Rewriting History in Wolfenstein: The New Order

We analyze new Nazi technology, cavort with passionate resistance fighters, and take on hulking mechs in this in-depth hands-on preview.


Scene one. A train clatters through Nazi-occupied Europe. In the dining car, an undercover resistance fighter is getting some coffee when he hears the door slide open and tenses up. A Nazi officer and her companion enter the car, laughing with the jovial ease that power affords. A moment later, the car groans under the sudden weight of their hulking escort, a bipedal machine whose purpose is made instantly clear by the oversize weapons it brandishes on each arm. The two Nazis slide into a booth and notice the fighter, who is now trying to make a surreptitious exit. The officer stops the man with a word, inviting him to join them at the table. Seeing the steel in her smiling blue eyes, he knows that politely declining is not an option. The man sits.

Scene two. Bullets slam into the door frame as the man sprints out of the museum hallway and slides into the temporary safety of an office. He fires as he retreats into the room, hoping to give his enemies pause. A quick search reveals some ammunition and, luckily, a second pistol. Armed like the gunslingers of old and feeling the familiar adrenal rush, he strides out of the doorway and guns down one, two, three of the guards bearing down on him. A snarky quip rises to his lips, but is strangled off in a hail of gunfire from the balcony above. He holsters his pistols and whips out an SMG in one smooth motion, then empties a clip that destroys his attacker and the meager cover that failed to protect him. The man is in his element. Sprinting up the staircase, he runs headlong into a soldier wearing, what is that, an exoskeleton? The ensuing shootout doesn't favor the fighter, and now he's wounded and breathing heavily. Ducking behind a corner, he earns a brief respite, but his health remains dangerously low. The man hastily plans his next move. His enemy advances.

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Unnerving villains, an unfamiliar world, brash gunplay, and fast-paced action: these are some of the elements that developer MachineGames is focusing on as it crafts Wolfenstein: The New Order. Though it's a new studio, MachineGames was founded by a veteran cadre of former Starbreeze Studios employees who honed their knack for story-driven first-person shooters with The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. Inspired by the legacy of this storied franchise and spurred by their own creative drive, they are dedicated to making an action adventure game that straddles past and present to create a compelling experience. And if the scenes from the early demo described above are any indication, there's good reason to be optimistic.

A Bad New World

"While I was gone, they set the world on fire. It wasn't a war anymore; it was a remaking." The voice that utters those lines in the announcement trailer belongs to none other than B.J. Blazkowicz, longtime Wolfenstein protagonist and legendary killer of virtual Nazis. In The New Order, B.J. once again takes on his old foes, but as you might have guessed from the Jimi Hendrix accompaniment, this isn't a World War II-era shooter. It's the 1960s, B.J. has been out of commission for almost two decades, and the Nazis won the war.

"You can't underestimate the power of making the player experience the world in the same way as the character."
The alternate-history world of The New Order is a result of the aforementioned "remaking." Nazi edifices have sprung up in the shadows of major cultural landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, and the Third Reich holds all of Europe in its iron grip. While the developers were coy about what kind of technological leap fueled this Nazi ascendancy, they were giddy about the creative freedom this narrative foundation gave them. The armored mech so lovingly constructed in the trailer is just one example; environments, guns, enemies, vehicles, and more can all be crafted to the developers' whims, all in service of this dark, industrial, authoritarian version of 1960s Europe.

As the player, you discover this bad new world along with B.J. This, observes creative director Jens Maathies, is one of the tricks the team has learned over the years. "You can't underestimate the power of making the player experience the world in the same way as the character." The amnesia that wipes B.J.'s slate clean and brings his awareness down to the player's level begins when a secret mission goes bad during the height of the war. After B.J. washes up on the shore of the Baltic Sea with no recollection of who he is, he spends the next decade and a half languishing in an asylum. But as history shows, the Nazis do not take a sympathetic view to the mentally infirm, and so the day comes when they arrive at B.J.'s refuge to purge the inhabitants.

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The violent incursion stirs memories deep in B.J.'s consciousness, and the man who was once the scourge of the SS reawakens. With the help of a nurse named Anya, he manages to escape the culling, and the two eventually meet up with members of the Resistance. Anya remains a presence throughout the game, and if an awkward scene in their train compartment during the demo was any indication, sparks between the two will eventually fly. In addition to being a love interest, Anya takes an active role in the Resistance, joining an array of determined fighters, some of whom you will get to know well over the course of the game. MachineGames is intent on populating The New Order with interesting characters, people who will flesh out the world and give you different perspectives on the recent past. A feisty German woman and a dour English man both played dramatic roles in the short demo, but it was a villain who stole the show.

