It’s always hard to understand why somebody wants to make a new version of an old thing.
Gaming aside, it’s especially problematic in the world of science fiction. Why make a new (or a new new) Planet of the Apes when the old one’s already an ageless classic? Why revisit the Alien franchise constantly when they nailed it the first two times anyway?
Wolfenstein 3D was a basic maze game from 1992 in which a disembodied gun floating around some Nazi-themed labyrinths shooting blocky soldiers. There was some Indiana Jones-like silliness in there, including a face-off with a robotic Adolf Hitler, and even a brush with a demon guarding a Biblical relic in the game’s follow-up Spear of Destiny, but story and setting was largely of no consequence whatsoever.
Wolfenstein 3D basically went down in history because it single-handedly invented the first person shooter genre. As an intellectual property in its own right – as time has shown with various mediocre follow-ups – it’s felt damn near useless. To update it would require a great spin on the theme, and a bundle of passion to match.
Luckily, both may just have arrived with developer MachineGames. As ex-members of Swedish team Starbreeze, their CV already includes injecting life into middling comic series The Darkness and even more lacklustre movie franchise The Chronicles of Riddick.
These are guys who seem to delight in harnessing the hidden heart of an average idea, and going absolutely to town with it. Their interpretations of both The Darkness and Riddick are arguably superior in many ways to the source material on which they were based.
Wolfenstein: The New Order feels like it's going to sit typically alongside this heritage. What if the Nazis won World War II? It’s a conceit that’s entertained the sci-fi genre for decades. From Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle to Robert Harris' Fatherland, to Timo Vuroensola's more recent 'moon Nazis' variation in Iron Sky.
What would that have come of that crazy technology if it was given many more years to develop and conquer the world? What would the world be like if 1945 had ended so differently?
Wolfenstein: The New Order is the first chance we’ve had to inhabit and explore such an outcome. The possibilities are endless, and the three hours or so we played showed more than a little potential, nailing clichés while underpinning stock ideas with the creepy, dark psychology that only Starbreeze alumni could pull off. Your play id’s original Captain William “BJ” Blazkowicz character, replicated with the Buzz Lightyear super-chin and number 2-all-over super buzzcut that made him so iconic on the original game’s HUD. But unlike the 1992 hero, you spend 14 years as a vegetable in a mental hospital, watching the results of your failed attempt to take down crazed scientist General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse and his grisly human medical experiments.
Reanimated in 1960 as Nazis farm your hospital for more scientific “test subjects”, you’re a man out of a time; the only Allied soldier remaining in a world cowed by a German war machine which nuked the hell out of America in the finishing blow of 1946. It’s a future of mechanical dogs, tesla-powered shock troops and towering, Swastika-emblazened tripod robots. And it’s a game concept that quickly sets you up as literally the only hope for a world that already seems utterly doomed.
In practice, it’s still just a first person shooter, with no particular standout gameplay features for our money. Sure, you can choose the ‘stealth’ approach by creeping around the back of the captain’s office and stabbing him in the back, or run in dual-wielding futuristic machine guns for a more forceful approach.
There’s also a robust perk system underpinning your gameplay choices and rewarding you with permanent additions to your character – quicker reloading, throwing knives etc. – to tailor to your play style.
But that’s not enough in a world that’s been eating a new Call of Duty game every year, and what Wolfenstein has that’s making us much more genuinely excited is a clear and prevalent mood running through it. This is a grim world. If you’re not being forced to choose which of your platoon has his eyes flicked out with a scalpel, you’re having your genetic origins casually judged by a gun-toting, aged Nazi officer and her leering, sexually ambiguous sidekick as you try to cross the border in the night train.
Misty outposts lurk in the night patrolled by floating drones emitting terrifying mechanical whines as cowed European citizens hide, terrified, in their homes. Every weapon you pick up is a strange and unfamiliar mechanical spin on a WWII staple.
Wolfenstein isn’t a game about cleverly name-checking the past in an alternative history, Command and Conquer kind of way. It’s about tackling the feelings of a man who wakes up in a world he knows has gone utterly, terribly wrong, and following his sole ambition to try to fix it.
Making this nonsensical premise was almost as tall an order for MachineGames as saving the world will be for Blazkowicz, but our three hours never saw a dull moment.
Wolfenstein: The New Order feels like a beautifully crafted adventure with an unusually painstaking amount of atmosphere and detail. If you liked the Bioshock series before it, or are a fan of any other alternate history modern fantasy, you should keep an eye on this one.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is released in the UK on 20 May 2014, and will be published by Bethesda Softworks.
Review by Peter Gothard