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Wot I Think - Wolfenstein: The New Sequel

James Cameron vs Robert Harris

Wolfenstein: The New Sequel Order is part-reboot, part-sequel to the 21st century Wolfenstein games. Primarily set in an alternate 1960, this big, brash, violent, occasionally moving, singleplayer-only first-person shooter tells the story of a fight-back against a hitherto undefeated, planet-conquering Nazi empire wielding otherworldly technology. Despite having to downgrade graphics card to play it, I've spent the last few days with its remarkably long campaign.

I'm fascinated by William Joseph "B.J." Blazkowicz's eyes. Someone's put an awful lot of work into those eyes. His is the quintessential first-person soldiermanhero's face (indeed, it's based upon the archetype of that grizzled beefcake design, from his first appearance in 1992's Wolfenstein 3D), but the eyes come from someone else. Haunted, sad, soulful, sometimes tender - they reveal that this mass of muscle is also a walking wound, and in that they represent the anachronism at the heart of this latest, surprisingly excellent Wolfenstein game.

On the one hand, it's as dumb as a UKIP candidate watching a Michael Bay marathon. Super-soldiers, robot dogs, a baddie who's basically the Red Skull from Captain America, mech suit-aided prison breaks, mystical underwater techno-temples, Nazis on the moon - oh man, it's got it all. On the other hand, it really wants to show us the horrors of war, the preciousness of human kinship, the unparalleled cruelty of the Third Reich, the value and the heavy cost of self-sacrifice. It wants to make us cry, even though we just watched a single man take down an army of clockwork Germans and survive fifty-eight rockets to the face in the process. New studio Machine Games is comprised primarily of Starbreeze veterans, and the Chronicles of Riddick bloodline very much shows: brutality and brilliance, dumbness and detail.

'Can you take Wolfenstein: The New Order seriously?' is almost an impossible question to answer. Of course you can't, it's ridiculous. Of course you can, it has some touching moments and tries hard to balance its bombastic excess with humanity. And those eyes. Those sad, strong eyes peering out from that hulking flesh-cube of a head.

Wolfenstein is clearly an expensive game, in everything from the eyes outwards. I doubt it commanded quite the budget of a latter-day Call of Duty's lavish yet rigid singleplayer mode, but it makes a damn good fist of meeting the production values and then underpinning them with an impressively long, changeable and often flexible campaign. For all the fact it's a Grizzled American Soldier game, really The New Sequel is inspired not by COD's Clancy-infused hoo-rah patriotism, but by Half-Life 2 and BioShock's long, sumptuous b-movie-with-a-brain adventures.

The environment changes regularly, there are setpiece oddball vehicle sections, there is a super-powered utility weapon which grows in capability throughout, there is an agonising, (slightly) game-altering moral dilemma, there is extensive work in building an alternate history with unbridled sci-fi trappings, and there is an heroic attempt to overthrow a despotic regime.

Concentration camp scenes are far more Riddick Visits City 17 than Schindler's List (and there that Wolfenstein's two-tone of silliness and grimness wobbles - it's trying to have its cake and eat it), and it makes light attempts at self-reflection about the nature of the FPS hero. There's an awful lot going on in here, and it's part of a clear attempt to be a massive, massive singleplayer shooter in an age where multiplayer increasingly rules the roost.

Sure, much of its 20-odds hours (YMMV - Steam says I spent 25 hours with it, but some of that was alt-tabbed time and some of it was too many checkpoint-mandated replays in the tough final act, while people who skip all the talky bits and secrets, are super-hardcore and/or liars are reporting blasting through in as little as six hours) is comprised of cutscenes, approximately half of which engage and half of which posture tiresomely.

This is an old school shooter in a great many ways, one of which is to barely even bother trying to integrate the narrative sections with play - you have an hour or so of Nazi-blasting, then a few minutes of super-high-detail NPC chatter and dramatic action scenes the game mechanics don't permit doing yourself. Sometimes this is infuriating - could you really not have told me to go to place X over the earpiece, or have the mystic doohickey do that big explodey thing while I ran around under it? - other times it's a welcome reprieve from what's often a particularly frantic shooter.

It also tries to balance the intensity of its bullet-storm with take-a-break sections in a small hub environment. The resistance base offers a few optional chats, a few optional fetch quests, and a few mandatory, protracted fetch quests. Though charming and filled with pleasing detail at first, these bits did start to feel like the game was playing for time after a while.

When a man told me he'd dropped his welding torch in the water and could I go fetch it, I did pray for an option to say "buddy, I've saved everyone here's lives a dozen times over, I've killed thousands of men, dogs and robots, I've escaped from impossible prisons and given a magic'n'robotics-aided Third Reich its first trouble in over a decade. Surely, surely, there is someone else who can pick up a dropped tool?" But hey, Blitz spirit, everyone mucks in.

