Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order opens with a turret sequence, an egregious use of modern action game’s most tired cliché. You’ll shoot Luftwaffe out of the skies as series mainstay B.J. Blazkowicz, leading a barrage of allied aircraft as they converge on General Deathshead’s ominous sanctuary. With a name like that he’s as obvious a villain as you’re ever likely to see; a disfigured and torturous Nazi scientist, Deathshead now leads the vile fascist regime in an alternate 1946 filled with robot guard dogs and walking mechs.
The assault on his castle makes for a thrilling opening sequence that’s keen to pay homage to id Software’s oldest franchise, all the while funnelling you from one set piece to the next as you shoot, stab and strangle the Swastika-laden goons attempting to halt your progress. It’s linear and frenetic, offering barely a moment of respite and full of the sort of bombast we’ve come to expect from a contemporary FPS. It doesn’t take long before a sense of familiarity begins to set in; a disheartening air of predictability. This is a Wolfenstein that feels all too safe, all too Call of Duty, candidly adopting the modern shooter template.
“This is a fresh start with a fondness for the series’ 1992 FPS beginnings”Then, in a botched escape attempt, Blazkowicz takes a piece of shrapnel to the skull, rendering him comatose for the next 14 years. When he awakens he finds himself in a new world – a New Order – and this Wolfenstein slowly reveals its true hand.
Though it’s a sequel to 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2009’s Wolfenstein – with some characters making repeat appearances – The New Order feels like a new beginning. This isn’t a World War II shooter, there are limited signs of the occult, no Nazi zombies or alternate dimensions, and you spend barely any time in a castle. This is a fresh start with a fondness for the series’ 1992 FPS beginnings, meshing old school concepts with some contemporary tweaks in what is a bloodthirsty marriage of varied generations.
While Blazkowicz’s emotive face is absent from the bottom of the screen you’ll still need to collect health and armour pickups to top yourself back up, much like you would in Wolfenstein 3D (ostensibly bolting helmets and scraps of metal to kneecaps and elbows like some junkyard concoction of Nazi destruction). The shooting, too, is decidedly old school, laughing in the face of two-weapon limits to present you with a mammoth arsenal of pernicious tools, with nearly all of them available to dual wield – not to mention their alternate fire modes. There’s a disappointing lack of invention in the weapon design, especially considering the alternate timeline and its Nazi-fuelled advances in technology. Yet it’s hard to argue when you’re armed with dual-shotguns in a narrow corridor filled with snarling Nazis just waiting to die.
The shooting is incredibly satisfying, with hip fire that’s about as accurate as aiming down the sights, The New Order makes no bones about its roots. You’ll learn to bounce from an assault rifle to a sniper and back again depending on the various combat scenarios it throws at you, perhaps taking a seat back and leaning around a corner to pop off some headshots before rushing straight into the fray without a care in the world. Varied enemy types keep you on your toes, often tasking you with finding a specific weak point to put them down as quickly as possible. Although it does have a tendency to overuse the more overpowered foes towards the game’s conclusion, ramping up the difficulty with increasing numbers more than anything else.
Fortunately, some of the more frustrating combat scenarios can be avoided with the pragmatic use of stealth. This is the first of The New Order’s modern divergences, and while you probably wouldn’t expect it to work it actually fits quite well. First off, the level design is very open-ended; you can choose to engage in stealth and get through the majority of the game without ever being seen or ignore it completely. I generally only used it when faced with Nazi commanders, a special unit that can call in reinforcements if you’re spotted. I would silently take them down first – either with a knife or the handy silenced pistol – and then kill the rest of the enemies the old-fashioned way.
It’s refreshing that The New Order never forces you to adopt a specific play style, either siding on a stealth or all guns blazing approach. Instead it grants you the tools required to proceed as you see fit, presenting a generous amount of combat flexibility that puts the power in the player’s hands.
“It grants you the tools required to proceed as you see fit, presenting a generous amount of combat flexibility that puts the power in the player’s hands”And this funnels directly into a perk system that rewards you for the way you play, too. Conceptually the more you do something the better you’ll be at it, so say you stealthily kill 5 enemies with the silenced pistol, or do something more preposterous like getting 5 kills within 10 seconds using dual-wielded rocket launchers, you’ll be rewarded with perks pertaining to that style of play. It allows you to effectively tailor the progression to your preferences, unlocking perks that will actually mean something, rather than some upgrade you’ll never put to use.
With no multiplayer to speak of it’s clear MachineGames focused all of their energy into crafting a single player campaign that’s as tight and well-balanced as you can imagine. With multiple routes through each level and dozens of collectibles to find, it further differentiates itself from its modern contemporaries, only occasionally narrowing its design for some of the more linear moments. It only really falters in its abysmal boss fights and a touch of repetition as it draws to a close – or maybe we’re just not used to shooters being quite so lengthy anymore. The New Order is a resounding success and a pleasant surprise, and yet what holds it all together proves most shocking of all.
Wolfenstein is not a series known for its stirring narrative, nor are many other first-person shooters for that matter. Yet MachineGames has managed to craft a tale worth savouring, which should come as little surprise considering their roots, comprised of veterans from Starbreeze Studios, makers of such literary greats as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness.
In truth, this is a story that clashes in tone with the rest of the game. On the one hand you have a violent shooting gallery with more brawn than brains, and on the other you have a narrative that focuses on the horrors of war and the people affected by it. In one level you’ll find yourself going undercover in a concentration camp, hiding under emaciated bodies heading for the incinerator, and then in another you’re shooting up a Nazi moon base like James Bond. It can be jarring and shouldn’t really work, but The New Order sells its world so well that this tonal rift doesn’t really matter; both sides of this coin have such fantastic moments that it’s hard to argue when they bash heads.
This may be a pulpy, retro sci-fi tale set in an alternate history where the Nazis won the war and rule the world, but the human element retains its relevancy. Each Nazi you kill – and there are many – is borne out of desperation, despite how silly it may all initially seem. An insurmountable fight to maintain hope amidst the rule of Nazism and its cost to civilian life.
The sense of struggle is grand and it manifests within well-rounded and complicated characters and their conflicting relationships with one another. Early on Blazkowicz joins up with a fleeting resistance and The New Order gives you quiet moments to get to know them, it’s just a shame you don’t spend a little more time in their company. The writing is still a little hit and miss throughout, too – mostly missing with Blazkowicz’s internal monologue – but over time this is a story that earns your emotional attachment to these characters, making their pain and loss all the more affecting.
A game with Wolfenstein’s lineage shouldn’t be exploring the harsh realities of war, especially with such a diverse cast – strong women lie at the heart, while people of colour are provided a spotlight – yet MachineGames has managed to craft something with surprising poignancy, even if it sometimes veers towards sensationalism. Because of that, Wolfenstein: The New Order elevates itself above the sum of its parts. This is still a thrilling shooter with a refreshing fondness for its old school roots, but it’s the characters, storytelling and the horrifying themes it explores – ambitions that far exceed anyone’s expectations – that makes it such a memorable experience.