In a bunker deep beneath the blighted surface of The United Blokes Of Great Britain For 100% British Blokes Only, at the halfway point between Brighton and Manchester, Alec and Adam shelter from Farage's dread Lager Sentinels and think of an alternate reality where Osborne hadn't privatised oxygen to the highest bidder at Bilderberg and Milliband hadn't ordered that we all eat bacon sandwiches via our ears. If only some lost hero could arise and save them from this terror.
While they waited for salvation that would never come, they cast their minds back to a videogame they once played. A videogame about fighting Nazis, and Nazi dogs, and robot Nazi dogs. A videogame named 'Wolfenstein: The New Order.' Perhaps discussing it would remind them of better times. As their miserable existences might end at any second, they did not even try to avoid massive spoilers.
Adam: Verboten! That doesn't make sense. But it's a German word that I happen to know, and it was sometimes written on the walls of Castle Wolfenstein, I believe.
Alec: Fröhliche Weihnachten is the limits of my knowledge. But there is no Merry Christmas to be found in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Merely a Springtime for Hitler.
Adam: See, even Merry Christmas sounds like a threat after a week of Nazi killing.
Alec: I'll bet it really was a week. That is one long damn game.
Adam: It is a long game, certainly by modern FPS standards, and I have to admit it became a bit of a slog by the end. But I mostly loved it and I really didn't expect to.
Before I played it, I fully expected to find the whole thing a bit offensive for my tastes. I’m the kind of person who gets a little bit uncomfortable about Horrible Histories making light of cruelty and death, so robo-Nazi shooting combined with inner monologues about the horror of war, and FPS concentration camps seemed like a recipe for something that was grotesque in all the wrong ways. If you’d told me that I’d not only enjoy the game but (on the whole) the characters and the tone as well, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Alec: Yeah, a combination of Big Franchise cynicism and a pretty ropey, worryingly CODlike start had me wincing through the first hour. I also expected to spend half my write-up last week worrying about the morality of it. But I have to say my brain recoils from even beginning that analysis. I want to be allowed to enjoy this, but I know that it is in many ways problematic. We make a cage for ourselves.
Adam: Yeah, I know that feeling. When it hit bum notes I was rolling my eyes rather than writing angry letters though, which is a relief. It sounds incredibly odd to say this about an alternate history Nazi shooting game, with some very grim scenes and some incredibly silly ones alongside, but it's heart is in the right place. I don't know if big budget FPS games even have a heart but...something is in the right place. It's oddly earnest, like its protagonist.
Alec: I guess the concentration camp was the only section where it failed to pull off its intention of comicky + horrifying. Would have been better without that, or played as a straight jailbreak I think. And without naming names, I wasn't impressed by some of the coverage which tried to depict that scene as Important And Meaningful. Also, it was basically all a deleted scene from Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. The casual cruelty at the start of the asylum section and the officers on the train was more effective, I thought.
Adam: As much as anything else, it's all over far too quickly to matter. It's the worst part of the game, I think, partly because the mech bit is far too easy, even on higher difficulty settings, and partly because the build up suggests a big moment that never materialises.
My favourite part was another train - the bridge sequence. That entire section was beautifully designed, I thought. Visually stunning, has some spooky quiet moments when there's just carnage, including wrecked civilian vehicles that got caught in the attack, and some great shooting.
Alec: Yes, it has massive-scale fights with big distances and big headcounts, and multiple approaches. Not sure it had the vertiginous quality of HL2's bridge scene, but it was certainly a grand declaration of "no, get lost, we are not just Call of Duty with mechanazis"
Adam: HL2's bridge is still the one by which others must be judged and you're right, it doesn't quite match up. It's TOO big for that.
Alec: Anotherreason it didn't match up was because I was much more cautious due Fear Of Lousy Checkpoints. Whereas HL2 and its quicksaves meant I played things more seat of the pants, took more risks, so falling off during desperate sprints was more common. Still, Wolf-bridge was a memorable rolling firefight nonetheless.