It's nice to see a little character-building in the supporting cast too, even if their attitude towards me spikes oddly depending on events and conversations out of my control. Darting repeatedly around the base to fetch things for people just plays havoc with the pacing, that's all.

Out in battle, that's where The New Sequel finds its most natural and consistent voice. The shooting is equal parts thoughtful and preposterous, and up until its final act the game usually offers a choice between out-and-out carnage and a simple but robust stealth approach. Silenced pistols, throwing knives and gruesome takedowns make for slower but quieter progress, and there's a solid sub-game in trying to take out commanders first, so there's no-one to call in reinforcements in the all-too-likely event you cock up your sneaking.

There's another sub-game in the Perks system, wherein you unlock assorted bonus abilities and upgrades for meeting specific goals, such as silent-stabbing 20 men and 5 dogs, or racking up 80 assault rifle kills from cover, or causing five men to die from their own grenades. Either you can aim for just the ones that suit your playstyle, or stick your OCD hat on as I did and try to earn everything. Quite a few sort themselves out in the natural course of play, as you're randomly switching weapons depending on ammo levels, but for at least the first half of the game the Perks worked as a decent secondary priority that helped keep shooting hundreds of Nazis from getting dull.

Perks/unlocks are part of mainstream gaming's attention-seeking tapestry these days, but I reckon Wolfenstein gets it right. These aren't rewards for those who put in impossible hours, but they're little, quick-to-gain treats that help both upgrade your abilities as the enemies attack in escalating numbers and encourage switching up your play style. They're definitely part of the reason I had such a good time with The New Sequel.

Another reason was when the stealth went wrong. Hiding and stabbing people in the back is my natural play/lifestyle, but whereas a true stealth game usually means a prompt visit from the Reverend Death in the event you're spotted, here you can instead rest on more traditional FPS laurels. Dual wield shotguns, eviscerate people with a weaponised arc welder, burn a supersoldier's iron face with with a laser sniper rifle - knowingly preposterous stuff, presented with an entirely straight face. While this might not have the clean outlines and escalations of Wolfenstein 3D's genre-setting arsenal, you can absolutely see the heritage. It lets me roll with the situation and still have a party.

Even in the game's later stages, when it's throwing these immense waves of enemies at me, it makes sure to include enough cannon-fodder that I can still feel at least a little like a god of war, even as the heavily-armoured, rocket-spewing bullet sponges who accompany them give me hell. Fights find the right blend of superheroism and desperation, requiring some use of cover (with lean controls! Hurrah for leaning!) a lot of movement. You need to think on your feet, not just rely on reflex.

Big is the word. Wolfenstein does everything big. Big action, big (if a little contrived) emotion, big violence, big guns, big shoulders. Even big, sad puppy-dog eyes in a big man's big, square head. It should have been chaos, anachronistic with itself - old world shooter values paired with modern age attempts at less vapid narratives and characterisation. Somehow, it works.

I think it works because, for all the oddness of being both a dumb as a box of hammers game and a Feel The Feels can we have an award now please game, Wolfenstein: The New Sequel knows itself very well. It borrows from BioShock and it borrows from Half-Life 2 (to put it mildly), but I don't believe it truly has aspirations to be more than Expensive B-Movie With A Heart. There's, oddly, an honesty to it - it's not like BioShock Infinite, where the fancy talk sat uncomfortably alongside the meatheaded mayhem. Yes, this takes itself and its magical robot Nazis entirely seriously, but that's not the same thing as believing itself to be capital-I Important.

What it wants, I think, is to be BIG, in every sense, and while there are a few tonal missteps, the checkpoint system was poorly-judged, there are some needlessly protracted and grisly torture scenes (implication alone would have sufficed), and a few too many moments where it mandates all-out assault instead of stealth (if that's your poison), it absolutely succeeds at bigness. When the dust and shouting and bits of flaming robot settled, I knew I'd had a great time, for a surprisingly long time, and I didn't feel that I needed to either analyse or defend why.

An addendum on performance issues: despite hours of tinkering, I was unable to get this to run at even a consistent 30 frames per second on a Radeon 290, even on lowest settings. I was not alone in this, but other Radeon owners didn't have the same problem. Go figure: but if one more person says 'you need the Catalyst 14.4 drivers' to me, I'm going to kill the world. Eventually I switched to a borrowed GeForce GTX 670 and was able to get an average of 60 FPS at high settings at 2560x1440 resolution. So it's not really a particularly demanding game, but be aware that you may or may not encounter issues, and no fixes have as yet been released.

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