MachineGames talks about Wolfenstein: The New Order being a story-driven, single-player adventure, and it's true there's some finesse and direction to the cutscenes, a suggestion of secondary characters with personality and backstory. Much the same can be said of Die Hard, though, and it's no War and Peace. That's not to dismiss the storytelling in The New Order, but based on what I see in its first two hours, it mostly sticks to the action movie spirit of tearing up Nazis, saving the day, getting the girl, and blowing shit up.
The return of William "BJ" Blazkowicz provides a gruff-voiced American hero with McClane-like hardened features and self-whispered one-liners, while Gruber is all but resurrected in the campy glares and maniacal laughs of the game's arch-villains. More important than that, I've got waves and waves of "Nazi scum" to kill, to use the blunt words of Blazkowicz, and machine guns in each hand. A story-driven romp The New Order may be, but a romp is still a romp. That said, the game shows a hand for ripping up preconceptions.
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Wolfenstein: The New Order (2/24/14)
At first, events are like a poor mimic of Call of Duty. I start on board a fighter plane with a Scottish captain barking orders at me - I thought I was the hero? - while the marrying of a tutorial with a Saving Private Ryan-like opening only dilutes the spectacle of the siege. It's all too slow and predictable, but thankfully the game soon kicks into gear.
After being separated from my squad I find myself on my own, storming the barracks that prelude the stony walls of the castle. There are giant striding mechs who stomp across the trenches, while the soldiers sport Tesla-like devices on their backs, with blue electrical coils flickering over their armored shoulders. There are even cyborg dogs yapping around, and I start to wonder when Einstein's Chronosphere will drop some steel-plated bears in.
Then The New Order puts an assault rifle in my right hand, another in my left hand, and points to all the enemies just waiting to be dispatched by my dual-wield artillery. This is where the romp of it all comes in: The Tesla-charged Nazis tear chunks out of the decor with bits of stone pillar flying all over the shop, and I do my best Neo impression minus the cartwheels, strafing while dual-mowing them into the ground. It's not the most tactical of assaults, but it's certainly more yippie-kay-yay than yippie-kay-nay.
I don't have to go gung-ho, but The New Order sure gives me the options to be reckless. I find extra health to overcharge beyond the base value of 100, before simply running and gunning soldiers in the knowledge I can take what I dish out. The game even teases me by leading me to a missile launcher facing one of the huge mechs; A couple of shots into its armor and the hulking machine lumbers around, lining a laser eye at me and whirring into gear in what becomes a race to destroy the bloody thing before it fries me - I barely win.
It wouldn't be a modern shooter without the stealth option, of course, and in The New Order I can creep and conveniently stab commanders before they call in reinforcements. Radio signals in the top right display how close a commander is in meters - no other info is available - making for a simple but elegant enough mini-game of hide and seek. That just leaves the middle ground of holding a shoulder button down to peek around cover, and then shooting, grenad-ing, and you-know-the-drilling.
There's little in the opening hours to suggest MachineGames' shooter is as revolutionary as its tyrannical fuhrer, not that the game is professing to change the world, really. I'd like to see more games employ its retro-coated take on rechargeable health, displaying the health in numbers and having it recharge in segments of 20. Meanwhile, a perks system rewards feats like killing two enemies with one grenade or making ten dual-wield kills, and it offers bonuses like vampiric health absorption and greater dual-wield dismemberment. There's a decent balance of feats I achieve naturally and ones I undertake more artificially.
There's certainly more to come from the shooting, not least from the mechanized enemies and whatever weird weaponry MachineGames dreams up. Still, I suspect the pomp of the story and the charisma and affability of the McClane-like hero will be important factors in sustaining a not atypical shooter experience.
There's a choice I make at the end of the Wolfenstein chapter: The wrinkled, beady-eyed Deathshead captures our squad and takes us to his experimental lab, before forcing me to choose between saving my Scotch captain, Fergus, or a young private, Wyatt. It's to my shame I've barely registered Wyatt up until now - which one was he? To be honest, the two soldiers look really similar. If that's some commentary on the remorseless genocide of war, it's impossible to take seriously with the sheer Gruber-ness of Deathshead, with his Dr Evil lilt, wildly crooked smile, and pseudo-sexual inferences.
When BJ escapes the castle, he finds himself in a Polish, family-run mental asylum, where he is essentially paralyzed but awake for 14 years. With the air of a melancholy poet, he narrates a fast-forwarded cutscene that details this in two minutes, going into the nature of the asylum, the violent interference of the Nazis, and the way the daughter, a nurse, essentially gives her life to look after the people there. It's a stylish bit of storytelling that catches me off guard. Then our hero wakes up, stabs a Nazi in the neck, and drags his only-just-unparalyzed carcass on a killing tirade to the backdrop of the asylum's blood-stained walls. It's difficult to know quite what to think.
At E3, MachineGames showed a sequence later in the game, where Blaskowicz had a preposterous laser gun, and spouted off lines like "You put a Nazi on the moon. Fuck you, moon." That sounds like it could be great, but I have a niggling concern over consistency. In the hour after arriving in the asylum, the play remains much the same - I kill a heck of a lot of Nazis - while the story is starting to churn through the gears, and maybe find its tone now that its setup is fully fleshed out. It's still enjoyable, though, so when my preview ends - the surreal cutscene on the train with the Frau - I'm as optimistic as I am cautious.
Die Hard may not be War and Peace, but it has pace, tone, charisma, and a whole lot of over-the-top action, and that's what makes it a romp from start to finish. The New Order has the potential to somewhat replicate those qualities, and if it does it'll be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears when it hits on May 20 for PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.