1981 saw the release of Castle Wolfenstein, a very early Commodore 64 top-down stealth action title that found you angrily taking down the entire Nazi war machine singlehandedly via a series of small, pixelated rooms. Now, some thirty years after the series’ inception, Swedish studio MachineGames is looking to continue the veteran franchise with Wolfenstein: The New Order – but is the property's latest entry for better or for wurst?
Our demo began at the start of an early beta build of the game, where series mainstay Captain William J. Blazkowicz is co-piloting a large allied gunship with his quirkily written Scottish friend. We learned that we were to be part of an attack on a Nazi stronghold to capture or kill the fancifully named General Deathshead, but shortly after the words had left our ally’s mouth, several highly advanced Nazi aircrafts rocketed past us at break-neck speeds. As they made a second pass, part of our plane was damaged, and so, moving freely through the craft, we made our way towards the back to prevent the spread of flames.
The loud gunfire, terrified radio chatter, and the pilot’s yelling made this section – which we’ve seen done similarly a dozen times before in other games – incredibly tense, investing us wholly in seeing the task through to completion. Making our way back through to the cabin, the sense of chaos and destruction was truly impressive, largely thanks to the large windows of the World War II plane, which allowed for a panoramic view of our allies being shot down and our foes darting effortlessly between them.
Hopping on a turret, we endeavoured to shoot down as many Jerries as we could, but unfortunately, as is a staple of the first-person shooter genre, it didn’t take long for things to go awry, and before we knew it, we’d crash-landed on the beach at the foot of an enemy fort.
The Wolfenstein series has always played with the idea of a Nazi force powered by the results of sinister scientific experiments, so we weren’t overly surprised that when we awoke from our bumpy landing, a huge mechanical hound was snapping its jaws at us, trapping us inside the hull of our craft between it and the sea. This predicament forced us to swim to another wreck in order to utilise its functional turret without surfacing for air, lest the beast spot us.
Destroying the meddlesome hound, we were then free to make our way over to the rest of our company. After a short conversation, we advanced up the beach and Blazkowicz was urged to continue through the winding trenches and bunkers as a lone wolf. It was through these series of exterior defences that we were introduced to the gunplay and general gameplay mechanics.
Standard controls apply, with the PlayStation 4’s triggers helping to bring the weighty, well-balanced gunplay to its brilliant best. Speaking of which, the guns feel incredibly powerful, and the game doesn’t shy away from the destructive power such weaponry would yield. Noggins pop like watermelons when you snap off a satisfying headshot, and the outstanding audio design makes each kill feel even more visceral. It’s also possible to change the shot type on most weapons, and you’re even able to dual wield should you feel so inclined – although, while extremely powerful, the loss of accuracy is significant.
Holding L1 allows you to lean out or pop up from behind cover, providing an additional tactical advantage, and, given the excellence of the DualShock 4's triggers, it feels very natural to grip both the lean and aim buttons at the same time, meaning that you’ll be far more likely to use the feature than you might assume at first glance.
Health-wise, the Captain doesn’t possess a regenerating life bar, but rather must pick up health and armour packs to remain fighting fit. Say what you like about non-regenerating health systems, but they really do force to you to think on your feet and play sensibly, instead of rushing in all guns blazing before cowering behind a crate for a few seconds.
Proceeding through the trenches, we encountered our fair share of SS grunts kitted out in imposing power armour, but it wasn’t long before we came across a group of them flanked by a commander. Taking cover behind a small section of wall, we were informed that we’ll frequently come across such scenarios, and that our main objective should be to dispatch the superior officer first, as, should he spy you, he’ll radio for backup and will continue to do so until you finish him off.
Here’s where Wolfenstein’s gameplay variety is truly on show, as you can tackle such situations in a couple of ways. Shooting first is of course a totally viable option, but so too is the seemingly Dishonored-inspired stealthy approach. Enemies will patrol their area, meaning that they never stay in one place for too long, and, as long as you remain crouched, a small indicator will alert you as to how far away a nearby Commander’s radio signal is, allowing you to take him down as soon as possible.
