"It's all up to you now, Blazkowicz." You'll get that a lot in MachineGames' lurching gonzo-solemn "What if the Nazis won?" shooter, Wolfenstein: The New Order.
As if you needed reminding. It's been up to William "B.J." Blazkowicz since 1992, and four or five games running. Blazkowicz, who you play as once more in The New Order, is that slab of Polish-American hero who looked like Rambo ret-conned into The Dirty Dozen, fighting Nazis bare- (and barrel-) chested, wearing a red bandanna and mad-as-hell mien on all those old Wolfenstein 3D box covers. He was id Software's marble-jawed hero, the patriotic revenge fantasy cliché, a narrative blank check players cashed in bullets, and an unstoppable convention of the genre.
But not in The New Order, where he's traded a swashbuckler's insouciance for beatnik brooding, as prone to spontaneous acts of near-poetry (in a voice that's half-groan, half-whisper) as he is to plummet impossible distances, only to rise as if from a fall off a couch.
It's weird at first, those misplaced introspective moments punctuating the game's early over the top action sequences, including one where you leap absurdly from one plane's wingtip to another. They play between the thunderclaps of arcing Tesla cannons on monstrous tripod automatons stalking shell-blitzed trenches you'll clamber through before roping (and one-arm shooting) your way up faux-medieval fortress walls. They frame the screams of dozens of Nazi sturmtruppen shot, beheaded and occasionally blown to viscera-riddled smithereens as you infiltrate your Mengele-inspired adversary's death citadel. And they'll bookend a ghastly choice you'll have to make early on that alters the narrative indelibly.
But then that head-fake Tarantino intro gives way to Philip Dick (though a high castle darkly) as you're plucked from already alternate-versing 1946 and deposited in a wildly divergent 1960s Europe. The Nazis won. America surrendered. Resistance movements barely exist. Cities like London have been razed and re-sculpted from the footings up, filled with colossal post-art deco structures that wouldn't be out of place in Half-Life 2's dystopian City 17. Big Ben survives, but dwarfed by Nazi architecture, the horror amplified by the juxtaposition. Blazkowicz's grave soliloquizing comes into sober focus as the game flirts unexpectedly with the sort of unironic narrative depth you'd expect more from something like Band of Brothers than a game inspired by a glorified 1990s render-technology showcase built around an excuse to point a weapon at other people and cause them to die horribly.
Into this strange new world you'll pour warehouses of bullets and retries, still G.I. Joe (if by way of Lieutenant Aldo Raine) at heart. Make no mistake, The New Order's gunplay still sums in kill counts, headshots and stylish clandestine dispatches -- the original Castle Wolfenstein's stealth vibe returns, reimagined -- quantified in stat screens by maneuver and weapon type. It's still a series of finite story-linked levels filled with revenge fantasy kill-or-be-killed sprees that'll end, once the credits roll, with an enemy body count in the thousands. You'll still spend inordinate amounts of time hoovering up health packs and ammunition and armor-bolstering scraps of metal scattered about battlefields like glasses of champagne at a posh soirée.
That's not the sign of a developer designing willy-nilly, too sloppy or untrained to commit: at times The New Order feels as calculated and observant as BioShock, if in the end, less ambitious. When it swerves from camp to cool cogitation, it does so knowingly, the latter moments unfurling during interludes spent wandering a resistance base chatting up other resistance members, your patriotic gusto threatened by a mirror MachineGames keeps holding up. It's that unexpected attention to The New Order's world-building that makes this single-player-only game more than just a shooting gallery with a few new tricks -- the sort of camaraderie and reflection in adversity, steeped in creeping dread and philosophical exposition, that made something like The Matrix more than just an expo for bullet time.
Not that the game's perfect. Snatching up consumables can be confusing, your crosshairs indicating the presence of health packs or armor shards without highlighting them, stealing precious extra seconds as you're forced to sort through blinking item dumps. The game's polyvalent new laser weapon gains a godlike one-shot targeting mode towards the end that makes some of the final battles, even on the hardest difficulty setting, a bit too easy. And "perks," the game's roleplaying-lite nod to Wolfenstein RPG, which give you new abilities along certain play-style tracks (like stealth or demolition) if you perform prerequisite actions, tend toward the superfluous: I finished the game on the highest difficulty setting without bothering to pursue a single one.
And for all it subverts, The New Order still feels slaved to genre conventions: the Nazi in the hallway outside your room will point his gun at the hapless asylum patient infinitely, his bullet forever unfired until you press through the doorway, tripping the algorithmic trigger and forcing his hand. Item deployment within a level often spoils climactic encounters, the sudden appearance of health packs, armor and piles of grenades portending a deluge of bullets. And mini-boss enemies so hard-fought early on will eventually appear in twos or reinforced by underlings, like an iterative museum of horrors -- yesterday's main course served as tomorrow's hors d'oeuvres.
There's a flip side to The New Order's dalliance with moral depth (and concentration camps, and suicide bombings) as well. At one point early on, I had to approach from behind a seated Nazi commander speaking to his superior by phone. If you pause to listen to the conversation before knifing him, you learn, among other things, that he has children, that his wife is pregnant and that he's hoping for a promotion. And then you're required to kill him, because progress is impossible if you don't (the alternative being alerting and letting him kill you, or quitting the game and calling that that). It's a false choice, a morally suspect scene in which you're asked to identify with your all-too-human victim before ending his existence. But you're given no other choice. It's kill or quit. And gamers won't quit. They never do.
4 out of 5
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