Wolfenstein: The New Order is another reboot of a popular franchise that has evolved to satisfy the expectations of mainstream gamers. The first-person-shooter genre, at least for a AAA title, demands fast-paced action, epic explosions and shiny visuals. The shooter narrative, unfortunately, tends to sit on the sidelines with logic and plausibility although this offering from MachineGames and Bethesda Softworks could be more than just another Call of Duty.
It turns out Wolfenstein 3D (1992)—that MS-DOS classic my generation of PC gamers grew up on—was a remake of a simple stealth title. The premise of Wolf3D is simple: sneak out of the dungeon, stab a guard and shoot your way out of the Nazi castle—ah, remember the state-of-the-art rendering that played tricks with sprites and perspective? Feel the walls and portraits and you might open a secret that leads to treasure, ammunition, medkits—and if you are really lucky—a better gun. Blast your way through the monotony of corridors, barking dogs and tired German sound bites to exchange bullets with a twin-chaingun-toting robot manned by Herr Hitler.
Almost a decade later id Software unleashed Return to Castle Wolfenstein for Windows and Linux using the smooth Quake III engine. Return still reigns, arguably, as the most intense and genuinely frightening journey for Allied soldier William 'BJ' Blazkowitz because the atmosphere was haunting and the Nazi tesla technology made for horrific adversaries and situations. This was also the title to introduce more overt supernatural elements (SS Paranormal Division, anyone?).
Wolfenstein (2009), by Raven Software and id Software, jumps on the sandbox bandwagon by setting the story in the fictional German town of Isenstadt. Join the resistance, formerly known as the Kreisau Circle, and tap the potential of your augmented superpowers. The veil is a sweet game mechanic that can be toggled, like night vision, to see secrets and weird stuff. This is probably my favourite of the franchise because there was a neat balance between weapons modification and exploiting your supernatural gifts to fight the Nazis.
How does The New Order compare?
Wolfenstein: The New Order focuses on William 'BJ' Blazkowicz's career as a brute born to kill Nazis in an alternative reality that poses the question: what if the Third Reich defeated the Allies in WWII?
After a daring and unsuccessful attempt to stop the infamous General Deathshead at his compound, Blazkowicz suffers a shrapnel-to-the-head injury that leaves him in a vegetable state for 14 years in a Polish hospital.
Our protagonist gathers his wits in time to protect the administrator's daughter, love interest Anya, from being slaughtered by the Nazi regime that now rules the world. The war hasn't finished for Blazkowicz. He stumbles into the 1960s determined to bring General Deathshead to justice and to fight the Nazi superpower. One thing that is very clear is the scary technological advances that Germania has achieved. Sadly, the science is not explained and we are forced to accept what is going on. There is an emphasis on the robotic side of things rather than the supernatural. This is surprisingly a good thing because superpowers would probably bloat the gun-and-run style that is perfected in The New Order. And if you really miss the spooky stuff then you can always play the last two predecessors.
A resistance movement (Kreisau Circle) use Blazkowicz as their blunt instrument to strike the oppressors where it hurts. Every operation is a grab for resources to prepare for the ultimate assault of General Deathshead's castle.
The characters you meet throughout the 15-20 hours of mayhem are all intriguing and highlight the decent writing. Wolfenstein: The New Order presents the most mature depiction of sex and romance I have ever seen in a shooter. Anya and Blazkowicz get it on fairly quickly however instead of being a misogynistic Duke Nukem affair the carnal act emphasises characterisation rather than pure bodily gratification.
Another fascinating relationship is the brain-damaged pacifist Max and the ex-Nazi Klaus who treats the handicapped oaf like his own son. My favourite of the odd bunch is Tekla—an eccentric genius obsessed with numbers. When these resistance fighters get hurt you care about what is happening and this immerses you deeper into the story.
In the opening level you decide the fate of two soldiers and the person that survives has a minor impact on the story that makes for a surprising mini boss fight in the end (I saved the veteran Fergus (he really looks like House MD!).
Detail in people's faces is immaculate; a testament to the id Tech 5 engine. Pock-marked skin; dirty pores coated in a sheen of sweat; and scarily accurate eyes. Simply brilliant. The excellent aesthetics also extend to the level design, the weapons and the breathtaking backgrounds of the cityscape and beyond. The quality of the visuals means the next Doom should be impressive (this game comes with beta access!).
Wolfenstein: The New Order borrows a few science fiction elements from Half-Life 2. It is easy to compare the Nazi-occupied world to the Combine-occupied City 17. Both games have that fascist oppression vibe going on. And there is an abundance of wall battery chargers too. In The New Order, Blazkowicz finds a fancy laser cutter that can burn through puzzle-specific metal plates and chain-link fences. The laser cutter doubles as a weapon that is gradually upgraded throughout your travels. Again, the comparison to Half-life 2 is made and you remember how much fun the gravity gun was. The laser cutter is a fun gimmick but the limitation of what you can burn through leaves you yearning for more destructible terrain, Red Faction style.
There are some sweet moments in The New Order. Hijack a robot and blast concentration camp guards with rockets and machineguns while your friends break out and ride a shuttle to the Lunar Base and bunny hop on the moon's surface in a spacesuit while firing lasers at drones (think Iron Skies without the flying saucers).
Each level seems to end a little too quickly though. There isn't much time to spare between enjoying the scenery and concentrating on the gunplay. Regardless of what the developers do critics will always pan something. Even if this iteration was a straight Wolf3D remake people would complain. The New Order never felt too overwhelming. Perhaps increasing the difficulty will change this?
The guns are great. The option to dual wield assault rifles and shotguns becomes a necessity when you go toe-to-toe with the bulkier foes. There is no disadvantage for not aiming down the sights either. Each weapon has a secondary attack—assault rifles have a grenade launcher attachment and shotguns have shells that bounce rounds off walls (remember the flak cannon in Unreal Tournament?).
We learn that the Kreisau Circle is a secret society with a few aces in their sleeves. Without spoiling the surprises there are some neat gadgets that give the resistance fighters an edge against the enemy regime. I was hoping we would learn a little more about the lore of the Kreisau Circle though. If you like shooting things rather than get bogged down in drivel then this could be a pro rather than a con.
Stealth tactics can help you prevent the officers from calling reinforcements. A silenced pistol shot to the helmet will drop regular infantry however a slug will just ricochet off a bulky soldier hefting a large machinegun so the game forces you to bring out the big guns when necessary. Some levels are designed with silent takedowns in mind so there is merit in not being so loud all of the time.
Combat is paced well. Variety of different enemy types means you cannot rely on a single weapon to blast your way to the exit. The levels are pretty and offer a mix of confined, more traditional corridors, as well as open environments.
There are perks throughout the campaign that reward certain styles of killing and gradually buff your character's maximum health and ammunition capacity. This happens automatically so you just roll with it.
The obligatory audio logs are scattered about for your collection. I didn't listen to a single one. Maybe I missed some important exposition? The resistance headquarters is littered with newspaper clippings that provide a little context too.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a fun shooter and pays homage to its legacy. The campaign is consistently satisfying although more baddies, more breathing space and more background story would have improved this action adventure substantially. There is no real replay value here, unfortunately, and there is no multiplayer. The franchise should stop while it's ahead.