A new Wolfenstein is always a big deal, because it’s one of those key franchises whose legacy is directly linked to a seismic shift in the videogame industry. 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D, while not being the first FPS, was certainly the game which set the parameters of the genre as we know it. I first saw the game running in the computer lab at High School, and it was like seeing our hours of playground conversations about the ideal game made real. It was, for many of us, a sign of things to come and I’d wager that it persuaded a lot of late-teen gamers to stick with the hobby. The Wolfenstein series has generally adopted new technology and gameplay innovations well, with only 2009’s lacklustre installment letting the side down.
Thankfully, however, Wolfenstein: The New Order not only puts the series back on track but pound-for-pound of quivering Nazi gibs, brings the most sheer, unapologetic fun out of any release so far this year.
Once again you play as series protagonist B.J. Blaskowicz in his ongoing struggle against the Nazi war machine. We kick off as he and his comrades mount a daring assault on the compound of the notorious General Deathshead. The assault fails and B.J. takes a load of shrapnel to the head, sending him into a fourteen year-long coma. He awakes in an asylum to find that the Nazis have won the war, and now rule the world. With the help of psychiatric nurse Anya and a beleaguered Resistance, he sets out to strike back at the Nazi regime and take out Deathshead once and for all.
Developer MachineGames, staffed in part by ex-members of Riddick/Brothers devs Starbreeze, do right by id’s classic franchise, crafting a shooter that feels old-school yet still modern and completely satisfying. The action strikes a glorious balance between all-out chaos and smart pacing, and the Starbreeze influence is very much apparent in the use of camera sway and animations to give a convincing ‘in-body’ feel, and the surprising validity of stealth as a combat option. Smart level design abounds, with nooks, crannies and points of elevation placed to accommodate sneaky knife-flinging and stealth takedowns just as fully as hell-for-leather frontal assaults. You also can’t fail to like a game that shows as much love for the dual-wield as The New Order, with every weapon in the game, knives and sniper rifles included, available for doubling up. Frankly, if you can’t crack a grin at wading into a bunch of Nazi scum for a bit of a double-auto-shotgun-assisted gib-fest, you’re dead inside. Just the very fact that this game has gibs will be enough to tickle any veteran FPS player in the happy place.
The biggest surprise, however, is the quality of its writing. I won’t lie, I went into Wolfenstein: The New Order expecting a mess of a story, and fair it is; it just happens to be an unexpectedly charming mess. It’s unashamedly B-movie, yet a smart kind of B-movie that manages to juggle sci-fi craziness with strong characterization and, at times, genuine dramatic weight. MachineGames succeed where many devs fail by placing just as much importance on vibrant dialogue and good voice acting than they do the impressive art direction and worldbuilding, resulting in not just a cool setting, but one with characters you actually do end up caring about. Even B.J.’s romance with Anya mostly avoids any bum notes, handled with a sense of humour that helps sell its earnestness.
The game has attracted a fair amount of criticism for trying to juggle a ‘serious’ tone with the franchise’s signature cartoonishness, but by and large I found myself often impressed at how well the blend holds up. B.J.’s brooding, angsty soliloquies may on a superficial level feel utterly out of place in a game with Nazi robo-dogs and moon bases, yet at the same time also feel weirdly appropriate. B.J. Blaskowicz has always been modeled on the archetypal square-jawed all-American hero, and these characters always work best when they’re the straight man, a grounding element whose taking seriously of all the craziness surrounding them stops said craziness from being overwhelming (and ultimately obnoxious). Again, it’s that ‘smart B-movie’ sense at play; the best B-movies always play it straight because they know that crazy only works with ‘normal’as an offsider. Besides, there’s just something inherently funny about a guy called B.J. ruminating on the existential ruin of war and the dissolution of self through duty, while lasering Nazi cyber-hounds on the Moon. He may be kind of the butt of the joke but without him, and the surprisingly genuine feeling relationships he shares with his comrades, there is no joke but noise.
The only point where MachineGames maybe push it a little too far is the much-harrumphed ‘labour camp’ sequence. You’re tasked with rescuing Set Roth, a member of an ancient (and by implication, apparently Jewish) secret society that has mastered technologies far in advance of that known to the rest of humanity – the same technology stolen by the Nazis to secure dominance across the world. It’s not that it’s flagrantly offensive; even the most blatant allusion to the Holocaust, a maniacal Nazi doctor who loves torture, is portrayed in a heightened enough manner to feel like a pulp villain rather than a serious reference. The problem is that the prison evokes the idea of the Holocaust just by being there in the first place, and while the writing is smart enough to know its own comic-bookish tone and not try and tackle the subject head-on it misses the point that the uncomfortable stuff it’s skirting round is still being churned around the audience’s head simply because the reminder is enough. It’s not too egregious, and won’t have anyone hitting the internet soapbox too hard, but it’s an unwise blip in what is otherwise a very tonally well-balanced game. It may have been better for MachineGames to have staged the rescue in a less emotionally and culturally loaded setting, rather than do what they’ve done here and back themselves into a tonal corner that simply cannot be exited gracefully no matter what the intent.
