a pitfall into which many similar reboots all too easily tumble, crafting a game that is worthy of attention if only because of the care with which it was made. These days, there’s also a degree of risk in releasing an FPS with no dedicated multiplayer mode; games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Team Fortress 2 have established an environment in which a shooter is seen as half-assed or valueless if players cannot engage one another in online play. Wolfenstein stands on the strength of its single-player experience, and this choice pays significant dividends in terms of polish and focus.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is obviously not for everyone – those disinclined towards exaggerated sci-fi war action, and especially the squeamish, need not apply – but for genre enthusiasts and newcomers alike, it provides a visceral and exciting adventure in an alternate-history world. After reading this review, the game will surely sound completely insane. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing will tell you whether or not you should play it.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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