Stealth takedowns can either be executed by initiating a knife attack from behind an unaware foe, or unlocking a silencer for your weapon of choice, which is enabled courtesy of the title’s perk system. This is split into four categories: stealth, tactical, assault, and demolition – each of which is accompanied by a list of objectives to unlock the gameplay aids.
Rewards such as the knife throwing ability, an increase in handgun clip size, increased reload speed while dual wielding, and the option to throw back grenades don’t come at an especially high price, and are seemingly provided as a reward for killing a certain amount of enemies in a specific way with a specific weapon. It’s a great little addition to the single player experience, and courtesy of this design choice, you’ll more than likely unlock them as you play through the game without realising.
Back to our demo, and after making our way inside the stronghold, we reached a turret-equipped balcony at the behest of our squad, who urged us to take down an enormous mechanical war machine that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Resistance series. This gave us the opportunity to survey our surroundings, and we could clearly see our crashed plane on the beach far below.
The scale of each level is very impressive, and, since there’s no mini-map with a constant update of the location of you or your objective, it really drives home just how well thought out and elaborately designed each locale is. Hidden walkways, secret passages, and alternate, sneak-friendly routes are all present inside the opening castle environment, and by bringing up the overarching level map it was clear to see just how far we’d travelled.
Meeting back up with our crew at the foot of a large, impenetrable wall, a brave few, us included, began to slowly walk up the structure with the assistance of a small, machine-powered pulley system attached to our belts. As we made our way up, soldiers would appear at the windows and try to shoot us down, and when we reached the half way point, a huge set-piece saw a colossal aircraft crash into the wall above us, killing half of the team and forcing us to dodge the falling debris.
What remained of our squad proceeded into a room where we were trapped by one dastardly General Deathshead. A cruel, cunning man with sunken skin grinned at us as he forced us to make an unfathomable decision, before introducing us to one of his latest experiments that was part human, part machine. It became clear at this point that our best bet would be to accept defeat and try to escape from our current predicament, but unfortunately for Captain Blazkowicz, the getaway attempt went askew, and 15 years in a vegetative state later, it was 1960 and the Nazis had won.
We continued to play the following two missions, but for the sake of not spoiling what isn’t already common knowledge, the Captain then embarked upon a mission to track down his old squad and liberate the underground resistance from where they were being held under lock and key.
From a presentation standpoint, the game looks about as beautiful as a grungy shooter can get. Visuals are clear and crisp, and the design of some of the Nazi’s more lavish creations are genuinely fascinating to behold.
The story telling is also executed to great effect, with a combination of in-game and third-person pre-rendered cutscenes. There’s always a concern with titles of this genre that character development and narrative integrity can take a back seat to action, but from the well-written dialogue and alternate history backdrop to the larger than life villains – two of which comprise a creepy, effeminate man and an older lady double act – the title remains, above anything else, incredibly engrossing.
It is, of course, dealing with a point in history that’s still fresh in the minds of many, albeit a fictitious variation of it, but the game manages to remain reasonably reverent while finding the time to keep the mood light. Just take the main character, for example, whose jaw is so square that it’s the standard by which quadrilaterals are judged. The protagonist’s super macho overtones never bubble into the Duke Nukem zone, but they are the source for a couple of entertaining scenes – one of which sees him climb into the shell of a car and pretend to drive it, even going so far as to honk an imaginary horn.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is shaping up very nicely indeed. It’s managed to expertly blend older and newer gameplay mechanics to create an extremely satisfying experience. The deck may be steeply stacked against Captain Blazkowicz, but with an eccentric and fascinating group of antagonists, we can’t wait to fight the odds with our chiselled jaw and gravelly voice later this year.
Are you eagerly anticipating MachineGames’ take on the Wolfenstein franchise, or is the included DOOM beta the only thing that’s exciting you about this release? Drop a bomb in the comments section below.