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August 25, 2014

ShootStravaganza!! Wolfenstein: The New Order

Video games may be an art form, but it’s hard to separate them from the mechanical underpinnings.  Yeah, that’s probably true of every art form, but given that games are built on technology, it’s more than a little pronounced.  So while in a lot of ways, it’s easy to understand why there are so many shooters (even if you’re not willing to welcome them): the mechanics are the simplest way to create a relationship between a real player and a virtual world.  Take aim, pull a trigger button, and things happen.  It’s a hard formula to screw up, even if it is less than preferable to others.

I’m not even going to pretend like I know everything/anything about shooters, but I can do something like that for fighting games.  Even if you don’t have any skill with them, it only takes a glance to realize that there are systems and particulars that go into each one, making them different across the board.  True, there are lessons and concepts that carry over from game-to-game, but Street Fighter 4 is not the same game as, say, Street Fighter X Tekken

There are surface-level elements, like those unique systems; there are deeper elements, like preparation and tactics; there are elements that you have to learn on the fly, going from one match to another (someday I’ll learn how to fight Chun-Li) -- and then there’s the super-deep stuff like frame data, proration, and more.  Fighters may have seen a renaissance over the past half-decade or so, but that’s partly because they’ve got the depth -- at every level -- that can satisfy a player.  It’s what makes fighters one of the purest game genres out there.

I bring all this up because I think that’s part of the appeal of Wolfenstein: The New Order.  And it’s part of the reason why it’s not only the best game I’ve looked at for the ShootStravaganza, but maybe one of the best next-gen games so far…even though that doesn’t really mean very much at this stage, but whatever.

I’m surprised that I like TNO as much as I do.  If I remember right, the last one wasn’t anything worth getting excited about -- the definition of generic, according to what I’d heard.  And of course, it was “just another shooter” which raised every red flag under the sun.  It seemed like something worth skipping, and something I could just ignore until it went away -- buried and forgotten by the gaming populace.  Imagine my surprise, then, when it gets into player hands and they actually spare it some kind words. 

Now, let’s be real here.  I’m not holding up TNO as a shining example of modern gaming, quality, or any of that.  It’s not the second coming, and nowhere near a killer app for any of the next-gen systems.  So no, this isn’t the game that justifies the existence of the PS4; it may be good (and better than it has any right to be), but it’s not without fault, and is still a little generic instead of being nothing but.  But damn, I’ll GLADLY take it over Second Son and Watch DogsTNO wins by default, just by virtue of not letting me run into glitches in the first half-hour.

Fortunately, it does more than that.

Usually this would be the point where I’d talk about the story, but this time I think I’ll start with the gameplay.  (You shoot lots of Nazis.  That’s 83% of the game’s context right there.)  All the basic controls are there.  Basic run, sprint, throw grenades, melee attacks, aiming and hip-firing, crouching, silent takedowns -- the usual suspects.  Still, there are some minor wrinkles that set it apart from games like Destiny and Killzone: Shadow Fall.  For one, you can hold down a button to access a weapon wheel and switch to your arms of choice -- including the option to dual-wield.  (You can also start dual-wielding by tapping up on the D-pad.) 

The action won’t pause if you access the weapon wheel, so if you want to switch to a different weapon -- besides the one you last selected, mapped to Triangle -- you’ll have to make sure you’re in a safe spot.  The takeaway from TNO is that you can hold more than two weapons at a time -- and as such, you can form a strategy by way of having access to multiple tools.

What I find supremely interesting about the game is that, by holding L1, you can lean in pretty much any direction -- the perfect way to look around a corner, pop out of cover to shoot, or get even lower to the ground.  I’m almost certain that this mechanic has shown up in other shooters, but this has to be my first experience with it -- and it makes me wonder why it isn’t a standard feature (or why it hasn’t become one yet, at least -- if it hasn’t already). 

