Nazis are a classic short-cut. Put a Nazi in your game, and you've got a reason to shoot things without curling up into a morally conflicted ball and questioning whether you're a good person. So quite why MachineGames has gone to such extraordinary lengths to make this Wolfenstein revival something bigger, more thoughtful and, well, touching than that, is anyone's guess. Perhaps it cares about what it does.
The story begins during a familiar World War II. The skies are filled with bombers, and a movement tutorial takes place against a backdrop of explosions, unlikely stunts and profound bruising of the torso. And from the outset, it's obvious that Wolfenstein's scriptwriters are not just competent - they're actually really good. I felt more for my squad of multicultural heroes in the opening 90 minutes than I managed for Lara Croft's crewmates over the course of the whole game. It's so good you won't even care that a man coming around from a 14-year vegetative state can run around. We forgave Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, we can forgive a man who's virtually a cartoon.
Speaking of which, Blazkowicz steals Lara Croft's tiara as videogames' 'most battered hero'. The sheer number of blunt impacts and vivid lacerations he tolerates would test the regenerating health of the most resilient protagonist. There are times when this feels a little needless. But you don't come to Wolfenstein expecting moderation - and seeing your iconic megadude suffer gives you a little connection, in a way that Duke Nukem never managed.
Besides, The New Order is willing to address some problematic themes, and ducks predictable tropes in a way that's clever and gratifying. A conversation with a fellow guitar-playing resistance member briefly demolishes the good versus evil rhetoric that Nazi-themed videogames like to indulge in. The good guys don't have a spotless track record with human rights, he points out, in language powerful enough to make you raise an eyebrow. A scene where Blazkowicz picks up a guitar, against all odds, isn't excruciating. And praise be! The women in this story have their own tales of challenge and empowerment, and tease you with obvious plot developments that never come. It's nothing short of great.
And yet, this is still a game where you dual-wield guns, and roam through levels like a wandering cloud of muzzle flare. The weapons all handle brilliantly, and the framerate is as smooth as you'd expect from the id Tech engine. If you played RAGE, you'll recall what a buttery dream that was; Wolfenstein is the same, with better close-up textures. It doesn't score so highly in the enemy AI department, but then RAGE was truly exceptional there, and Wolfenstein is only 'very good'. Enemies run, reposition, and keep you guessing. And just enough of them stand cheerfully out of cover to give you a chance to blast them. It feels less like bad AI, and more like deliberately giving you something to shoot.
Wyatt, were you thinking?
A decision made in the first chapter will subtly change your game throughout. No plot spoilers here, but every chapter has two versions across two timelines, unlocked separately. It's a cheeky trick, really - your decision affects which exploration skill you learn. One way, you learn to pick locks, in a mini-game that's short and pleasantly annoying. The other path teaches you to hotwire certain panels. So to get 100% you'll have to play through twice. Cutscenes will also be changed to reflect your decision. It's a good reason to replay, perhaps on a more difficult setting.