What I’m Playing: Wolfenstein: The New Order

It’s a game I haven’t quite completed and has over the last few months taken a back seat to time spent in Destiny and, more recently, Fallout 4, but the few weeks I spent playing the game it’s safe to go ahead and say this – Wolfenstein: The New Order remains the best $11 I’ve ever spent on something on clearance at Target.

If you’re not familiar with Wolfenstein, the game’s mythology starts in the early-mid 1940s with the Nazis discovering and plundering a cache of far-ahead-of-its time technology –– like the Rambaldi Artifacts in Alias, if you ever watched that show. Their ability to reverse-engineer that tech and incorporate it into their war machine allowed them make crazy technological advances and, as a result, win World War II and effectively achieve their goal of world domination.

For example, in the game’s world the Nazis won the nuclear race and dropped an atom bomb on Manhattan, forcing the U.S. to surrender. This, like other factoids about the Nazi victory, is learned by reading various newspaper clippings that are pinned to bulletin boards found throughout the game, or by listening to audio diaries or other sound clips. These are very well-done; my favorite is a highlight of The Beatles, who under the German New Order are simply part of the Nazi propaganda machine.

Part of what I love about the game is that it has this incredibly crafted alternate universe and at the same time is a purely ridiculous parody. That parody is occasionally derailed by love-interest melodrama and even a silly sex scene, but atmospherically the game is at its absolute best when it shamelessly announces “here is our premise, so please play along with us as we take it beyond the limits of what even makes sense.”

For example — one of the game’s final stages takes place at a Nazi base on the moon. Yes, as part of their new technological superiority, by the 1960s the Nazis have colonized the moon. When your character arrives, he checks in with colleagues back on Earth to begin gathering information for his mission. The contact asks your character, B.J. Blazkowicz, how he’s doing after the trip. B.J., hopping around all nervously, says simply, “I don’t know, I’m on the motherfuckin’ moon.”

Even your character is aware enough of his surroundings to understand the sheer ridiculousness of the game’s universe. This is exactly why it works so well.

Fortunately, the game also plays pretty well. For anyone who wishes to gripe about Destiny, I have discovered that if I try another shooter after playing it, I continually come away with a whole new appreciation for the tightness of Destiny’s game play and shooting mechanics. Whatever Destiny’s flaws, the game plays brilliantly. While The New Order is pretty good, there were many, many times when I accidentally threw grenades or had difficulty switching weapons due to a control setup where buttons and triggers have several different contextual uses. And, I have found the game’s radial weapon interface to be twitchy enough that it’s proven to be near-certain death to try and use it in the middle of combat. Fortunately, the weapon varieties are such that I had a pretty good idea of the loadout I want to use for a particular fight going in. But I certainly would’ve appreciated smoother access to different weapons or entirely different loadouts on the fly.

The game’s mix of run-and-gun and stealth mechanics is incredibly enjoyable. The New Order’s balance is tipped in favor of the bad guys heavily enough that kicking in a door, guns-a-blazin’, is typically a horrible idea; there are probably a dozen ridiculously well-armed opponents waiting for you on the other side, including two on opposite sides of the room who will continually call in reinforcements until you kill them. So it’s usually best to find a vent in the wall to sneak into the room, find a vantage point to take out the two guys who call in reinforcements with a silenced weapon, and then have your way with the remaining cadre of bad guys. They’re not “puzzles” in the traditional gaming sense of the word, but there are levels where I had to think my way through before starting the fight. I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of the game.

Minor gripes
• You can jump in Wolfenstein but your ability to fully explore the environment is sometimes limited in silly ways. For example, there are a number of places where you cannot get over knee-high walls. There’s a balance to be struck between games that are unrealistically restrictive like this and games such as Assassin’s Creed where your freedom to climb and explore is almost unrealistically limitless, and I can’t think offhand of a game that’s managed to find it. It’s part of the difficulty of designing these sorts of games, I’m sure — you want to construct an environment that feels real and immersive to the player, but at the same time you may not want the player get on the roof of a certain building because it’d break the enemy AI, or inside of a certain building because it’s not really a “building” and its lack of internal geometry would cause the player to fall through the world. But designers also know if it’s possible, players will find their way onto that roof or inside that building using techniques they never remotely considered. Limiting how the player can interact with the environment is the balance to be struck I suppose, although the immersion is also broken when you can climb over something but not another similar something, or when you can safely absorb 42 bullets to the face yet suffer 50% falling damage after a five-foot drop (or, conversely, to suffer no falling damage after jumping off a 50-foot tower). So I’m not sure what the right call is there.

• The end boss fight, which for full disclosure I have not yet completed, is mechanically different than any other fight in the game. Games will typically have sections that train you on boss mechanics by introducing them one at a time in smaller pre-boss battles, but I can’t say that there’s another fight in the game that requires the combination of elements needed to beat this one. I will admit that this is only a minor gripe because I’ve yet to bother trying to finish the encounter.

• Storywise, the Serious Stuff feels overblown in most cases, which has had a tendency to break the immersion in the game, and the sex scene is entirely unnecessary. The game is at its best when shamelessly announcing “this is ridiculous, let’s see how far we can push it.” The attempt to ground the parody with melodrama gives the sense that the developers couldn’t decide what they wanted the game to be and tried to be both – which didn’t work for me. This is, after all, a game where you can pick up a helmet to increase your armor, and then without taking damage pick up a second helmet for more armor. Try to picture how that would work out in the real world. Trying to ground a game like this is never going to be as effective as establishing your universe and then allowing the game to fit –– regardless of how insane the universe happens to be. The musical collectibles, news stories found pinned to walls and cabinets throughout the game, and the “I’m on the moon” cutscene are proof that the developers understood this. They could’ve pushed it much further.

The minor gripes, though, are just that – minor. Overall, I have to say if you like shooters I really can’t recommend Wolfenstein: The New Order highly enough. It’s pretty fantastic.

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