Adam: Yes. There's one particularly brutal checkpoint near the end of the bridge that had me quitting for an evening.
Alec: And to go full spoiler, let's not neglect the moon section - 'twas a fine lark, and had some of the best stealth sections too. And I will always love 70s sci-fi white scenery over grimdark scenery.
Adam: Yes yes yes. Brilliant. And I love Blazkowicz' response to the whole situation as well. He's absolutely aware that he is the most ridiculous man in the world, running around on the moon shooting Nazi space marines.
Not necessarily a criticism but an observation - HL2 does have its many moments but it also feels like a whole. The smash cuts in Wolfenstein and the quick change from one mission to another prevent the world from feeling particularly cohesive. It has a theme park feel, I thought, which shines an uncomfortable light on the concentration camp scenes again.
It's very much a case of 'Here is a moonbase with guards wearing these uniforms and now here is a bombed out facility in London with these kind of chaps.' A sort of whistlestop tour of the occupied world.
Alec: yes, this jumps oddly - at times you can almost see the flow chart of setpieces stuck to some designer's office wall. And it tries to make this work by having you hop from country to country off camera.
Adam: It's handled with a bit of style most of the time - camera pans up from a table where the resistance are panning and into a plane hundreds of miles above, a few hours later. It works. That kind of kinetic hyper editing will always be at odds with the stop-start nature of a game in which you can die, and in which there are secrets to find and different approaches to try.
Alec: There's that bit near the end where you're in London and are told your homebase in Berlin is under attack and you have to get there immediately. And I'm thinking, wow that must have been an incredibly tense three hour helicopter ride, but clearly all we get is a loading screen followed by a suggestion that you arrived only seconds after Important Plot Event.
Similarly, the supporting cast seem to wildly alternate between sneering at BJ and being his bestie. I put it down to years of wartime stress. I'd struggle to be consistently chummy too.
Adam: They're consistently hammy though.
Alec: Yes. And some stuff's telegraphed a mile off, like Hodor-to-the-rescue.
Adam: I liked the secrets though. Thought they'd be a throwback gimmick but found myself quite invested in poking my head into every nook and cranny.
Alec: It's just a good place to spend a bit of time in like that, isn't it? Part of the reason it's so long is it rarely rushes you - you have breathing space to poke around before and after most fights.
Adam: Yeah, similarly, I liked spending time with the characters. They were an odd little group and had interesting accents, which is all I really ask from people. I said earlier that I'd have doubted the sanity of anyone who reckoned I'd enjoy the game, but anyone who said I'd like the characters would have been...crikey.
This sounds like a daft thing to point out but it's important - the shooting is very very satisfying. And the game is about shooting rather than all of these other things we're talking about.
Shooting Nazis. That's what Wolfenstein is.
Alec: Very true. The characters were OK, just to rewind. I don't think I took to them quite as much - it felt like the game didn't quite have the confidence to make them full caricatures, or the time and investment to make them believable. The game itself pulls off the duality of tone largely, but those guys felt stranded in some halfway house netherworld to me
Adam: The halfway house netherworld that is the resistance headquarters beneath Berlin! Are you a Fergus or a Wyatt man?
Alec: I preferred Fergus but I chose Wyatt because a) that's what Fergus would have wanted and b) I felt I was being manipulated into liking Fergus too much, in a 'people dug Captain Price so let's just do that' sort of way
Adam: I chose Fergus. He is quite cross about that, as you rightly surmise.
Alec: I slightly wonder about what new things I would experience if I replayed it, but not enough to actually replay it. Perhaps when I am retired. (Wyatt was also cross, for one particular scene, then is ultro-chummy without further reference from thereon in).
Adam: By that point there will be new Wolfenstein games that don't even remember this one well enough to have a retro Easter Egg based on it. The retro Easter Egg will be a level from Wolfenstein: Nu Regime (2036).
(Fergus mostly remains cross. He's cantankerous throughout.)
