Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Reviewer: Scott MacLeod
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Virtual World War II, unlike the very real World War II, has provided countless hours of entertainment for decades. Wolfenstein: The New Order, for example, can trace its roots back to the early 1980s with Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein. That series’ square-chested, massive-swastika-sporting Nazis gave way to a more colorful and lifelike foe in 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D. Ten years didn’t just bring about better graphics but also a dramatic perspective and gameplay shift, from a side-scrolling adventure to a first-person shooter, one of the first of its kind. This groundbreaking shooter from developer id Software spawned a prequel and several sequels, including Spear of Destiny, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and 2009’s Wolfenstein. I trace the lineage of The New Order to highlight that, despite its numerous predecessors, MachineGames’ first entry into the series managed to be something that I didn’t expect: different.
The New Order doesn’t set itself apart from a lack of action (there is plenty of that) or a lack of guns (there are plenty of those) but by focusing more on the story. Instead of being the avatar of Allied fury, protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz is a man who finds himself out of place and time. The game isn’t always successful at conveying his deep sense of confusion and loss, but it does emphasize them, and that in itself leads to the surprising realization that, after over 20 years, he has actually become a real, well-defined character.
Blazkowicz might look similar to how he did in 1992, but he isn’t the same man; despite his close-cropped hair and square jaw, today’s version is a far cry from that weary soldier who awoke to find himself in a cell deep within a dungeon filled with piles of bones, angry dogs, and suspiciously placed precious jewels and relics. Instead, he’s a battle-hardened infantryman on the losing side of a long war. The Third Reich has managed to get the upper hand by gradually revealing newer, more advanced weaponry, and time is running out. During one of the Allies’ final Hail Mary missions, Blazkowicz is left at the mercy of the enemy, who forces him—and the player—to make a difficult choice that shifts subsequent events down one of two timelines. After a chaotic escape, the next 14 years are spent in a haze inside of a hospital that gradually changes to mirror what’s unfolding in the outside world, becoming dirtier and more foreboding, culminating in a house clearing by local Nazi forces that snaps him back to life.
As Blazkowicz regains his bearings, players find that he’s more than capable of handling whatever is thrown at him. Not only can he now perform stealth takedowns by using behind-the-back attacks and knife throws, but he can also peek behind cover using either a dedicated or contextual move; if that wasn’t enough, he can also use dual wield weapons and slide. These moves allow players to access a range of attacks that span the combat spectrum, from stealthily downing patrols to going in with two shotguns blasting ricocheting rounds that destroy any semblance of cover. The guns aren’t as imaginative as the rest of the world’s technology, but their satisfying kick, attachments, and alternative modes leave little room for complaint. Actually, coming to grips with the recoil is a challenge in itself, and being able to competently dual wield is both exhilarating and devastating. Sliding is an interesting addition as well, and while not as prominent as in Brink, it still offers a useful way to quickly close short distances to get behind cover or attack while avoiding fire.
In a first for the series, each action has an effect on Blazkowicz’ evolution through a perks-style upgrade system. The New Order doesn’t have a multiplayer component, but it does an excellent job of aping the customization aspects, which has always been a highlight for me, to make for a more involved single-player campaign. For instance, if players favor knives, they will eventually unlock a perk that will allow them to carry more of them. There are four perk lines in total: assault, demolition, stealth, and tactical. The types run the gamut of gameplay options, rewarding those who prefer staying hidden and using stealth takedowns, attacking while behind cover, going in guns blazing, or using grenades and rockets for heavy damage. The only issue with this setup is that the requirements and progress for each are only displayed on a menu instead of during gameplay, which means that unless players frequently pause the game to check their advancement, they won’t know what they’re unlocking until it’s been unlocked. Even though I appreciate a lean HUD, and as nice as it was to be surprised by the ability to reload faster or hold more grenades, I would’ve preferred more information.
