Ahh, Wolfenstein. After almost single-handedly inventing the genre in 1992, the Wolfenstein series has struggled to stay relevant, releasing a handful of mediocre titles and non-canon multiplayer tie-ins over the last twenty years. Spoiler alert: Wolfenstein is back, and it’s making old-school sensibilities cool again.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is only the fourth title in the Wolfenstein series of first-person shooters (sort of, let’s not get into pedantics here) that started with id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and essentially paved the way for all entries in the genre to follow. It was developed by on the id Tech 5 engine by debutants MachineGames, a studio mostly comprised of veterans from Starbreeze Studios (of Riddick and the Darkness fame.) Set in an alternate reality, the Axis forces (more specifically, the Nazis–I didn’t see any RSI imagery in the game) have won World War II by way of incredibly advanced technology and forced the Allies to their knees. As series staple protagonist William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, Nazi-killer extraordinaire, it’s your job to go up against your old pal General William “Deathshead” Strasse–or, as he calls himself, Totenkopf–and his arsenal of Nazi robots.
It’s 1946. The Second World War is still raging. We start off with an intense–if lengthy–movement tutorial as the gunner/all-around helper in a fighter jet that crash lands (obviously) at the base of a German castle. If the mission is lost, so too is the war, so Blazkowicz and his mates make their way up the façade of the castle–Deathshead’s compound–in an effort to kill the general and put an end to the Nazi war effort. Their plans are thwarted–again, obviously–and Blazkowicz is forced to make a gut-wrenching choice before making his escape, suffering brain damage in the process.
Fast forward to 1960 and the Nazis have declared victory. Blazkowicz has spent the last fourteen years in a catatonic state, wheelchair-bound in a Polish insane asylum, tended to by his love interest Anya and her parents. Seeing the need to defend Anya, Blazkowicz snaps out of his paralysis and goes balls to the wall at the Nazis, not realising that the war has long since finished. And that’s where I’ll leave you. The plot is incredibly fleshed out and deep. Despite starting out a little bit silly, it quickly redeems itself with detailed cut-scenes, excellent voice acting, and–most importantly–an incredibly well-crafted, fascinating support cast. Every one of the characters Blazkowicz finds himself meeting really is so interesting and draws you into completing side-quests just to unlock those extra tidbits of backstory. Despite being the most fleshed out Blazkowicz that we’ve yet to see in twenty years of Wolfenstein, here he plays second fiddle to those around him. Even the antagonists–Deathshead never felt like the real enemy here. Frau Engel.. those eyes…
The home-base area in Berlin is also beautifully crafted. I can’t believe a game so renowned for its gib-filled coldness as Wolfenstein managed to create such a homely, warm, human environment as the base of the Resistance in Berlin. That area is just swimming with backstory, easter eggs, hidden secrets, and endless exploration. Blazkowicz’s relief returning to the base after a big mission is palpable, and you as the player will share in that feeling. It’s just a brilliant area to explore and simply spend time in.
Going back to that “gut-wrenching choice” I mentioned earlier–usually, particularly this early in a game, and particularly particularly in a game I expected to just be mindless shooting, any choice that seems like it might impact the story is really just a lie told to the player to present the guise of morality, with the two story loops coming back to each other relatively quickly. That’s not the case here. This choice is really the only major plot decision you’ll make all game, but at that point the two stories sort-of split in two–the plot is the essentially same in both tangents, but the player’s experience is totally different, and I really don’t want to spoil more than that. Just know that it’s not a hollow decision to be made lightly, and that there’s no sneaky Kobayashi Maru option (you’ll look for it.). Whatever your choice, you’ll feel bad for it all game. Brilliantly, however, if you go to the “chapters” page on the main menu, there’s two timelines presented, so you have the chance to play both stories (and replay missions with either choice made.)
For (and maybe because of) a purely single-player experience, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and time to be spent, throughout the campaign. It took me 14 hours on normal difficulty, but in true old-school spirit you need to explore each level thoroughly to discover Nazi gold, health upgrades, pieces of Enigma codes to unlock extras, and, of course, just ammo and health pick-ups. I was still finding secrets and hidden areas in my second playthrough as if I’d never been to those levels before. The levels, for the better part, are beautiful wide open spaces; even the indoor battlefields rarely descend into corridor shooting galleries.
