As we begin our time with the opening three chapters of Wolfenstein: The New Order, the last game we’d ever expect to compare it to is The Last Of Us. And almost from the start we’re dual-wielding machine guns and fending off Nazi-branded robotic quadrupeds – no surprises there. Yet while the tone throughout is more Inglourious Basterds than The Pianist, in terms of character development, believable humanity and sheer pathos, MachineGames appears to be squaring up to Naughty Dog.
This is even more surprising given that protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, a man whose neck is wider than his already sizeable jaw, has previously acted as little more than a graphene-thin cipher in a series increasingly synonymous with unremarkable and outdated design. But when, during a meal with a Polish couple whose granddaughter he has just rescued, Blazkowicz discovers that it’s 1960 – 14 years after the botched operation that landed him in an asylum with a head injury – and that the Nazis won the war, he is shocked, confused and vulnerable. He’s suddenly more than an attitude and gun-holding hands.
The first character we encounter during a breathless opening section is even better still: Fergus, one of gaming’s best-realised Scotsman. A seasoned pilot and soldier who paternally chides those under his command with phrases such as “great flapping numpty”, he’s instantly likeable as he teaches us the ropes while trying to keep a clunking bomber from falling into the ocean.
Our first task is to retrieve pliers and some wire from a storage locker in the plane’s hold in order to improvise a tourniquet to prevent a damaged fuel line from exploding. Having accessed the crawl space that contains the machinery, we negotiate a growing inferno and seal the leak just as one final burst of flame sets our arm briefly on fire. After this, supplies and vehicles need to be cut loose from a blustery cargo bay in an attempt to stop the ailing plane’s altitude loss. Then, from a gun turret in the nose, we attempt to fend off a wave of experimental jet-powered Nazi aircraft, before abandoning the plane by leaping onto the wing of an adjacent aircraft. As tutorials go, it’s a memorable one.
The New Order uses the latest version of id Tech 5, the engine that powered Rage but is also behind Tango Gameworks’ The Evil Within and id Software’s own soon-due Doom (AKA Doom 4). It’s a good-looking game, even if there isn’t a MegaTexture in sight and close inspection of the surfaces in our PS4 build reveals some disappointingly low-resolution work. The overall effect is far from unpleasant, but having been spoilt by Battlefield 4 and Killzone: Shadow Fall’s pin-sharp worlds, it’s hard not to be dissatisfied. Worse still is the draw distance, which renders scenery beyond the playable space an indistinct blur that looks like it’s been ripped out of Quake II. We can only hope this is remedied by ongoing optimisation efforts.
But none of that takes away from the satisfying gunplay. Weapons feel hefty and deadly, and basic enemies are felled quickly with just a couple of bullets, even on the harder difficulties. Hit a soldier in the leg and he’ll collapse to the ground straight away, backing towards the nearest surface and firing with one hand while clutching his injured leg with the other. Enemies react to every bullet, buckling and contorting with each impact.
The New Order’s enemies aren’t the brightest we’ve ever encountered – they’ll still occasionally position themselves next to something explosive and covered in warning signs – but the game’s AI does a good job of keeping things tense. Soldiers react to your presence quickly, running to cover and vaulting over objects to get there. Hole up in a room and they’ll wait outside for you, taking position behind the door frame and seeking out windows to get a bead on you. While destructible cover regularly gives you the upper hand, you can trick your assailants, too, because you know they will search the last place you were spotted. This allows you to flank alerted groups and take out stragglers silently with a fearsome-looking knife.
And stealth is almost always an option thanks to the game’s intricate spaces. Despite the focus on singleplayer, these combat bubbles often feel like they’ve been designed for multiplayer. Generous amounts of cover and multiple paths through most rooms make it possible to get behind the enemy’s front line before they even know you’re there. Doing so is even tacitly encouraged with the introduction of a new type of enemy called the Commander. If alerted to your presence, they’ll retreat to a safe point on the map and call for reinforcements. Backup, in the form of armoured troops, will continue to arrive until you kill all the Commanders in an area. Take them out before they can broadcast, though, and you’ll face significantly less resistance.
But when bullets start to fill the air, you have more options than normal too. Hold the lean button (L1 on PS4) next to a wall, pillar or anything else that you think might stop incoming fire and, rather than snap to cover, you’ll be able to lean around, over or underneath it with the left stick. You can still back away from a surface at any time and you can use this dynamic lean almost anywhere, making for a truly organic cover system. So if you spot a guard’s feet under a door or through a food hatch, you can lean down and cripple him with a bullet to the foot, or simply barge through and finish the job.
Wolfenstein’s world is built from the series’ signature mix of medieval architecture, twisted experiments and anachronistic technology, but a level set in the brightly lit asylum that cares for Blazkowicz offers a change of pace from all the greys, blacks and reds. The game revels in referencing its own history, too, and sharp-eyed players will find a secret passage behind a gold-framed, floor-to-ceiling portrait of a Nazi general during a mission that sees you infiltrate a castle. But even familiar components feel fresh when recontextualised by The New Order’s engaging plot and progressive mechanics.
It doesn’t always hit the mark, though. Those aforementioned robot dogs, for instance, aren’t nearly as enjoyable to fight as human foes, and the introduction of small, hard-to-hit flying drones induces a heavy sigh. Plus, while the story does an excellent job of riling you up to kill Nazis, doing so in a game that sometimes resembles Bulletstorm can leave you feeling self-conscious.
Still, MachineGames’ storytelling aspirations are unquestionably admirable. If the studio can maintain The New Order’s early plot momentum and continue to introduce new ideas at the almost overwhelming pace of its opening sections, it might have achieved something great: returning Wolfenstein to its high-speed, high-concept roots.