Alec: I must admit that my cold, withered heart wasn't even faintly stirred by the Wolf 3D easter egg. You can buy Wolf 3D for like 20p, playing a weird out of context section without purpose is too meaningless. I wish they'd gone for it a little more - a full Wolf New Order level, with all its systems, which looked like Wolf 3D.
Adam: I enjoyed hearing the music again. That was about all. I wonder if The Youth are confused by BJ scoffing dog food?
Alec: I'm a bit confused by BJ scoffing dog food, given he seems capable of superhuman recovery. Seems more like a fetish than a food thing.
Adam: BJ has lived through tough times. They should have given him one of those wonderful whispered inner monologues about the time when he was twelve years old and his dad's tools fell into a creek and he couldn't afford to replace them so little BJ saved his tuck shop money to buy new tools and developed a taste for Pedigree Chum in the meantime.
Talk of the original game leads me to Hitler, naturally. Perhaps I missed some pertinent information but is there any evidence as to his whereabouts? Is he dead? Who's in charge? Why do I care?
Alec: I vaguely remember one reference to 'the fuhrer' but that was it. I wondered/cared too. Perhaps it'll be a DLC thing. Or perhaps they thought it'd be a bit too close to the bone - better to keep it in a faintly toonish alterworld with a different leader.
Adam: I spotted one Heil Hitler, which seemed out of place given his apparent disappearance. I thought it might be explained in the prequel, which I haven't played.
Alec: "I don't know if we're allowed to talk about this yet, but is Hitler going to be in the game?
"No, I'm not allowed to talk about that yet. *with a mischievous grin and giggle*
From this interview.
I'm betting DLC. Or sequel. There's no proof SPOILER ALERT MEGA SPOILER ALERT that BJ's deffo dead at the end, after all. And he's recovered from similarly awful injuries already.
Adam: Are actual alternate timelines a thing in this iteration? The fact that the choice between Fergus and Wyatt is described in the menus and achievements as unlocking a timeline suggests as much. As does the calculating lady in the resistance base. Again, I feel like knowledge of the previous game might help me here.
Alec: Nah, it's just there to encourage a replay I think. What did you make of the stealth? There's something faintly preposterous about stealth in a Wolfenstein game, but I really enjoyed it / was annoyed by the bits where the option wasn't there.
Adam: I chose stealth whenever I could. It works well, even if it does feel quite prescribed at times - obvious routes between conveniently placed guards who turn their backs at just the right time. But that's good in this kind of game. It's stealth with a neat flow to it rather than observation-based planning.
Alec: I did like the throwing knives. They felt deliciously evil. Even if someone not surviving a small knife to the back of the shin but being able to absorb forty-eight bullets to the face made about as much sense as mecha-rottweilers. Oh wait.
Adam: There were a couple of times when I felt bad about killing Nazis. One chap is being lectured about lemon coffee and calling out the regime on its shitty concrete. Actually questioning the Reich like a good citizen should(n't). I stabbed him in the neck and felt a bit sad.
And then there was the soldier trying to help another on the ruined bridge. I shot him in the head and they both fell down. I felt like a rotter.
Alec: Yes, and for some of calm chaps on the moonbase, it seemed like full on horror-murder was a bit rich.
What about the not-Gravity Gun, the super-welder? Felt fairly superflous to me, to be honest, a slightly strained attempt to have a gimmick but all it really did was open a few extra doors.
Adam: At first, I liked how it cut through precisely where I pointed, and then I got stuck on the little corner I'd left with my shoddy workmanship once too often and was annoyed. It was fine but, yes, mostly a bit superfluous.
I was amazed by how many upgrades it received though. Like, almost every level, here's a new bit for the cutter that makes it shoot or target or some shit. And inevitably I'd try to shoot a robotik ubersoldier with it when it was set to welding mode and just stand there like a flaccid mechanic as death rained into my face.
