Just before the big announcement of a solid release date – May 20 in America, May 22 in Australia and New Zealand and May 23 in Europe – we were able to go hands-on with Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by MachineGames (headed by former Starbreeze members) and published by Bethesda Softworks. Our last in-person glimpse of the title came at EB Expo 2013, where we watched a demo of a later level introducing the Laser Cutter, set inside a Nazi base. When we finally played the game ourselves on a PlayStation 4, we experienced the first three chapters, chronicling B.J. Blazkowicz’s involvement in the height of the war in 1946 and the events that led to his reawakening in a radically different 1960, part of an alternate timeline in which the Germans have won and taken control of the entire globe with advanced technologies.
The game’s introduction is an inauspicious one to say the least, with Blazkowicz on-board a U.S. fighter plane that has taken some substantial damage. Ordinarily, tutorials don’t see players thrust into situations such as this; a panicked rush to prevent your own fiery demise. As he pilots the aircraft, Fergus Reid – a grizzled, Scottish war veteran – charges you with repairing an engine fire, before needing to cut loose some heavy cargo in an effort to keep the plane airborne. Returning to the cockpit, Nazi fighter jets surround the duo – it’s a technology that neither man has ever seen before, far ahead of its time. But that won’t stop Blazkowicz from attempting to shoot them all down! This is fight or (no) flight time after all, so we slide into the turret seat and take aim in what reminds of old school arcade shooters. The glass of the turret capsule gradually cracks and shatters as the Germans fire back, but the rational fear of being taken out, now with no armour, by a bullet to the head seems irrational all of a sudden. Why? Because this is Wolfenstein, and that would be too easy. No, we need something more dramatic… how about a flaming enemy jet hurdling towards you? Now that’s cinematic! What’s more is the fact that Blazkowicz (and the plane, for that matter) survive this head-on collision quite handily.
After being revived by the Scotsman, and witnessing more destruction as the losing side in this air battle, the two decide to jump ship to a carrier. The leap is dangerous, with another wayward plane’s spinning propeller chopping at the wing (and Blazkowicz’s heels) as Fergus and co attempt to pull us in. Once they do, we have to tend to a wreck of a man named Wyatt, who isn’t the only soldier freaking out… the carrier is full of nervous souls, clutching at their guns and wishing away the war. It doesn’t take long after literally slapping some sense into the young lad that we are overwhelmed and going down. Now on the surface, Blazkowicz is separated from the rest, with large, mechanical hounds nipping at the crashed plane, sure to penetrate its shell soon enough. Another downed aircraft across the bay has an in-tact turret, and so we dive underneath the water to stealthily swim across, avoiding the vicious bite of these “Panzerhunds”. For fear of getting eaten, you never dare satisfy the urge to come up for air and see exactly where you’re headed. To accommodate this, MachineGames actually lead you to the destination with a trail of floating corpses acting as your “cookie crumb” guiding line, which is done so quite subtly (although on paper, it sounds very overt). We emerge in safety and climb to the turret, proceeding to dismantle multiple Panzerhunds with a barrage of bullets.
Reconvening with the team, they decide it’s best Blazkowicz chance the mortar attacks and run the gauntlet, sprinting into the trenches. Now, the true FPS mechanics finally come into play! Given that we begin in 1946, the more advanced weaponry promised by the title gets into players’ hands the further they progress in the timeline. And so at first you will have little more than your trusty knife, machine gun and pistol at the ready, although the ability to dual-wield is not kept from the player. Traversing the trenches, Nazi soldiers aren’t the only foe you need to look out for, as Kampfhunds (cyborg-dogs) quickly round corners and leap at your jugular. Immediately, you can feel the weight and the impact of the gunplay, and while dual-wielding may not be the most effective offensive decision with its higher amount of kickback and inability to aim down the sights, it is extremely satisfying and fun. Pulling the left and right triggers will shoot the respective weapons, unlike in some FPS titles from the past where the right trigger shoots both guns in a dual-wield. Of course, utilising this will mean a fast drain of your ammunition, however in Wolfenstein: The New Order, ammo can not only be picked up off the ground and from fallen enemies, but can also be acquired by breaking crates which are strewn throughout each level. Sometimes there will be health items inside instead; eating more than your fair share will initiate an “Overcharge” of your health bar, basically providing you with an additional amount of health past 100/100 for a limited time.
Along the way to finding entry into the Nazi facility built into the mountain-side, we execute a couple troublesome mounted turret operators by sneaking up behind them and pulling off silent melee kills, clicking in “R3”. Eventually, we pick up an explosive and blast our way into the facility. But before walking in, we spot a lone turret to the left and approach it, detaching the behemoth. The sound of that gatling gun detaching from its mount is the most shrill, harsh, weighty metallic sound you can imagine. You are significantly encumbered whilst carrying this beast of a weapon too, with your walk speed slowed drastically. It does eat up ammo, but reattaching it to a nearby mount will reload it, however it can still overheat so as to prevent the player from spamming. An important element of the gameplay in Wolfenstein: The New Order is the multi-directional lean mechanic. At any point, the player can hold “L1” and use the right thumbstick to lean with a full range of motion, even low to the ground like in an earlier scenario, allowing you to shoot someone’s legs out from under them. This mechanic can be used in conjunction with the zoom, dual-wielding, and can be utilised with any weapon that is equipped. There’s more often than not an opportunity to stealth your way through any given area, but why do that when you can cause major devastation!
