TL; DR(eview) - With Wolfenstein: The New Order, MachineGames honors the history of the original first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D and establishes itself as a competent successor to the id Software legacy.
As someone who grew up enjoying the classic first-person shooters Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, I feel almost like an old man talking about them as the building blocks of the multi-billion dollar industry that is the first-person shooter genre of video games. When I wrote about Doom earlier this year, I mentioned that I hadn’t really followed these games into the 21st century as the graphical fidelity of the games grew more and more realistic. I typically away from overly gore-filled and violent fare so when Wolfenstein returned in 2014 with Wolfenstein: The New Order, I read the reviews, interested to hear about how the series bounced back from the underperforming 2009 reboot, but I was interested at that time with more light-hearted shooters like the Borderlands series (which at least masks it’s over-the-top violence with its cartoonish, cel-shaded art style).
Fast forward two years. I played through (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Doom reboot and found myself looking for something to play. As I mentioned in yesterday’s Oceanhorn review, after completing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, I bounced from game to game and eventually landed on the decision to grab Wolfenstein: The New Order. And there was an added benefit to coming to a game like this a couple years late, I had already been forewarned of the game’s frustratingly slow start. In fact, my expectations had been set so low that I actually found myself saying, “oh this isn’t as bad as people said it would be.”
Wolfenstein: The New Order puts you in the boots of William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, a U.S. special forces agent and expert Nazi killer at the center of most of the games in the series. The game begins with a Beaches of Normandy-like assault on a Nazi stronghold with the Allied Forces attacking by air instead of sea. Often outgunned by the advanced Nazi tech (Allied planes look closer to period bombers while Nazi planes are closer to modern stealth bombers), Blazkowicz and another soldier jump from their own plane to a nearby one in the fleet (perhaps this bit of lunacy, as part of the overall tutorial prologue, is what people found frustrating at launch). While this was indeed a wild moment, I felt it helped establish Blazkowicz’s status as an elite soldier. Yes, it’s wildly unrealistic, but so is the idea that any player character in these types of games can take more than a couple bullets.
The prologue continues with Blazkowicz and the surviving members of the assault party attempting to infiltrate the base of Nazi General Deathshead. Deathshead manages to get the upper hand however and kills off one of your compatriots (you are forced to choose which one, in a move that seems more like an effort to encourage at least a second playthrough to experience both “histories” - though the majority of the game plays out the same both ways). Blazkowicz eventually escapes but not without suffering a severe head injury that puts him out of commission for the next 14 years. He finally breaks out of his somewhat comatose state in 1960 in an alternate history where the Nazis won the war and America and the Allied forces have fallen. Desperate to keep fighting, he seeks out and helps lead the Resistance.
Wolfenstein: The New Order plays out over a series of isolated levels, mixing straightforward first-person shooting with an occasional option for first-person stealth. Almost always with his trusty knife, Blazkowicz can often sneak up on patrolling or sentry guards and slit their throats with brutal efficiency. He also has a growing arsenal of guns at his disposal: pistols, assault rifles, shotguns and the like. Many of these weapons can be modified as the game goes on and Blazkowicz can even dual-wield some of the weapons like pistols and assault rifles. Dual-wielding removes the ability to look down the iron sights of the weapons for better aiming but you can shoot both weapons at the same time.
While the game doesn’t feature a leveling system with experience points, performing certain tasks will unlock Perks, automatic passive abilities that usual benefit the play-style demonstrated by the task completed. For example, throwing a grenade that kills three people at once unlocks a perk that automatically increases the number of grenades you can carry. These bonuses were welcome but I admittedly didn’t go out of my way to even really investigate what triggers I needed to unlock most of them. I would occasionally unlock one by accident but for the most part, I just forgot about them as I treated the game like a more traditional shooter or stealth game, picking off enemies as best I could until I was discovered and then I just tried to dominate the ensuing firefight.
For completionists and the like, levels often featured a myriad of hidden collectibles.* Maps can often be found early in a level that can then give you a sense of the level’s layout. Certain enemies - radio commanders - can also provide clues to locating some of these secrets but only if killed without setting off the alarms. If they see you or get wind of your presence in the area, they will instead call for back-up, often until they are dealt with. So I often found stealth the ideal path through a level as the rewards were greater and the number of enemies fewer.
* The Resistance base of operations that Blazkowicz returns to between most levels also features a series of Easter Eggs. Sleeping on a certain matress will trigger “Nightmares” where Blazkowicz dreams and replays levels from the original Wolfenstein 3D. These levels serve as a nice throwback to the history of the series and their reception likely led to a similar feature in this year’s Doom reboot.
But I definitely didn’t always have the patience or situational awareness and would sometimes fly head first into otherwise avoidable gun fights. In these moments, combat isn’t typically as frantic as the often non-stop running and gunning in Doom, but things can very quickly get out of hand and you may wind up overwhelmed. This is especially evident in some of the later levels where heavily armored bullet sponges can quickly tear you to shreds with their miniguns if you’re not careful.
Set in a dystopian alternate history where the Nazis won World War II, the game is expectedly drab. Most of the locales are bleak, grey cement fortresses with a couple of exceptions. The aforementioned underground Resistance headquarters is filled with little details and sparks of colorful life to serve as the beacon of hope that the locale represents. Oh yeah, you also end up on a Nazi Moon Base at some point so that certainly stands out as a somewhat more colorful destination. Despite the predominantly depressing settings, the level design and detail felt well-crafted and cared for.
The colorful cast of Resistance fighters Blazkowicz encounters are brought to life by solid performances all around. Whereas “Doom Guy” didn’t really have a character to latch onto, Blazkowicz is a soldier at war who loses everything and winds up in a world he couldn’t have imagined. His only friend at first is Anya, the Polish nurse who cared for him during his 14 year coma. As they escape to the resistance, they (as two fighters in this world who have lost everything) fall in with one another. Rather than the stereotypical damsel in distress though, Anya proves herself quite capable intercepting and translating Nazi messages.
The camaraderie among your new compatriots and the sweet moments found therein play in stark contrast to the grotesque villains of the game. While main villain Deathshead is prominent at the beginning and end of the game. Throughout the middle portion, the two notable standouts are Frau Engel and her lover and bodyguard Bubi. While I certainly had my initial concerns with the violence and potential gore of the title, these two represent the real horrors of the game: relishing their Aryan superiority, overseeing a forced labor camp, and exercising their Nazi power murdering innocent "impure" people.
Throughout the game, Blazkowicz often sees glimmers from his past and reflects on the horrors he has witnessed. As his relationship with Anya and the Resistance fighters grows, he starts imagining a life after the war he is waging. I found these moments eerily powerful as they are, at least in my experience, uncommon reflections from the protagonist in a war game. They end up feeling like a new take on the letters a soldier writes to his best gal back home in the movies and they give the Nazi-killing super soldier some unexpected heart. All of this could have easily come off as wooden or disingenuous if not for Brian Bloom’s portrayal of the character.
Wolfenstein: The New Order lays exciting groundwork for a new era of the franchise. And with the prequel standalone DLC The Old Blood (review tomorrow) already out and a sequel tease in the form of the “New Colossus” Easter Egg in this year’s Bethesda E3 conference, I’m certainly intrigued to see where MachineGames and Bethesda take the series from here. Doom and now Wolfenstein have successfully brought me back into the first-person shooter genre after years of skipping nearly every other title.