It gives you the freedom to move about without gluing yourself to a chest-high wall, and use cover in a tactical sense.  Sure, the Halo games didn’t have a dedicated “stick to cover” button either, but those had you shuffling about to position and reposition yourself.  In TNO, if you find cover, you can use it more effectively by leaning around its edges while maintaining your sweet spot.  As it so happens, you can use the lean to get super-low to the ground, and shoot unsuspecting Nazis in their legs from the inside of a vent.  It allows for some tactical trolling action, without a doubt.

But controls aside, there are a lot of surprising elements to TNO.  For one, it’s not just straight running-and-gunning action, which is what you’d expect from the standard shooter these days.  I wouldn’t say there’s an emphasis on stealth, but it’s an option that’s always there for you if you decide to take it.  That’s made possible by the level design, which is typically so wide-open that it’s almost disorienting.

Coming off of the Gears of War trilogy and several Halo games, it left me flat-out disoriented to find I had a map to use.  “Wait, you mean I can go in a different direction besides forward?” I asked.  And at several points, the realization that I didn’t know where to go hearkened back to an entirely different genre of games…if not an entirely different era.  Considering what franchise TNO is a part of, I can’t say that’s too surprising.  And of course, it’s more than welcome. 

Using the vents to snag low shots is far from an isolated incident.  You’re allowed -- and even encouraged -- to search areas for alternate routes, which can not only lead to health, armor, and items, but lead you to better vantage points against your enemies.  Pipes, trenches, and alcoves can all lead you to the perfect position, giving you the chance to form the strategy you want. 

You can go pure stealth and systematically dismantle Nazis by slipping from point-to-point, or you can go running and gunning, using the land to defend as needed.  Or you can mix them both, reducing enemy numbers so that you can have an easier time with those that remain.  Otherwise known as the “Voltech Opts for Stealth, but Always Botches it and Gets Spotted” Method.  In which case, taking advantage of enemy AI and their habit of investigating piles of dead bodies wins the day.

So in a lot of ways, you could say that TNO is more Metal Gear Solid than anything else.  I still contend, though, that it’s got the fighting game DNA flowing through its veins.  You may not need to worry about option selects (whatever the shooter equivalent of that might be), but there’s a lot to consider on multiple levels.   There’s a certain level of yomi that goes into the game; the competition between you and it is more pronounced than a number of contemporary shooters. 

Like a Street Fighter match, you have your basic game plan and objective, but you have to make adjustments depending on the situation -- in accordance with your skill.  Do you have what it takes to run-and-gun?  Even if you do, is that the best option available, in the face of numbers that not only far exceed your own, but run patrols so that they’ll see you before you see them?  Do you have the skills to sneak about?  Can you find the perfect line that can let you dismantle enemy forces?

Actually, now that I bring up lines, I can’t help but feel like TNO reminds me of the Tony Hawk games.  Bonus points for that one, then.

With games like Titanfall in our midst -- and with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare lurching toward us -- it seems like there’s a conscious effort to add greater mobility to the standard shooter (mobility, of course, being a key fighting game factor that can decide entire tier lists).  The idea, I think, is to create a quicker, smoother pace, and thus keep the player invested in the action.  I can get behind that, so long as it’s done in the right way.  But even without jetpacks or parkour to call its own, TNO still handles mobility pretty well.  The player character isn’t wanting for speed, and like CoDs before it, you can slide by going into a crouch while sprinting.  Basic stuff, for sure.

But here’s the key element: you cannot count on regenerating health in this game.

It’s true that it’s in there, but it’ll only bring you up to a low threshold (40% of your health, at most).  That makes a huge difference, believe you me.  I remember playing Second Son and enjoying the combat when I had the freedom to move as I wished -- and hating it when I had to come to a complete stop and cower behind cover while I waited for my health to regenerate.  It completely slaughtered the pace of the fight -- and it’s safe to say that it’s a problem that can (if not does) plague every shooter that relies on the mechanic.  TNO doesn’t.  If you’re swarmed by enemies, your life is genuinely in danger. 