The Face of Evil

Her name is Frau Engel. During the train car scene described above, she ensnares B.J. in the kind of social trap that is endemic to societies where one group of people holds institutional dominance over another. She is utterly at ease in her position of power as she beckons you over to her table, knowing you cannot refuse. As she runs you through a casual test to see if you are a true Aryan, having you choose between pairs of seemingly innocuous postcard images, her eyes flicker between mirth and malice. This is a woman who clearly enjoys flaunting her power over others, and in this scene, you feel powerless. She even places her pistol on the table between you and her, trusting completely in her power over you and underscoring just how helpless you are.

But there's another dynamic at work here that makes the scene even darker. Frau Engel is accompanied by an effete young man in uniform, a much younger officer whom she affectionately calls "Bubi." They titter and tease each other, exchanging suggestive looks and reaching into each other's lap under the table. Throughout this flirtation, it's clear that Engel is the dominant partner in the relationship, and as your test progresses, she begins to extend their flirtation to include you. Her sexual power over Bubi intermingles with her societal power over you, suffusing the already tense situation with a miasma of intimacy.

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It's an unsettling feeling to be at the mercy of such a menacing villain, and MachineGames is dedicated to the idea that a true hero needs a worthy villain. Engel is just one of the sinister characters you will meet in The New Order, and if the rest of them are as baleful as she is, you'll have much more than the simple "Nazis are bad" motivation to strike at your foes. But you don't leave Engel's audience with guns blazing; you head back to the room to join Anya. It's a vulnerable moment for B.J., who has just been mildly terrorized, and MachineGames uses this vulnerability as an opportunity to show a different side of B.J. Even a guy named Blazkowicz has feelings, after all, and the scene that follows between B.J. and Anya captures an awkwardly (and endearingly) tender moment.

A Little Less Conversation, a Little More Action

Now it's time to talk about what B.J. does best: killing Nazis. The second scene of the demo began with a car ride through London. The driver recounted the fall of London and lamented the Nazi occupation that led to historical neighborhoods being unceremoniously bulldozed. The car turned the corner to reveal a large triangular structure looming ahead: a Nazi stronghold that is a museum, a monument, a research facility, and a strategic fortress all in one. Just off to the right of the structure, Big Ben fought for space on the skyline. The man dropped B.J. off a short distance from the main entrance, then proceeded to drive his car straight into the building where he detonated what must have been a trunk full of explosives. As the smoke cleared, B.J. made his way through the rubble to infiltrate the building, not wanting to let the suicide bomber's sacrifice be in vain.

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As he picked his way through the rubble, it became clear that there's some substantial tech working behind the scenes. The New Order is being developed for current- and next-generation platforms using the id Tech 5 engine. This software allows MachineGames to "make every pixel distinct," and while that isn't its goal for each environment, per se, there was a startling level of detail in the chunks of concrete, rebar, and assorted detritus. The detail density was reminiscent of another id Tech 5 game, Rage, though with a few years' worth of engine tweaking and improvements between that game and The New Order, it's safe to say MachineGames is aiming for much higher fidelity.

Before long, B.J.'s progress was blocked by a chain-link fence. Pulling out a small laser sidearm scavenged from a dead guard, B.J. used the alternate fire to cut a ragged hole in the fence and proceed. In later scenes, this same device was used to cut locks, remove access panels, and drop a model rocket hanging from the ceiling into place as an improvised shortcut. Some of these hack jobs were necessary to progress, others were optional, and a profusion of battery recharging stations made it seem that this new Nazi tech would continue to play a role throughout the game. When it came to the next enemy encounter, however, a small laser pistol wasn't going to cut it.

Not Your Average Nazi

One minute B.J. was crawling through a passage in the rubble, and the next, BAM! A giant Nazi robo-dog was gnashing its knife-sharp teeth in B.J.'s face, eager to rend him limb from limb. Recognizing this as a flight situation, rather than a fight, B.J. began leading the mechanical beast on a merry chase through the rubble, taunting it all the while. He may show a more sensitive side in choice cutscenes, but the action hero swagger is still in full effect, and soon the canine found itself crushed beneath a sizable chunk of concrete.

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A few moments later, armed with a submachine gun and shooting his way through Nazi stragglers, our hero started to hit his stride. At least, until he encountered another Nazi robot, this time one of the two-legged titans featured in the announcement trailer. The mech spewed bullets from one arm and brandished some kind of energy weapon on the other that it used to hurl B.J. across the room. Fortunately, it was also damaged in the bombing, so some sustained gunfire coupled with judicious use of cover (and a timely health pickup) soon put the bot out of commission.

Defeating this foe led B.J. into the facility proper where full-on combat broke out for the first time. He was on one side of a long entrance hall that was open to the second floor and crisscrossed with two bridges. At the other end of the hall, large metal doors slowly opened to admit a squad of Nazi guards accompanied by yet another bipedal mech. Thus began the scene described earlier in this article, and the first glimpse of what it's like to take on a room full of Nazis in the 1960s. Some of them were merely clad in their uniforms, while others lumbered around wearing helmets and chestplates, and still others appeared to have some kind of metal exoskeleton or rudimentary power armor. The power of progress was about to pose some serious problems.

