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Hands-on: Wolfenstein The New Order is a stubbornly old-school shooter

By Shaun Prescott on Tuesday 25th Feb 2014 at 1:00 AM EST

It's 2014. Formerly mute lunk BJ Blazkowicz is back, and he has dimensions.

Wolfenstein: The New Order begins in chaos. The Allies are taking a drubbing from the Nazis somewhere over the Baltic Sea. After a few menial tasks (pushing cargo into the ocean, shooting enemy aircraft out of the sky with a turret) BJ and his small crew of survivors crash onto a beach and find, much to their chagrin, that the Nazis have virtually unstoppable robotic war machines in their ranks.

Inevitably, after a long gun fight which sees the crew battling to the top of a coastal castle, the Axis Powers win the fight and thus, the war. Flash forward to 1960 and Poland lives in a constant state of fear. BJ awakens from a 14-year coma into a very different world.

A world with robot dogs.

On paper, the prospect of a serious, narrative-driven shooter starring BJ Blazkowicz is very funny. It just seems like a very silly idea. BJ was never a real character. In Wolfenstein 3D he's just a face you use to gauge how dead or dying you are. Former id Software programmer John Carmack - who helped dream the world of Wolfenstein to life - once said video game storylines were tantamount to porn flick storylines. That's the attitude from which Blazkowicz was born.

"enemies flank from all directions and manageable tiffs can turn nasty very quickly"

Thankfully, there's a sardonic wit about The New Order which saves it from becoming the excruciatingly po-faced video game it could have been. The speculative sci-fi setting allows MachineGames to have a lot of fun with the environments and plot, and there are cute nods to the enduring appeal of the Wolfenstein series, especially when an old Polish man excitedly summons you to "kill everyone". Wolfenstein is a series about killing lots of Nazis. Whether robotic or otherwise, you know from the first moment that this is what is in store.

This is 'Deathshead'. Your first mission is to kill him.

The New Order is not without its darker shades. There were two occasions during our playthrough - which took in the first three 'missions' of the game - where Blazkowicz is called upon to make some very morally opaque decisions, one of which is basically: which innocent man should you choose to have tortured? It's this unsettling mix of '80s action hero tropes and the occasionally pitch-black story sequence which makes The New Order's plot unfeasibly, surprisingly interesting.

Still, this is a Wolfenstein game. It is primarily about killing, so the circumstances under which you will be killing are most important. The game's environments - while not sprawling - offer several routes or strategies, and stealth is surprisingly well integrated into the game. Sneaking was a viable option for most encounters during our hands-on time, though the lack of alert meters (as seen in games like Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed and most stealth titles) may discourage some from bothering. Also, while stealth can often be used to get an upper hand on enemies, it's usually mandatory to kill everything in order to progress anyway.

The best implementation of stealth involves a Commander enemy frequently encountered in the early stages of the game. Once the Commander spots you he will trigger an alarm, which prompts endless hordes of grunts to spawn until you manage to kill said Commander. These are the occasions during which you'll most want to use stealth: sneak around, identify the Commander, take him out and you'll have a much easier time clearing out an area.

The shooting itself feels good: we used a trusty ol' assault rifle during most of our session, which can be dual-wielded, like any other weapon, for maximum death. The New Order mixes common duck-and-cover and circle strafing manoeuvres with a leaning system, which proves more essential as the game progresses - especially for stealthy approaches.

Running around like a tank is not viable, though standing still is equally dangerous: enemies flank from all directions and manageable tiffs can turn nasty very quickly. This, combined with immediate use collectibles and the constant need to scavenge for health and ammunition, makes The New Order a pleasingly old-school and often thrillingly challenging FPS. A Call of Duty shooting gallery this ain't.

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Is all this enough, though? The New Order will release at the dawn of a console generation which prizes connectivity and social interaction more than ever. It will ship without a multiplayer mode in this climate. MachineGames boasts talent responsible for classic narrative-driven FPSs like The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness, but it has its work cut out for it if it wants to stand out in 2014, in a year which will also see the release of Destiny. It needs to be fantastic.

On the evidence of what we saw it's a solid shooter with a strange, '70s exploitation film aesthetic - a logical direction in which to take the Wolfenstein series. But whether the story manages to sustain its early promise is the factor that will determine The New Order's worth. That a Wolfenstein game should rely so heavily on its narrative is the height of irony because this is, afterall, a game about shooting Nazis in the face.