I was right. Wolfenstein: The New Order is an incredibly confusing combination of what the series used to be—a stilted Nazi shooter—and what it aspires to be. But I was so incredibly wrong as well; this confounding mishmash works. Not only that, but it works extremely well. With nuanced and intriguing narrative impetus, Wolfenstein: The New Order succeeds at being as fresh as it bows to its roots.
As a direct sequel to 2009’s Wolfenstein), the crux of this follow-up is that B.J. Blazkowicz attempts to take down nutso doctor / lead Nazi scientist Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse and fails, resulting in him failing into a comatose state for a solid 14 years. When he awakens in a Polish asylum, he discovers that through some strange twist, the Nazis have somehow managed to utilize advanced weaponry and handedly won World War II. And Blazkowicz simply won’t stand for that.
It is, however, a rather dire situation out there in this alternate history world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Reich is not a very friendly ruling institution. Blazkowicz wants to save the world, but there may not be much left to save. It feels like saving the frame around a burning picture simply because it was the only thing salvageable. It is bleak.
This is where the strength of the game truly lies. In terms of narrative, The New Order holds nothing back in making sure you feel the urgency and the consequences of what has happened, what is happening, and what you hope to achieve. Given the pedigree of Machine Games—most notably including a good chunk of former Starbreeze Studios devs, the people behind similarly narrative-driven and effective The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness—this isn’t entirely unexpected.
The story manages to focus broadly over the personal cost of war (and, more specifically, war against a victorious and hateful regime) while still being rather pointed and particular. For example, the asylum that Blazkowicz finds himself in post-war is run by a family. And you witness the professional morals give way to personal preservation through no easy dilemma only to devolve into a raw emotional reconciliation of the two. It’s intense and meaningful in ways you wouldn’t expect.
And then it also manages to raise questions it leaves for you to mull over, as if to fill all of the open nooks and crannies untouched from its more discrete narrative developments. The necessity of violence for purpose, conflicted Western racial implications, and the toll of pursuing what you believe to be right all fall under the lens of what The New Order leaves in your hands.
The visual design of the world helps support all of this. While a familiar blend of retro-advanced technology that seems to creep into a lot of more temporally liberal games, it’s all rather consistent in how it presents which aspects both military and civilian life. Tone appears to be a specialty of the game, and so much of it nails the feel it (ostensibly) is going for.
On the flip side, a surprising amount of sound design seems to be rather bland, if not seemingly missing altogether. Things you would expected to have rather overt effects like recharging your laser cutter seem to be entirely missing rather than just too soft or incongruous with the proceedings. It feels strange when you miss that feedback.
But that aside, the narrative juxtaposition of the old school gunplay is strange at first. The story has modern sensibilities brought to harvest by a studio that excels at the act, but so much of what the game offers in the moment-to-moment shooting throws you back to a time when UI was, at best, an animated face at the bottom of the screen.
There’s armor and health overcharge and an absolute arsenal at your disposal, your armaments accumulating over the course of the level rather than choosing which two to carry with you. The only recent consideration that seems obvious is the recharging health, and even then, it only goes up to the nearest multiple of 20. This forces a leveled focus on the player, actively seeking out armor as you simply dump dual assault rifles into the air. The pace takes an unfortunate dip as you manually collect goodies post-battle, but it’s not terrible by any stretch.
Strangely enough, outside of discrete mechanics, stealth makes an appearance. More than that, it is above the haphazardly inserted concession you would expect from most shooters. With a double whammy of a fantastic silenced pistol and automatic, cinematic melee kills thrown on top of fulfilling AI awareness (commander enemies have a literal meter that you must supersede with their death before they call in endless reinforcements).
Then, as you fight, you are also working towards unlocking perks. As you accomplish certain tasks within combat like five stealth kills or sliding kills, you gain abilities and upgrades along the way. These are critical and genuinely affect your effectiveness, so as you progress down the different talent trees (they’re not really trees, but you get it), you realize your full Blazkowicz potential. It certainly contrasts many times with the cerebral story, but most of the time, it works (save for the one-liners).
But then, for a game so centered around the idea of big swings supported by smaller, more personal considerations, it fails to bring anything to the table for the struts to hoist up. Outside of a few exceptions, boss battles are rather disappointing. Whereas the more open arenas of general combat gin up a sensation of rapid, action-oriented puzzle solving (though the solution is generally just better movement and better shooting), these one-off encounters are more like banging your head against a wall.
The villains, however, are quite villainous. In the first act of the game, you will encounter what is perhaps the most unnerving antagonist you’ll find in many recent games. This permeates into later encounters with other bad guys, even drawing a sense of dread in seeing what the grunts are capable of. And once the fan starts chopping the shit, you realize that the dire moments are more than just farming reaction but legitimate occasions of concern for the people you’ve been surrounded with.
I wouldn’t call it surprising, but it is at least somewhat unexpected. After the many demos of the game, I was still unsure of where it would land in its finished form. But given the pedigree of its studio and its developers, Wolfenstein: The New Order‘s story and characterizations shine through, guided by more than capable hands. It carries the gameplay when it falters, but that is a rare occasion as it is. Wolfenstein: The New Order is more than worth your time.
+ Fantastic, nuanced characterizations of former one-dimensional archetypes
+ Genuinely intimidating villains and unsettling atmosphere
+ Gunplay that supports both old school, bombastic shooting and slower, deliberate play
+ Convincing setting and alternate history setup
– Boss fights that end up making you want to take an angry nap
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order
Release: May 20, 2014
Genre: First-person shooter
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC