There is no doubt that Gamescom is a weird place to play the new Wolfenstein.
The game’s billboard posters around Cologne are free of Nazi symbols (German law prohibits the display of swastikas and other Nazi iconography) but on them, red banners behind the game’s hero carry black Wolfenstein symbols inside white circles, and leave no doubt as to what they are intended to evoke. It’s as close as you can get to publicly displaying a swastika in Germany.
Bethesda’s preview machines carry notices stating that Wolfenstein: The New Order is set in a fictional universe, that it is ‘not intended to condone the Nazi regime or trivialise its crimes’, but there is little chance that anyone in Germany will be legally allowed to play this game: the original is still banned there.
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Of course, this isn’t really a game about historical context, and nostalgic fans will be too busy enjoying the regular references to the beloved originals to be concerned by such things.
The opening level of our demo saw us scaling the walls of a castle, soldiers shooting and falling from the windows in a scene straight out of Where Eagles Dare. Scurrying through corridors, an assault rifle in each hand, being surprised by Gestapo officers and grabbing bits of food off tables to replenish health, it was unmistakeably Wolfenstein.
The enemy AI moves things along quite quickly: soldiers make quick flanking movements and prefer attack over cover, spurring you on to fight quickly through the corridors, and again that’s what you want from Wolfenstein.
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We also had our first encounter with the skull-faced Dr Deathshead (you’re probably supposed to pronounce it “Death’s Head”, although “Death Shed” has just as much menace), a grinning, sadistic nutcase with the mind of Josef Mengele and the face of one of the aliens from Mars Attacks. Although your first meeting with him ends pretty horrifically, his maniacal cackling keeps the violence on the cartoon side. But then it gets nasty.
Having failed to take out DeathShed, you’re badly injured and taken to a mental hospital in Poland, where you’re nursed by a kindly family for several years. They’re then killed in front of you, before the sobbing patients in your ward are shot, one by one, in their beds.
It’s reminiscent of the grim execution scenes in the controversial Homefront, and a jarring switch from the simple pleasure of gunning your way through waves of cartoon Nazis to a much darker storyline.
It could be that this deeper, more affecting story will be what makes this game great, or it could make it an uncomfortable experience. It’s not the Wolfenstein you played as a kid, that’s for sure.