They’ll tear through you if you’re not careful, and the mistakes you make in a firefight carry over to the next until you can find some health.  The threat of failure and defeat are made real.  Perceivable.  There are no guaranteed saving graces.  And because of that, it makes the need to move more important than the ability to move.  “If I stay still and hidden for a while, everything will be okay” is not the right mindset to have, either for this game or for shooters in general.  What TNO puts on display is the right way to do it.  You don’t get to win by relying on a get out of jail free card.  You win by playing intelligently -- by using your tools, your understanding of the opponent, and your ingenuity to make your strategy work.

So basically, playing TNO will make you ready to take on Daigo.

…Or maybe not.

Even if the gameplay is unduly satisfying, I’m still not going to act like it’s without fault.  You can go stealthy or go guns blazing, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a lean toward the latter.  You can still take a reasonable amount of damage before you go into the danger zone, while you can do a fair bit more damage to your enemies. 

Getting enemies to move where you want sometimes comes down to taking advantage of their AI -- popping just long enough for them to walk toward you and stabbing them.  And when you look at the game as a whole, TNO doesn’t do anything that’s revolutionary.  It just does everything competently.  Very much so.

And that’s part of the problem.

There’s a certain level of dirtiness to giving TNO praise.  It’s hyper-competent, sure, but it’s treading familiar ground on virtually every account.  What does it say about the state of the video game industry when the only way to guarantee making a good product is to just do what’s already been done in the past? 

And that goes double for TNO; I like its individual parts because they’re parts that could have shown up in shooters from a decade ago.  If that’s the case, then how is it that modern shooters have managed to go backwards in terms of evolution, stripping away the good and replacing it with the kind of things that turn me away from shooters in the first place?  How is the medium supposed to progress if developers don’t learn a single damn lesson from the past WITHOUT just cribbing on it entirely?


There’s more that I can say about the gameplay (and I will later), but for now I want to pay a little service to the story.  Like I said, it pretty much boils down to “there are Nazis, so shoot ‘em dead”, so in a lot of ways it’s a little pointless to go into the details.  You’re a soldier, there are bad guys; bullets will fly, and stuff will blow up.  Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

But again, TNO manages to succeed by doing the obvious, the basic, and what a number of modern games have failed to do -- and once more, it comes out stronger because of it.  If you saw my post on Killzone: Shadow Fall, you know that I noted the complete non-presence of its leading man Lucas Kellan, and how much it hurt his game (by exposing some really negative connotations about the player/game/developer relationship).  In stark contrast, TNO gives you a character who actually -- get this -- has a character.  Granted it’s nothing revolutionary, but you don’t know how much it helps.  You just don’t know.

And you don’t know how much I laughed at the realization that its leading man is pretty much just John Cena.  Seriously, the resemblance is uncanny.

You play as Captain B.J. Blazkowicz, who at the start of the game is in the midst of a mission to go wreck some Nazis alongside his fellow soldiers.  They think that they can blow through the enemy forces with their plane, but it’s not long before they run aground and have to deal with the Nazi’s tech -- giant walkers, robot dogs, flamethrower chambers, mutant supermen, and the like.  (Probably should’ve mentioned off the bat that this is an alternate universe take.)  Despite their best efforts, the mission goes awry, and Blazkowicz John Cena is left in a coma.

Being the tough-as-nails soldier marine wrestler that he is, Cena makes it out of his coma…nearly two decades later.  (Without aging, apparently, but whatever.)  The Nazis have not only won the war, but have a stranglehold on the world with their vast resources, cruelty, and ambition.  Cena ain’t havin’ that, so he decides to do the only thing he can: join up with the resistance and take out the forces that wiped America off the map.  All things considered, it’s the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

It’s not a foreign concept for shooters (CoD) to put the player amid a company of fellow soldiers, but TNO sells it in a way that makes the sequence -- and the inevitable parting -- actually have weight.  They’re not just filling time, or just doing it as a formality; Cena is a part of a team, and he legitimately cares about the people who fight alongside him and save his life routinely. 

