B.J. Blazkowicz is confused. Recently suffering some rather traumatic injuries involving his brain, some shrapnel, and falling something like 20 stories off a cliffside stronghold and into the ocean to float around for who knows how long, our favorite Nazi-killing hero of games with the word “Wolfenstein” in them is now in an asylum, trying to physically and mentally recover. It’s understandable given the things he’s been through.
The problem is that I’m confused, too. Or rather, I’m confused about what the game wants to be. After spending an hour with a new demo build of Wolfenstein: The New Order at this year’s QuakeCon in Dallas, Texas, I definitely have a better idea of what sort of game this sequel is going to be, but I’m not entirely convinced that it knows what it wants to be. Allow me to explain.
It opens with a cutscene of Blazkowicz and his squad preparing to storm the massive expanse between them and the wall of an enemy base. This is where we get a glimpse that our protagonist is not what we remember from days of old. There’s another soldier kind of freaking, so Blazkowicz walks over and helps him calm down with a little trick. “Inhale. Count to four. Exhale. Count to four.” And then they’re off, running the gauntlet of bullets and space where bullets soon shall be.
Once they get to the wall, the gruff leader of the squad spits some knowledge: some of them will go headlong into the fray while the others will climb this wall with their grappling hook guns and find a way to open the gate in front of them. As they hook up to the ropes they’ve just fired up, we get playing control and begin to ascend. At a dying snail stuck in molasses’ pace, we climb the wall, moving forward and side to side and shooting dudes as they pop out of the windows. It reminds me of Whac-a-Mole, except with a lot more blood.
Our other two wall-bound comrades die before we reach the top (a plane also crashes at some point, forcing you to dodge a large piece of debris), but I never even really caught their names. I pop up into the top window, pick a direction, and start running. At first I discover a Secret Area which doesn’t really do much except show me different-looking doors, but back on the main path I find a lever. I pull it and drop into the holes created by the gate weights.
And then we progress through some standard fare shooting stuff. There is some stealth in the game, but it wasn’t really working for me, nor did it seem like a consistent option. It wasn’t like you could sneak past an entire encounter (or at least from what I saw and tried), but you could at least get behind a couple of dudes and slice their throats. At least in theory, anyways, because I always ended up slashing him in the back first before trying again and then finally kicking off the stealth kill animation. It was weird and after several attempts at the matter, I don’t think I was entirely to blame for not succeeding at it.
Two wrinkles came up, though, that were pretty interesting. You can hold down the left bumper on the controller and use the left stick to lean around corners. And if you tap RB, you switch between dual and single wield of whatever weapon you have out. Those two controls help facilitate two things that will keep you alive. Blazkowicz, for as space marine-ish as he looks, is rather frail, so leaning in and out of cover is vital, and when you really get in a jam, quickly and easily busting out two machine guns is clutch (not to mention super fun).
Eventually we come across a strange room full of people(?) strung up by the skin of their backs. The squad tries to escape but only succeeds in setting off an incinerator process, so instead of becoming charred-up soldiers, they try to escape, which culminates in me going over to a stand, pressing X to grab a key, then pressing X to insert the key into a lock. We make it out and enter the next room, but this mechanized, humanoid brute explodes out of a chamber in the ground in this small, cramped, square room and starts attacking us. It kills a squad member, but I unlock everything I’ve got and he goes down.
All the while, however, Blazkowicz and some of his teammates are spouting off one-liners, but they’re somewhat extended one-liners and some of them kind of delve into some deep shi—err, stuff. It’s more distracting than anything; it feels like they used to be really cheesy Duke Nukem catchphrases but replaced with the writing of someone having a dark, emotional day.
Anyways, with the brute down, we try to escape this room, too, since they’d rather deal with dead, mutilated bodies instead of live, angry, well-armed ones, but the door is shut and there’s a guy standing in the little door window doing his best Slender Man/G-Man/asshole impression. He triggers something and causes the walls to close and slowly Star Wars-style crush us, but instead we fade to black and wake up to us on the floor of the incinerator room.