Collectibles also unlock character upgrades in the form of a max health boost and a per-armor-pickup boost, depending on the timeline, in addition to new modes, concept art, and music. Health is actually a bit unorthodox in The New Order,as it utilizes both a collection system and a recharging system. There is a minimum amount of health that regenerates over time, while the remaining can only be replaced by health packs. Blazkowicz can also overcharge his health by picking up additional health kits to go beyond his max, though the excess amount will slowly deplete until the max is reached. A downside of this approach is that the game requires every item to be picked up manually, which makes sense when it comes to health, since some situations might call for a nearby health kit later, but it is annoying having to constantly pick up ammo and armor. Grabbing items is especially irksome when clips have as few as six rounds in them, and it can even lead to serious trouble, such as when the player finds themselves reloading in the middle of a firefight because they weren’t in the exact position to grab the item in front of them.
Many of the areas are designed such that players can go about them with an eye towards minimizing firefights or maximizing damage. Either method can be satisfying; it is especially exciting to punch holes in the destructible environments during shootouts, but it’s also gratifying to silently take down commanders to keep reinforcements from appearing. Unfortunately, the AI takes a significant dip when attempting to play stealthily. While they aren’t quite the rocket scientists that are tightening the Reich’s iron grip on the world, the average infantryman will duck, slide, and hide when directly engaged. When snuck up on or engaged indirectly, however, soldiers suffer a hard break with reality. Unlike traditional stealth games that require players to use patience and wait until a patrolling guard is alone, Blazkowicz can take an enemy down in relative safety as long as no one within a few feet is making eye contact. This allows players to throw a knife into a guard five feet from another, and then walk past the body, pull the knife out, and finish off the patrol, all while a giant cyborg guard is on the other side of the room looking in the direction of the action. I increased the difficulty in the hopes of making stealth kills more challenging, but that just turned the enemies into frustratingly absorbent damage sponges.
At other times, the game forces combat onto the player. This happens in boss-style encounters and in other areas where it seems as though stealth is a viable option. It becomes evident when the game chooses to forego any pretense of covertness as enemies suddenly become hyperaware, spotting the player when they’re behind an object or have yet to enter a room. Oddly, these areas frequently have side routes which look perfect for sneaking around but aren’t accessible without shooting it out.
This unevenness carries over into the plot as well. There will be moments when B.J. and his love interest—because the law of plot development demands a man and woman near one another for longer than a few minutes must fall in love—share an intimate exchange, followed by a hackneyed joke from a fellow resistance fighter and then capped off by one of several opaque monologues about Blazkowicz’s childhood. Many conversation sequences unfold as if a scene or two is missing, resulting in some abrupt shifts in tone. Similarly, the game shoehorns in a handful of platforming sections and mundane chores, such as sneaking around in sewers to flip switches or gathering items for others. These might help to break up the combat and add some world-building elements, showing a fuller extent of the resistance’s tasks and allowing for some exploration, but several went on for too long. A poorly thought out and downright terrible final boss battle rounds out the adventure, adding some rote, unimaginative padding that stands out in a game striving for something more. Beginning the alternate timeline with the first playthrough’s perks unlocked helped to ease the late-game frustrations, but the finale deserved more than a phoned-in adherence to tradition.
Even when The New Order stumbles, I still admire MachineGames’ attempt to add something new to the series. The 2009 reboot’s between-mission hub city, the most notable addition to the series since id’s original, actually feels lifeless in comparison to the characters, sci-fi-infused world, and alternate timelines on offer here. The characters are an odd bunch to be sure, but their inclusion, along with all of the little nooks and crannies to explore, letters to read, and news clippings to browse bring a lot to a series that had only dabbled in anything other than all-out mayhem. In some ways, it’s almost as much of an adventure title as it is an action one, and it’s all the better for it.
Wolfenstein: The New Order expands the series far beyond the 2009 reboot by delivering a surprising yet satisfying mixture of action and adventure. The lack of a multiplayer mode does little to detract from the package, given how well the perk system is implemented within the campaign, which introduces a new evolution system as well as provides a strong incentive alongside an alternate timeline to go through the game again. The design and plot might be uneven at times, and the final boss a rote drag, but Blazkowicz’s sci-fi-themed what-if adventure is well worth playing.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)