He’ll show concern for an injured soldier, give a rookie tips on how to calm down, and just plain enjoy their presence.  That way, when he DOES lose them, it has weight for both the character and the player.  And that weight is allowed, because TNO knows how and when to calm the hell down.  It’s not just sound and fury; it paces itself, and thus accentuates the loud and the quiet moments.  

I'm as surprised as you are.

There’s a grave weariness to Cena, even if he’s engaging as something as cathartic as killing Nazis.  Granted that’s partly established by him speaking in a slightly-less gravelly Christian Bale Bat-voice (with the volume turned down to a distractingly low level), but I have a sense of the character.  I get him.  And I appreciate him, even if he’s not 100% amazing. 

Still, what I can appreciate is that he’s not a complete downer; to my surprise, I found that there are secret points in a level that you can interact with.  Inan early level, there’s a broken-down car.  Hit Square, and Cena will climb into it, pretend to drive it -- while going “vroom vroom” no less -- and imagine he’s asking out a girl.  So basically, that one instance added to the character, the story, and the game in one fell swoop.   

It’s also worth paying some lip service to the Nazis, however briefly.  Now, I’m a little rusty on the subject, but I was under the impression that, while Nazi Germany did some truly terrible things, it wasn’t solely because the country became a hive of madmen.  It was because they tried to do what they thought was right for their country, and essentially the world. 

Further, that might not have happened if Germany wasn’t left in such a sorry state, i.e. forced to take all the blame for WWI and pay reparations.  They were pushed to the dark side by everyone around them; granted the presence of a certain dictator didn’t help matters (and pushed them even further, undoubtedly), but there are at least a couple of traceable thought lines.  Cause and effect.  Nothing more.

It’s not exactly easy to sympathize with the guys in this game.  At my current place in the game, they’re universally nutcases that believe steadfastly in their cause -- no matter how corrupt it is -- and have pretty much the same personality: a smug sense of superiority, as if they’re all a bunch of snakes eager to hiss in your ear.  It’s not exactly the optimal state, but I prefer the approach to something like Shadow Fall

The reason for that is twofold: A) TNO doesn’t half-ass it with a poorly-realized “shades of gray” affect, and B) the villains, even if they are THE VILLAINS and nothing else, are entertaining enough to get a pass.  The devs knew what they were doing, and what players wanted.  And they delivered.   There’s something to be thankful for when the execution is high enough to let a product leap over an audience’s preferences. 

If I had to sum up TNO in one word, it would be “surprising”.  For me, this game came right the hell out of nowhere, but I’m glad I played it.  How glad?  Let me put it this way: I haven’t played TNO that much, but there have been plenty of points where I actually wanted to play it -- whether it was for a ShootStravaganza post or not.  If nothing else, it’s THE shooter that busts up all the stereotypes woven into the genre in this day and age.  In a lot of ways, it’s something worth celebrating.

Gameplay-wise or story-wise, this game is full of surprises.  I’d like to see the look on a first-time player’s face when he/she thinks the mission’s been cleared, only for a couple of twenty-foot-tall killdroids to pop out and stomp after you with machine guns a-firing.  And on the flip side, I wonder how people will react to the start of the train sequence, where you’re forced to play a card game or risk getting shot point-blank by a villainess with a golden gun.  Moments like those are what make me want to play the game even more -- just to see what happens next.

So that’s about where I stand.  Good game.  But is there one better out there?  Let’s see.  What’s next on the list?

Oh, so we’re resorting to cheating now, huh?  All right.  I’ll allow it!


  1. I never cared for the Wolfenstein games. That's it.

  2. Fair enough. I'll admit that The New Order is my first Wolfenstein game ever (and even then it's just a friend's copy), but franchise or not, it makes a pretty strong argument for itself. It's almost as if the developers understood how to pay respect to the franchise without obsessive dependence on it, or banking on half-assed revisionist "ideals".

    But you didn't hear that from me.