More often than not, you’re free to examine the situation and decide which route you’d like to take through the level. Duel-wielded shotguns or silenced pistols and throwing knives, the choice is yours. Even more impressive is that the multiple routes through these expansive spaces never feels tacked on or fake, as though a vent has just been plopped down to artificially allow for some semblance of stealth. Rather, the multiple pathways throughout any given battlefield all feel natural, particularly when coupled with the Lazerkraftwerk, a laser wire cutter/rail gun hybrid that’s possibly the coolest thing about the game. There are seemingly countless power-ups for the Lazerkraftwerk, but finding them require true exploration–you don’t look around, your Lazerkraftwerk will be as naked as the day you found it.
Of course, despite the focus on exploration, some of the old-school sensibility had to be removed. The health system is a blend of modern regenerating health and old fashioned health pickups–your health regenerates only up to the nearest multiple of twenty. More than that and you’ll have to use pick ups. Excess pick ups can still be used as health “overcharge”–any health you have over your usual maximum quickly drains, but is very useful if you’re planning on going guns blazing. As well as the health, if you’re expecting the old press-the-right-brick-and-find-a-super-powered-weapon type of secrets, then you’ll be disappointed. Unless I just haven’t found them. Very likely.
Speaking of weapons, there isn’t a huge amount of variety here, particularly for the gamer used to modern FPS’s ludicrous number of slightly different gun types. You’ve got your pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, and Lazerkraftwerk. You never long for more choices though, as each weapon has an equally useful alternate fire–rocket launchers for the assault rifle, for example–and every weapon except from the Lazerkraftwerk can be used for dual-wielded mayhem, even the knife. Surplus knives can also be thrown for silent instakills if you’ve not got any pistol ammunition handy.
I do have a couple of complaints about the combat, despite all its pure old-school glory. Going through silent can be a little overpowered, as enemies seem to be able to step over their fallen comrades without noting anything suspicious. As long as you don’t take one out directly in front of his mate, it’s not difficult to clear out entire areas with just your silenced pistol. There are also surprisingly large, inconsistent difficulty spikes caused by the appearance of heavily-armoured rocket launcher-wielding baddies. They’re essentially just bullet fodder, and given the intelligent crafting of the game’s other foes, it’s a shame to encounter enemies that just require you to empty a couple of clips into them. Despite showing up rather frequently and not just one-at-a-time, they’re among the hardest enemies in the game, which did get frustrating every now and then.
I also suffered from some technical issues. There’s also quite a bit of texture pop-in, which gets very annoying very quickly. Well, not quite pop-in, just vanishing and quickly reappearing. Walls, objects, statues, even characters vanish and reappear far too often. I’ve heard that Rage, the other game on this engine, also suffered from this problem, but I’ve never played it. I managed to ignore it and still thoroughly loved the game regardless, but I can imagine that it’d frustrate other players. Additionally, every now and then, without any sort of consistent pattern, in-game dialogue and set-pieces would start to play slowly and lag well behind the audio. Before I realised what was happening, this ruined the emotional impact of the aforementioned big choice for me. I never worked out how to fix this issue, except that pausing the game would cause the video and audio to re-sync, and then quickly fall back out of synch. I did play it on release though, and I’m sure that that’s the sort of thing that’ll be fixed pretty soon.
Other than that, graphics-wise, it all looks rather pretty, particularly the lighting effects. The realism with which Nazi-controlled cities is portrayed is seat-squirmingly realistic. Also impressive, my just-above-average rig got through the entire game with barely a second’s worth of drop below about 45 frames per second on all maximum settings, which is pretty brilliant.
The upgrade system is ingenious. Rather than levelling up and unlocking perks from a set skill tree, The New Order takes charge of player upgrades for you. The more you tend to lean towards one style of play, the more natural unlocks you’ll receive for that skill tree. You can check the requirements for each unlock and aim for them specifically, but you’ll organically unlock most of the skills for the combat mode you’re using just through general play.
I wasn’t expecting much from Wolfenstein: The New Order. Another tired entry in yet another tired, over-exploited franchise, I thought. After playing it through twice (without plans to stop any time soon,) I can now happily say that I was horribly wrong. While other games by other developers are constantly striving to break new ground in the ever-popular FPS genre, The New Order is happy to bring the genre back to its traditional roots, without feeling outdated. It realises that there was a reason that run-and-gun shooters became popular in the first place: because, when done properly, they’re about as much fun as a video game can be. The New Order provides a surprisingly decent story with an ending to tug heart-strings, solid control mechanics, excellent old-school gun play and map design, and, most of all, tons of fun. This really is as good as first-person shooters get. I do wish we got to kill Hitler though.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order by Bethesda Softworks.