Wolfenstein: The New Order is savage and shocking, yet at its dark core exists a slick and enjoyable shooter. VG247’s Dave Cook goes hands-on and asks MachineGames how it tackled the celebrated license.
It doesn’t take long for Wolfenstein: The New Order to pull the rug out from beneath the player and smack them across the face with a brutal moral choice. In front of handcuffed hero BJ Blazkowicz, fellow brothers in arms Wyatt and Fergus lie partially stripped and bound. Towering above them, the maniacal Nazi surgeon Deathshead cackles and forces the player to choose which of the two should walk free, and which should be condemned to his sadistic medical research. “I like this one’s eyes”, he sneers as he strokes Wyatt’s face with grave menace.
The creaking mechanical guards press down on their captive’s backs with increasing force as Deathshead demands a prompt answer. Flummoxed, I nod towards Wyatt and damn him to a terrible fate. Locked in a testing lab, Fergus and BJ escape through a broken window and leap into the ocean below the facility. The next time BJ opens his eyes he’s in a comatose state, watching the years roll by in an insane asylum. Eventually it’s the 1960s and Nazis rule the world. Things have definitely gone from bad to worse for our lantern-jawed hero.
Seeing as id Software’s genre-defining shooter Wolfenstein 3D featured very little in the way of narrative, it’s natural that some fans will see The New Order’s plot-heavy progression as a spit in the eye. After playing the game for an hour solid on PC, it’s clear to me that the dark yarn actually compliments the slick, savage nature of the game’s gunplay. It’s a wild ride filled with ludicrously forceful weaponry, hidden secrets and an army of Nazis to evaporate with lead. It’s 1992 gameplay presented in a 2013 veneer.
Hailing from Uppsala, Sweden, MachineGames is on development duty. This is the team’s first game. Without a proven track-record under its belt, how exactly did it obtain the keys to id Software’s franchise? That’s the first question I asked The New Order’s creative director Jen Matthies when I spoke with him recently.
“We started talking to Bethesda and they had fairly recently acquired id Software and they have all of this IP available,” Matthies began. “We’re huge Wolfenstein fans so we were talking to them and said, ‘Is anyone working on Wolfenstein right now’ and they said no. We then said, ‘Can we have it?’ [laughs]. So that was sort of the foundation, and then when we went to id Software, we spent three weeks there and they talked a lot about what was important to them in terms of the franchise.”
During that time Matthies and his team worked out of a meeting room at id Software, scrawling ideas on a whiteboard and trying to figure out how best to advance the Wolfenstein story. For Matthies, walking into the studio that had inspired him to become a developer years before proved as daunting as it was awe-inspiring. “That was so interesting,” he recalled. “When we went to id for the first time it was like, they’re so incredibly successful and the first thing you see when you come into the office is this wall that is just awards. There’s so many awards they don’t even fit on the shelves [laughs].
“So you don’t know how they’re going to be like people. I read their blogs even before blogs were blogs, you know the ‘.Plan’ files? So as a kid I idolised these guys. I met Tim Willits for the first time and he’s just the most lovable person you’ll ever meet He’s just super-friendly and takes good care of us. We had a meeting and our tech guys were there and they said, ‘Yeah we wouldn’t mind if Carmack doesn’t show up, he doesn’t usually show up but we don’t mind.’ But then Carmack walks in and starts talking with our tech guys for like three hours. That was super-positive and a really good starting point for the whole project.”
”This franchise has a huge place in our hearts. We really wanted the game to be a love-letter to id Software and the old school shooters, but of course, take advantage of the technology we have today and all of the cool stuff that’s come onto the scene since then.”
Ideas were drawn up, discussed and scrapped until eventually, the MachineGames team wrote ‘What if the Nais won the war?’ on the board. One of id’s members walked in saw it and deemed it “Fucking awesome.” The foundation for Wolfenstein: The New Order was born, but the hard work had only just begun. Matthies explained that his team wanted the game to be more of an action-adventure experience, rather than a straight-up shooter, with plenty of new mechanics changing up gameplay on a level-to-level basis.
As a studio comprised of former Starbreeze employees, MachineGames is already well-versed in how to slip interesting mechanics into the FPS archetype to produce fluid and interesting results. Matthies himself is credited on both the Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness titles. I saw evidence of this within the first ten seconds of my hands-on session, in which BJ and his troops scale Deathshead’s keep using grapple lines, while hip-shooting at Nazis firing out of the castle’s windows. Planes scream over head, mortars pound the stone-work and everything feels as chaotic and violent as a Wolfenstein game should.
Once inside, I picked up a pair of assault rifles and flipped on dual wield mode. Running around firing both weapons at scores of screaming Nazis felt satisfying chunky, and most important of all, fast-paced. Anyone who has played Wolfenstein 3D will surely remember how quick and furious it can get, especially with rooms filled with fodder. Between turret sections, gunfights in grand wooden banquet halls and a secret area hidden behind a curious painting, the initial stage at least fits the tone of the original well.
“It’s strange because Wolfenstein 3D came out 20 years ago and obviously there has been huge things happening in first-person shooters since then,” Matthies continued, “but you still want to capture that vibe. It was such a big moment for us as aspiring developers when Wolfenstein 3D came out and I had this thing where, when I was a kid, I was attracted to videogames because you can imagine something and make it a reality and go there. That’s what made me want to be a developer, that ability to go to another world that’s out of pure imagination.
“I thought the most real version of that would be if you could see that world through your own eyes. I started to think about how that would work and it seemed like an impossible problem, and then Wolfenstein 3D came out and I was like, ‘They’ve done it, it’s real now.’ It was so mind-blowing to me, so for us as developers this franchise has a huge place in our hearts. We really wanted the game to be a love-letter to id Software and the old school shooters, but of course, take advantage of the technology we have today and all of the cool stuff that’s come onto the scene since then.”
I was initially concerned that the classic ‘Wolfenstein’ vibe would be lost once BJ left the castle and coma’d his way to the ’60s. After a dramatic title sting, BJ monologues about his time spent in the insane asylum, and how Deathshead is using it as his own private cattle farm, with patients hauled off to be tested on every other day. When the Nazis finally come for him, he rises up and begins his bloody crusade to end the war machine oppressing the planet. An intense battle in the asylum’s many wards, tiled hallways and offices triggers, and I was back in shooty bang-bang land once more.
Running on an advanced version of id Tech 5, the visuals sing on PC, and light destructive elements throw chaos into the mix. One Nazi troop slid behind a wooden table as cover, which I quickly melted with my shotgun, sending him flying back into a wall. Stonework chips and zings about the screen as guns roar all around. It’s a mad, super-charged experience, just like previous Wolfenstein entries, but whether this aesthetic sustains into the later missions remains to be seen.
We’ve already caught a glimpse of mechs, ‘futuristic’ weaponry and other equally as mad attractions, but my demo ended before I got a chance to see them. If MachineGames can ramp up the crazy and keep the pace and severity up, then this could be the modern take on id Software’s master-work we’ve been waiting for. What I’ve played so far has left me hopeful and eager to play more.
Wolfenstein: The New Order hits PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One in 2014.