Ultimately, however, MachineGames know a Wolfenstein lives and dies by its shooting, and The New Order is just as able in this department. As previously mentioned, the game encourages frantic and methodical styles of play, with a handy lean function working equally well for checking around corners and popping out of cover to return fire. Large groups of enemies have Commanders who are able to call in reinforcements, introducing a bit of strategy in working out the optimal routes to take out the Commanders as soon as possible. It’s simple tactically, but kept vital by good enemy AI that just loves to sneak in via your flanks and rear and making for some wonderfully desperate, gib-strewn firefights (especially once you upgrade your laser cutter into a cannon that deals out very District 9-esque levels of splatter).
Also giving the combat some tactical meat is the game’s health system, which utilizes a combination of limited regenerating health (Restoring to the nearest 20 health points you have) with Quake-style ‘overcharging’, in which health packs will add points over your natural limit of 100 but will immediately start counting back down. This means that you can maintain a ‘damage buffer’ that protects your core health, as long as you can keep consuming packs. This becomes vital later in the game as you get increasingly outnumbered, and knowing where the health is to be snapped up on the run becomes just as important as the weapons you’re using. Of course, this leads to a lot of trial and error as you gradually note the location of health over several attempts and more than a few deaths, which can get frustrating though in a reassuringly old-school way. Each big fight becomes a learning experience, encouraging exploration and adaptive thinking while still preserving the classic run-n’-gun feel. As long as you’re comfortable with the odd difficulty spike with lots of deaths, The New Order provides a wonderfully addictive mix of high-octane gunplay with enough brains to keep itself feeling fresh.
It’s ironic that while The New Order restores confidence in one of Id’s main legacy franchises, it also continues Id Tech 5’s run as ‘The Id Engine That Couldn’t Quite Get It Together’. While it delivers extremely nice, solid-feeling shooting and gives your enemies a nice sense of weight (as opposed to the rag-dolly flimsiness you see in Havok-assisted engines), it comes at the cost of smoothness. While the game stayed at a fairly constant 30fps over my playthrough, split-second drops were common, giving movement a slightly herky-jerky feel that while not ruining the gameplay, was unnecessarily distracting – and this is just moving around the environment, outside combat and with no environmental events that could strain the engine. In fact, the engine handles the game’s many firefights and large-scale scripted events well; it just seems poorly optimized at base, which is odd as it’s not even as if the game is a graphical powerhouse. While the annoying pop-in seen in Rage is much reduced here, the engine still gives the impression of a heap of raw power that hasn’t had the necessary refinement to allow it to make a game that hits that 60fps bar that is rapidly becoming the new gold standard. It’ll be interesting to see how The Evil Within fares, but the lack of optimization seems to bode ill for Tech 5’s future.
The more I think about it, the more impressive The New Order‘s blend of old and new sensibilities is. There’s genuine magic at play here, and the attention to detail with which the world is drawn makes the simple act of walking around a joy, with architecture and even in-world dressing such as adverts and magazines consistently interesting and amusing. The game also makes great use of the alternate timeline, dropping in references to 50s and 60s culture amongst the Nazi aesthetic, with collectables including repurposed versions of these decades’ music. If three words could ever sell a game, surely they would be ‘Nazi surf rock’? Depending on how you handle an early decision, you may even encounter some unexpected references, both cultural and to Wolfenstein 3D, that aren’t immediately given away but if you’re observant will give you some of the game’s biggest ‘dumb grin’ moments.
Also collectible are Enigma Code snippets, which can be used to unlock a range of alternate play modes which make the game more difficult by removing health and armour pickups, the HUD or in Ironman Mode’s case giving you one life to complete the game with. It’s a shame that there’s not much creativity at play in these bonus modes, but the Super He-Man Hardcore Gamer contingent will be happy at least.
Scoring games is usually a reductive process at the end of the day. Even with games you love, you almost always end up lowering your initial score, even if by only a little bit, as rational analysis sheds a bit more light on the cons no matter how bright the pros may be. But every now and again, a game actually raises in your estimation, Wolfenstein: The New Order being such a case. It’s not perfect, but its good elements hold together in such a way that they actually get better the more you consider the whole. It’s a game that proves that you can meld modern storytelling with old-school gameplay as long as you’re smart about it; proves that sustaining a single-player campaign for 20 hours is not a lost art, and most importantly of all and proves that eschewing multiplayer for a purely single-player experience is still a relevant design choice, and still works.
Oh, and did I mention the gibs?
Those lovely, lovely gibs…
Out of a Possible 5 Stars