Going back to the stealth options, there are specific advantages to taking that route and most of them relate to Wolfenstein: The New Order’s twist on the “alarm system” mechanic found in many video games. In certain zones, there will be one, maybe two generals in the area who are armed and ready to send out a radio signal for backup. Those signals are displayed on the top right corner of the screen, along with a general distance counter telling you just how close you are to the general/s. If you can dispatch of them, quietly, without anyone spotting you, then you’ve eliminated any chance of backup being called. And you’d be thankful for that on the higher difficulty levels, of which there are four: “Can I Play Daddy?”, “Don’t Hurt Me”, “Bring Em On!”, and “I Am Death Incarnate!” These should ring a bell for long-time fans, as they are the same difficulty level titles from the original Wolfenstein 3D. Moving on, we commandeer a couple anti-air guns to obliterate a tripodal, Nazi war machine that was completely annihilating U.S. militia with its death ray-esque blasts, and then clear a path to continue forward. Regrouping with Fergus, Wyatt and the rest of the gang, we fire grappling hooks up the façade of a building and begin our ascent. This is a great sequence whereby enemy soldiers open fire through the windows, and poke their heads out across the three columns of the structure to bombard you and cause you to fall to your death. You can jump or manoeuvre left and right to avoid the onslaught, but a shoot first policy works just fine here.
Eventually, after clearing out a multi-storey circular tower, and leaping across a considerable gap, we find ourselves in more and more danger. I wish I kept track of how many times Blazkowicz is knocked out during the first chapter alone, but the company end up inside Obergruppenführer (General) Willhelm “Deathshead” Strasse’s chamber of joy and happiness… where he strings up his poor victims by their filleted skin and initiates a procedure turning them into hulking “Super Soldiers”. Hurrying to find a key to a hidden door lock – only after accidentally triggering the flame-throwers in the room… yeah, he incinerates their bodies for some reason too – everybody escapes into the adjacent room, which looks just like another torture chamber; and we’re not far off on that prediction. Shortly after, a resultant Super Soldier from the aforementioned experiments, rises up on a platform from underneath the floor to attack us. There is very little space to run, as the square, box-like chamber denies you any cover or reprieve. All you can do is circle around him, shooting at his armour as he bum-rushes you with a clobbering, windmill style melee offensive. Unfortunately, destroying him does not lead to safety as Deathshead rears his ugly, composite face at the door, watching as the walls close in on you, almost compacting your body like a written-off car at the junk-yard.
Blazkowicz awakens after passing out from the pressure, only to find himself – along with the others – restrained against the cold, sterile floor of the familiar Super Soldier procedure chamber. Deathshand speaks disturbingly about Wyatt and Fergus’ select body parts, quipping “I like this one’s eyes” about the youngster. He then queries you on who would prove a better specimen for his experiments. It’s at this point where you must choose to send someone to their grisly demise, right in front of your eyes. At our playthrough, every journalist but one chose to sacrifice poor Wyatt… including myself. I figured I would lie and choose the decidedly weaker Wyatt in order to save the stronger Fergus. Once Deathshead leaves, Fergus escapes his shackles, but is promptly advanced upon by the guarding Super Soldier. He slid Blazkowicz a pipe before doing so, and following suit, we manage to stand up and lodge the pipe right between the armour plates of the Super Soldier, striking what can be described as a weak spot for the brutes. To avoid surely imminent incineration – and also as a form of slight payback – we cripple the nozzles before hot-wiring an exit hatch. Hot-wiring is implemented as a timed mini-game where the player must bring the two wires together with the thumbsticks; the sparks repel the wires, but the player must touch them together again another two times in a timely manner to be successful.
“Finally, freedom!” Not so fast… for as the pair leap from the great height into the water below, a piece of shrapnel from an explosion lodges right into the back of Blazkowicz’s skull. The next time we embody Blazkowicz, he is being wheeled into an asylum. Suffering from amnesia, Blazkowicz sits there in his wheelchair, watching time pass him by. This cinematic is really poignant in a way, with Blazkowicz narrating as the camera slowly pans the room; seasons change, patients come and go and Nazis periodically show up to take the inferior and put them to rest, so to speak. This breeds conflict between the resistant staff and the army men, and when things get out of hand in one particular visit, the kidnapping of nurse Anya and the barbarism on display stirs Blazkowicz’ s mind and memory. Cleaning up their mess, the soldiers decide to simply kill the remaining ill. The trigger happy soldier that started the predicament makes his way to Blazkowicz, efficiently placing pillows over the heads of the sick and executing them with a silenced bullet to the head… but this will not be how B.J. Blazkowicz goes out. Blazkowicz deftly grabs a knife off a counter beside his wheelchair and brutally thrusts it into the neck of the ruthless soldat (soldier). It’s time we leave this place, find Anya and head for the hills.
