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Wolfenstein: The New Order hands-on: An old school shooter with stunning visuals

By Andy Kelly on Tuesday 28th May 2013 at 2:00 PM UTC

We're in a taxi driving through 1960s London. But where you might expect to see swingers, mods, and mini-skirts, there are stormtroopers, military checkpoints, and colossal, swastika-covered robots. In this universe, the Nazis won the Second World War.

"Ever since you killed Hitler in Wolfenstein 3D, it's been a series about an alternate history," explains Andreas Öjerfors, senior gameplay designer. "So we took that concept and ran with it. We've taken the game into the future. What kind of world would it be if the Nazis had won the war?"

It's night, and the gloomy streets of the capital are slick with rain. Our driver stops at a checkpoint to hand over his papers, and we notice that we're driving on the right side of the road - a subtle nod to the fact that the Germans now control the city. The cabbie's ID checks out and a soldier waves us through with a "Heil Hitler!" Ahead, we see our destination: a heavily guarded Nazi research facility.

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The driver pulls up near the entrance and lets us out. The place is crawling with soldiers and clunking mechs. "Make this count," he says, before flooring the accelerator and slamming into the front gate, causing a massive, screen-shaking explosion. Our Cockney pal has sacrificed himself to give us a way into the facility.

Wolfenstein: The New Order continues the fascist-stomping adventures of William 'BJ' Blazkowicz, who wakes from a 15 year coma to a world ruled by the Nazis. In the years since he last fought them, their technology has made a sudden, unexplained leap forward - a mystery that underpins the pulpy, comic book story.

We see these advances first-hand in the research facility. Surrounding a huge, spinning model of the Moon there's a circle of gold astronaut statues giving the Nazi salute. "They put a Nazi on the Moon?" grunts BJ. "Fuck the Moon." He's a preposterous one-liner machine, and the game is a curious mix of moody atmosphere and dumb, self-referential schlock.

"It's a story-driven action-adventure," says Öjerfors. "Those words are equally important: both the action part, and the adventure part. BJ is up against a global Nazi empire, and we like to think of it as a David and Goliath story. We want intense action, but we also want you to feel immersed in the universe."

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"It's a tough game, with fast, brutal combat reminiscent of classic id shooters like Quake."

"You'll visit locations all over the world. You'll find yourself searching for secrets, interacting and teaming up with other characters, solving puzzles, driving a car through the Polish mountains, and exploring the flooded catacombs beneath Berlin in a submarine. We want to make it feel really varied."

Our first battle is against a squad of stormtroopers and a hulking great robot. It's a tough game, with fast, brutal combat reminiscent of classic id shooters like Quake. Health regeneration is limited - only increasing in small fractions - so you constantly have to scramble around for medical kits and shield pick-ups. The oversized weapons feel weighty and powerful, and the AI is single-minded and aggressive. It's an old school FPS with modern production values.

"We've tried to combine the best of classic FPS design with modern elements. We look back at old shooters and feel that certain things have been left behind that really shouldn't have. The health system is the perfect example. We have health and shields as resources that you have to manage, but we've added some slight regeneration. This is so you always have a fighting chance to survive, but keeping an eye on your health and shields is still crucial to the experience."

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When you're behind cover, holding LB locks you in place and allows you to safely pop in and out with the left stick. Humans explode with gore and crumple into piles of jellied limbs when you kill them, but there's a notable lack of feedback when fighting the mechs. Being heavy lumps of metal, they don't react to your attacks, which makes them feel like big bullet sponges. We'd love to see their armour being chewed away, exposing wires and machinery.

Among BJ's arsenal is a laser that's used as a weapon and a puzzle-solving tool. It can cut through wire fences, vent covers, and metal chains, which makes for some interesting environmental physics puzzles. It's not quite the game changer Half-Life's gravity gun was, but it's a fun way to interact with the world beyond just shooting people. In one example you use it to sever an elevator's cables, dropping it into the shaft and hitching a ride on the counterweight.

"It's an old school first-person shooter with modern production values"

MachineGames is made up of former Starbreeze members, and you can see traces of Riddick and The Darkness in the inky shadows, expressive characters, natural lighting, and mech design. The id Tech 5 engine looks stunning, with none of the distracting texture pop-in that plagued Rage - although we were playing on a high-end PC. The game will be released on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, as well as 360 and PS3.

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Variety will be important for Wolfenstein. The combat is entertaining, but it doesn't feel like there's enough meat there to last the length of an entire game. Yet if the developers keep throwing interesting locations, characters, story moments, and puzzles at us, it won't matter. We've only had a brief glimpse of this Nazi-ruled 1960s, but we already love it. Unlike the bland 2009 reboot, BJ's next-gen debut is bursting with character and old school charm.