B.J. Be Nimble, B.J. Be Quick

Though he was able to thin the ranks a bit from behind a pile of rubble, it soon became apparent that the mech's sustained fire made that position untenable. Low barriers, pillars, furniture, and other forms of light cover are easily destructible, something B.J. was both the beneficiary and victim of at various points throughout the fight. Waiting around a corner proved a more sustainable tactic, especially when coupled with the quick lean mechanic that lets you poke your gun out without exposing too much of your center mass. The developers said this lean can also be used to pop your gun over or under cover (Nazi ankles, beware!).

Using cover in a big room like this was important, because there were plenty of enemies with long sight lines to B.J.'s approximate position, ready to open fire at a moment's notice. If he lingered too long without sticking his neck out, his enemies were quick to advance on his position. A quick sprint up the stairs was supposed to give him an elevated position from which to fire, but it turned out that Nazis were also entering from a second-floor door. The aforementioned sprinting and sliding into a doorway was the only thing that kept B.J. from meeting an untimely demise.

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But waiting in the room was no panacea. Though B.J.'s health does regenerate, it will refill only to the nearest multiple of 20 (he starts with 100 health, in a nod to Wolfenstein 3D). Some enemy corpses will yield health boosts when searched, and there are medical kits to be found in any big combat arena. But you have to find them first, and that can mean taking on enemies when your health reserves are desperately low. Knowing that one burst from an enemy rifle can kill you forces you to change your battlefield tactics, injecting the action with an invigorating sense of urgency.

"Where are the rest of them?"

Of course, B.J. is far from fragile. The quote above was uttered by an enemy as B.J. proceeded to the next section; obviously that soldier expected an army instead of one lone badass. Mowing down legions of Nazis in the 1960s requires a bit more firepower than the M1 Garands and Thompsons of World War II. Every weapon in MachineGames' dark alternate-history version of Europe has been amped up as a result of the Nazis' technological leap forward. They feel weightier and more substantial, but not just in the "bigger is better" sense; they appear more intricately engineered, the result of souped-up science and advanced manufacturing techniques. At the same time, the developers seem to be steering clear of going full sci-fi, remaining rooted in the mechanical-industrial sensibilities of this grim new world.

In keeping with their look, the weapons fired with loud reports, and projectiles landed with impact. When in full swing, firefights are brash and loud, and along with the flying debris, German exclamations, and salty one-liners from B.J., they help create a nice level of intensity. Things got even louder when B.J. stumbled upon a second sample of the same weapon, allowing him to dual wield and wreak twice as much havoc. The second room B.J. had to clear in the demo was a large dome that featured a scale model of the moon encircled by hanging walkways. From high above, flying robot drones descended to harry B.J. as he moved among the informational kiosks that told visitors about the Nazis' successful missions to the moon (yes, the Nazis landed on the moon, and possibly have an entire colony there). These drones were no match for B.J.'s shotguns when they got close, but they weren't exactly stationary targets, and he also had guards on the walkways to contend with. Destructibility came in handy once again; B.J. not only shot out the glass floors from under his enemies, dropping them to their deaths, but he also blasted away half of the moon model in order to take down the flying drones. A fitting metaphor for his feelings about Nazi lunar landings.

The demo ended shortly after B.J. ransacked a Nazi lab. It seems they had discovered some interesting artifacts with Hebrew writing on them (ever the occult archaeology enthusiasts, those Nazis). He radioed back to the Resistance, checking in with both Anya at base and his support crew, which was waiting on a nearby building, ready to drop in and help B.J. out. After the scene concluded, B.J. worked out a light environmental puzzle to gain access to a hefty laser weapon capable of cutting through metal plating and vaporizing human targets in a single shot. A gleeful spree of turning Nazis into bloody mist was cut short when a bigger, badder model of mech busted through a door. Apparently, B.J. will have to contend with a whole production line's worth of Nazi robotics.

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You're On Your Own

Soldiers, robots, weapons, gadgets, environments, allies, and villains…there are a lot of different elements pulling together to make The New Order's campaign rich with variety, excitement, and intrigue. But the single-player campaign is all that MachineGames is crafting for B.J.'s new outing; there are no multiplayer modes. This may come as a shock to those who remember Wolfenstein's multiplayer heyday when, just over a decade ago, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Enemy Territory boasted hugely popular and influential online combat. Even Wolfenstein had some decent online competition.

But though MachineGames isn't following in the footsteps of its recent predecessors with respect to multiplayer, it certainly has great respect for the franchise that it has taken on. The action in the demo seemed to target the sweet spot of making the player feel both powerful and vulnerable, able to cut a swath through the Nazi regime but still forced to be smart, to be quick, and to be skilled. The characters and the world are intriguing, and it will be interesting to see what details surface as development continues. Wolfenstein: The New Order is scheduled to be released in Q4 2013 for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, as well as next-generation consoles.


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