On the way out, entering specific rooms triggers flashbacks of interactions between Blazkowicz and Anya, such as the bathroom where Anya washed our fit, studly hero… she seemed to love that part of her job. Picking up further-advanced versions of the German arsenal on our way outside, we are met with a handful of soldiers. Slaying them leads to the arrival of a cavalry of drones. Though the Nazi forces were in possession of some impressive tech in 1946, this is definitely above and beyond anything previously experienced. Post dismantling the flying nuisances, we pick up Anya and jump into a vehicle. A cutscene plays shortly after departing, with Anya recovering to take the wheel in order to allow Blazkowicz to rebuff some pursuing foes. She drives them to her Polish parents’ home, and upon arriving, Blazkowicz discovers a man inside the trunk – surname, Keller. In a funny moment, Blazkowicz drags the German officer out of the boot and drops him in front of Anya’s mother, who repeatedly slaps the bejeezus out of him in a fit of sorrow-fuelled rage. The family graciously host Blazkowicz for breakfast, over which they explain to him the state of the world; it is 1960, and the Germans rule the planet. But what tips Blazkowicz over the edge is the fact that the U.S. surrendered… they “quit” in his eyes, something he never thought possible. He wants to find a resistance, and when he is told there is none other than those in lock-up, he heads downstairs into the basement for answers from ol’ Keller.
Keller implores Blazkowicz to let him go, assuring that Anya and her family “will be spared” if he does. Wrong thing to say buddy. The player regains control here and instantly, our eye is drawn to the chainsaw laying on a workbench. But hey, if you’re gonna torture and interrogate someone, it’s best to have your own protection, right? So the player must first acquire the welding mask from the drawer, and the apron from the cabinet before proceeding. The threat of a running chainsaw to the throat gets Keller speaking. Blazkowicz intends to make haste in rescuing the freedom fighters, but Anya’s father convinces him to assault a relatively nearby Nazi base beforehand. Hell, Blazkowicz wants revenge wherever he can get it! So Blazkowicz and Anya’s parents – mother at the wheel, father riding shotgun… literally, wielding a shotgun (and he makes damn good use of it too!) – pull up to the huge, solid steel gates of the compound. We get to work, infiltrating each checkpoint and opening the gates from inside. One open area holds enemies on the ground, indoors, outdoors and on walkways, which could prove a death-trap if line of sight is made and your cover is broken at any time. This is the perfect situation to become a ghost and attach your silencer, which can be done by pressing the right arrow on the D-Pad.
Finally, the last section pits us against two, hyper-advanced, oversized Nazi robots. There is usually a sufficient amount of ammunition to be found on every map, but if you fail to employ the present turrets in this battle, then you’re doomed to die… again and again. Victorious, the demo nears its end as Blazkowicz joins Anya on a Nazi-controlled train, masquerading as fellow soldiers. Blazkowicz is procuring some coffee when Frau Engel strolls past and takes a seat at a table. Blazkowicz whispers to himself “do not make eye contact, just head to the cabin”. We try to do just that, but Frau Engel calls us over. Now, there is freedom of control in this instance, so I wonder what would happen if you ignored her and kept on walking, but I didn’t have the guts to do that. I stopped, set the coffee down and sat across from her gaze. She eyes Blazkowicz up, entering into a monologue about her test; a test that is foolproof in identifying imposters. She demands you participate, asking you to pick between a set of photographs. After three rounds, she snatches Blazkowicz’s hand and points her side-arm at his head… before breaking out in hysterics. There is no test, because if you had really been an insurgent, you would have reached for the gun already. Phew! After this heart-pounding meeting, we make our way to our cabin and the demo concludes.
I am interested to see how your decision to save either Wyatt or Fergus early on affects the rest of the game. We’ve been told that, at the very least, your choice will determine an exclusive skill that you learn – lockpicking or hot-wiring – but there must be more significant differences between them to warrant a signifier at the top right corner of your in-game Journal. Separate perk trees are included for the different methods of combat, requiring you achieve a set condition to unlock bonus abilities/boosts/bonuses. E.g.,’Kill three Nazis with One Grenade’ and earn an increased maximum grenade capacity (not an actual perk, just an example of the concept, as stated). And though there wasn’t a heap of variety in this opening portion of the game, we are promised player controlled war machines and – as the existence of the Laser Cutter indicates – the acquisition of high-tech weaponry and gadgets. Also, true completionists will spend extra time collecting all the letters, gold, concept art, biographies and puzzle pieces there are available to find throughout each chapter, prolonging what already looks to be a meaty FPS experience.
It’s important to note that the build we played was weeks old, but nonetheless, walking away from the preview I felt a sense of relief. I should never have doubted MachineGames… I don’t think any of us should have. Yes, it has some audio/visual and technical hiccups, but that’s what polish is for. The former studio members of Starbreeze, who made one of the most underrated FPS titles of the last generation in The Darkness, and the universally loved The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, are applying their knowledge and experience to great benefit with Wolfenstein: The New Order. Achtung! Wolfenstein: Die Neue Ordnung wird kommt!