Alec: Yeah, but all it was really doing was accumulating deathability to help with the damage sponge enemies in the last act. I was extremely disappointed that you can't weld people to death, to be honest, or cut away armoured guys' helmets so you can pop a few bullets in there.
Adam: I welded someone's face off once but failed to weld it back on again. He looked like a piece of bacon.
Alec: Woah, you can actually do it? I kept trying but maybe I didn't get close enough. Perhaps I'm just bed at welding. As bad at welding as I am at spelling.
Adam: Bed welding is either on urban dictionary right now, or will be later on when I add an entry. But, yes, it is possible. It takes ages though and becomes quite uncomfortable. They last long enough under the flame that you can't help but ask yourself, quite seriously, why you've chosen the path in life that leads to that situation. "I am welding a Nazi to death. My careers advisor did not foresee this."
Alec: Yet here am I, questioning why I didn't take that path. The knowledge that it is possible draws me back to the game far more than does seeing the other option of the Wyatt/Fergus dilemma.
Adam: "You have chosen the welder timeline" ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED INDEED
Alec: is Face Welding on urban dictionary? It's also a shame there isn't a soldering mode. Sticking Nazis' helmets together and watching them fall over would be far more wholesome.
Adam: I didn't care all that much while I was playing, but looking back the super Nazi tech hasn't led to very many interesting weapons for ol' BJ to wield, has it?
1960 Handgun! It shoots bullets! Much like the 1946 handgun, which also shot bullets if I remember correctly.
Alec: In fairness you do get a laser sniper rifle on the moon. There's very little that's wrong with that phrase.
Adam: Perhaps it's better that the true sci-fi weapons are only found on the moon. That makes sense.
Alec: I think it very deliberately sticks to a 'classic' arsenal though, then adds the welder to try and zany things up a bit, which doesn't really work as the classic guns - e.g. dual wielding shotguns, silence pistol - are a ton more fun.
Adam: Definitely. Dual wielding shotguns as an armoured brute comes around a corner is magnificent. And I love that they unload on separate buttons.
Alec: Anyway. I keep wanting to say things like "Wolfenstein is far better than it has any right to be", but then I question why it doesn't have that right. Big publisher? Umpteenth sequel? Change of developer? None of those things really matter - it's just whether someone's trying to make as a good a gonzo alterna-WW2 shooter as they can.
And they made a pretty damn fine job of it, apart from a couple of tonal misfires and the accursed checkpoints.
Adam: Yep. My favourite FPS in a good while and it's given me a renewed interest in Wolfenstein as a name and, more importantly, in the studio.
It's better than I ever expected it to be but that's bringing my own taste into consideration - I'm a fairly squeamish sort when it comes to making light of history and I don't enjoy many FPS games at all anymore.
Alec: It's also one of far too few games which look to Half-Life 2 rather than Modern Warfare for their inspiration. While that's a watermark it was realistically never going to reach, it pays off - it gives the player much more to do and to plan and experiment with than most contemporary FPSes. (HL2 doing not-Nazis as its Nazis is important to its effectiveness - the bleakness but not the discomfort).
Adam: The actual action reminded me of the combat in F.E.A.R. at times, when it was happening in smaller closed spaces anyhow. That's a good thing too. It has a solidity that I miss in a lot of games.
Alec: I could have done without quite so many extended torture or evisceration sequences, to be honest. I don't think it's just that I'm getting old - again it's that tonal imbalance, the times when it struggles to reconcile its tonal duality.
Adam: Maybe the Strasse switch-out for Hitler removed some of the discomfort for me. And, yes, the gorier excesses felt unnecessary. The globe-trotting (or Europe-trotting, plus moon and secret underwater magi-science cave) are more Indiana Jones than Inglourious Basterds. It's high adventure rather than grimdark horror. At its best, at least.
Alec: Anyway, speaking of humanity's darkest hour, the baby is screaming again so let's wrap this up.
Adam: Wolfenstein - BETTER THAN IT HAD ANY RIGHT TO BE
Alec: Quite right too.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is out now.