Slender G Hole is talking to us. Apparently he likes to collect eyes, which is bad news for the one of the other three surviving members of the team because he was already one eye down. The other two, however, lay in front of you and the doctor general dude asks us to make a choice: look at the one you want to die, or everyone gets their throats slit. It’s an empty threat, however, as nothing happened as I lingered on the screen for a while. Eventually I picked the guy on the left because they both were basically facing the floor and I couldn’t tell who was who (nor could I remember any of them. I think I had a captain?).
As it turns out, I saved the captain. We zoom in on a well-rendered, super emotional Blazkowicz, telling himself to inhale, count to four, exhale, count to four. It’s a nice callback, albeit borderline overwrought. But anyways, everyone else except us and one brute leave, so the captain kicks over a pipe and begins to attack our warden. I once again press X to pick up the pipe and press it again to stab it into the oversized guard’s side. We then smash all of the incinerator outlets with the pipe, free ourselves, and hotwire a window open. It involves controlling the left wire with the left stick and the right wire with the right stick and slowly moving them together and holding them so they spark for a few moments. We then take a running leap out of the window into the ocean below, but not before our head gets really intimate with shrapnel flying towards the back of Blazkowicz’s head.
We float around a bit while late credits come in and out until we wake up in some mental hospital. Everything is a bit hazy and we go into an extended cutscene of Blazkowicz watching the world pass him by as he is basically brain damaged to the point of being a vegetable. This part of the game goes really dramatic and, for the most part, succeeds. We are introduced to a family running the asylum, the entirety of which is upstanding. The father is the doctor and regularly fights back from the Reich abducting patients and genuinely tries to help people. The mother is a pharmacist of sorts and the daughter, Anya, just helps with everyone’s recovery. She feeds Blazkowicz, talks to him, and passes time with him. Time speeds up and slows down as the family celebrates birthdays and mourns losses. And all our square-jawed, ultra masculine soldier can do is think, trapped in his own head and in this ward. It’s dark and really interesting.
But then some soldiers come in, saying the doctor’s work is concluded. Some unsanctioned shooting goes on (namely the father and mother), so they take Anya to determine her fate with the captain while the remaining soldier’s execute the patients. When the guy gets to us, though, Blazkowicz slices his throat with a steak knife and picks up his gun. We show him stumbling (“legs like jelly…fingers numb”), but then he’s pretty much back to full strength save for the occasional fuzzy vision.
We blast our way through the hospital and out into the courtyard where we see them trying to take Anya away. We stop them the only way we know how (read: bullets) and trundle over to her. She’s still breathing, so we pick her up, put her in a nearby car, and start to drive away, which was kind of nice. I thought the entire game was going to be a whole “damsel in distress” thing—which could have been cool if a bit too trope-ish but still would have made another war story into something much more personal—but based on the E3 demo, it seems like we’ll be escorting her to various locations throughout the game instead.
I just really have no idea what kind of game Wolfenstein: The New Order wants to be, and I don’t think it really knows either. The shooting is very decisive, forcing you to move deliberately but also quickly lest you get surrounded and pinned. But then moments like when a robot dog inexplicably pops up out of a wall in a very Resident Evil-y moment and when you are gently coerced into sneaking around, it feels like it at some point wanted to be a horror game. And when you fight the brute, it becomes much more old school Wolfenstein where you just dump ammo and overcharge your health and go “fuck yeah.” And the timing and phrasing of some of the things Blazkowicz and your crew say feels like vestiges of a much more lighthearted game, but then it was replaced with a super self-serious title, one that deals with loss of identity in the asylum and friends and family in the war.
A lot of those disparate pieces, however, do have merit, but when they’re all stuck together, it kind of stops making sense. Taken alone, they all individually kind of excite me, but a more cohesive vision would really tie all those neat starts up into a nice finish. Maybe that’s why it got delayed until 2014. Maybe by then they’ll take all these different, cool ideas and turn them into a single great idea.