Wolfenstein: The New Order features Aryan purity tests, punishing combat, beautiful graphics

Wolfenstein: The New Order features Aryan purity tests, punishing combat, beautiful graphics

We’re not used to feeling powerless due to institutional evil in our day-to-day lives. During a scene from Wolfenstein: The New Order, our hero is forced to take a sort of psychological test to prove that he’s a true Aryan. An old woman, Frau Echer, shows you images, and you have to pick between them. The choices seem random, but you know the wrong choice will lead to your death. Which pictures would you choose to prove you have “pure” blood?

It turns out the pictures have no meaning, they’re simple holiday snaps. Frau Echer was just playing with you, and apparently getting some form of sexual pleasure out of the power she has over your life. She has a young man with her, named Bubi, and he begins to… manipulate her under the table.

If she had decided to kill you, there is nothing you could have done about it. You’re merely a witness to the whimsical power of the new Nazi order. It’s a deeply tense, perverse scene, and doesn’t fit into our ideas of what makes a good Wolfenstein game. Then again, that may be the point.

When the bad guys win

The New Order takes place after the Nazis win World War 2, and our hero, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, is awakened from a 14 year coma. The Nazis are in control, but there is some question about the technology they use to stay in power. This mystery makes up the brunt of the game as you join the resistance and try to take the whole mess down.

This is a game being made by developers who came from Starbreeze, the company that gave us the criminally underrated Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness games. They’re ready to mix things up, and the scattershot tone and combination of fear and power I saw and experienced when I played the game led me to believe they’re onto something very interesting.

During one scene B.J., our all-American hero, delivers coffee to his partner, and there is some hushed conversation about where they’re going to sleep, due to the single bed. He's oddly timid in the scene. During combat, B.J. whispers badass things to himself, and when he has a gun in his hand he’s ready to kill his way through anything and everything. In the non-combat sequences he seems oddly passive and vulnerable.

Having a gun put to your head and being placed through a purity test to make sure you’re Aryan suggests one sort of game, but the over the top dialog during combat suggests another, and it’s going to be fun to see how both sides of the game are stitched together in the final product. “They put a Nazi on the moon,” B.J. whispers at one point. “Fuck you, moon.”

“It’s very internal, what he’s thinking. It’s not like what he’s saying,” creative director Jens Matthies told me. It could be that he’s a tough guy in his head, when the bullets are flying. Put a woman in the mix and he goes softer. Again, the differences in tone are fascinating.

This won't be easy

Many of us had trouble getting past the earliest sequences in our demo, and you could hear muttered curses and slammed controllers across the room. It was delightfully hard, and often punishing. You always knew what you did wrong to get you killed, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the game is, at least at the moment, markedly harder than most first-person shooters. I was told that some of that difficulty may go away after more testing, but they deliberately created aggressive enemies to test your mettle.

“We have a little bit of different game play than normal war first-person shooters. Our A.I. will try to flush you out,” Matthies told the Report. “They will charge you. It’s not always they’re behind their cover, you’re behind your cover, and you’re trying to pump their heads. It’s a lot more fluid. I think that adds a little bit of a learning curve.”

He’s right, you can’t just wait for the enemy in front of your to pop their head out so you can splash their skull with your weapon; enemies will becoming from all directions, and they’ll try to knock you off balance with their methods of attack. You’ll need to be aware of our surroundings, always know how to pull back and regroup, and pay attention to where you can be flanked. It’s a stressful game, but pleasantly so.

The game is coming to next-generation consoles as well as the 360, PS3, and PC, and the build we played looked beautiful. The game was built on id Tech 5, the same engine that powered Rage. “The great thing is that you can make every pixel unique, and that’s both a blessing and a curse, because of course you want to make every pixel unique. It’s a great engine,” Matthies said.

I remarked that you rarely see games using id Tech 5, and was told that it’s an engine unique to Bethesda; they don’t license to other companies.

So the final verdict?

I have no feel for this game at all. The core action is solid, although brutally difficult at this stage. It's beautiful, and uses id Tech 5 to great effect. The tone jumps around during the story portions I saw and the bits of game I played. It's really hard to know what to think about the game until I'm able to see more of it, and to get a sense for how it all comes together into a single, cohesive thing.

Still, the game already looks much more interesting than expected, and that's an early win for a game that could have easily been another stale first-person shooter. The game feels strange and almost uncomfortable, a square peg in an industry of round holes. If nothing else, there are some risks being taken. Let's just hope they pay off.