Wolfenstein: The New Order Review (PS3)
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
For a large movement of first person shooter players, the saying has never rung more true. Shooter campaigns have become regarded as trite, prompting a yearning for a renaissance of older game design conventions. Swedish developer MachineGames, who are largely made up of ex-Starbreeze veterans behind the Riddick and Darkness games, understand this sentiment fully. Much like how Coca-Cola became more beloved than ever by simply re-introducing Coke Classic in the 1980s, MachineGames have found similar success in The New Order by simply making a shooter with a refreshingly familiar taste.
An initial assault on antagonist General Deathshead’s compound casts some early doubts: a highly scripted aerial shooting gallery, followed by a beach assault and some trench warfare that has been done to death. The only differences, so far, is that in The New Order’s version of 1946, the war is still raging and the German’s choice of armored beast has switched from a Tiger tank to a “Panzerhund” robotic dog. It’s only upon scaling the walls into Deathshead’s compound that we encounter MachineGames first proving grounds. The cobblestone walls and atmosphere are immediately reminiscent of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, while the level design itself opens out into multiple paths. A tap of a button to see a map, more complex than a straight line and progressively filling in, becomes possibly the best indicator yet that The New Order is something special.
The assault on the compound inevitably fails and lantern jawed series protagonist William “BJ” Blazkowicz is plunged into a coma during a messy escape. His identity unknown, he is rescued by the staff of a nearby Polish mental institution where, for 14 years, he is cared for by the head nurse Anya. The institution staff and Blazkowicz, in his comatose state, can only watch helplessly as patients around him are one-by-one snatched away for experimentation. Fast forwarding to 1960, a routine Nazi visit turns more sour than usual, triggering a purge of the institute which finally awakens Blazkowicz from his blank state. As the sole survivors and now living in a world completely occupied by the Nazis, Anya and Blazkowicz’s only choice is to join up with the remaining resistance fighters and strike back.
A tale of revenge of course requires weaponry, and The New Order’s armoury is well stocked both in terms of the quantity of its arsenal and the quality of its shooting. The game comfortably manages to accomplish what was probably MachineGames’ most important goal: satisfying, joyous gunplay. Guns are massive, screen filling entities, ranging from the pistol/machine gun/shotgun trinity to much more exotic laser weaponry later in the game. Practically every weapon in the game can be dual wielded with a single button press too, although the mixing and matching seen in Halo is sadly prohibited.
Wolfenstein’s guns may not be quite as booming as expected, but their visual feedback when fired still makes them feel incredibly vicious. At the receiving end of twin auto-shotguns, stormtrooper heads become ripe watermelons and limbs are quickly separated from torsos. An intuitive leaning cover system can be used, but it only remains a viable tactic for as long as the plaster hasn’t been stripped from the walls. The unbridled freedom that The New Order brings back to the genre, with its bombastic emphasis on run-and-gun, also makes using cover feel like it’s going against what the game stands for.
With so many weapons on offer, the controls of The New Order can sometimes buckle under the strain. Switching weapons via the weapon wheel causes a critical delay which lasts much longer than it ought to. Thankfully this sluggishness can be bypassed by a Y-button weapon switching mechanic pinched from newer FPS titles. Hotkeys additionally allow weapons to be switched to their more strategically minded alternative firing modes. Machine guns have underslung grenade launchers, shotguns have scatter rounds which can be bounced around corners, and MachineGames have embraced some modern design sensibilities by allowing weapons to be gradually bolstered by perks.
MachineGames have boundaries though – fully regenerating health of today’s shooters is a bridge too far for Wolfenstein, instead only allowing the player to recharge a chunk of 20% before more needs to be scavenged off corpses. The need to individually pick up every scrap is a double-edged sword, sometimes grinding the otherwise blistering combat to a halt, but on the flip-side encourages the player to probe around the game’s environments. True to Wolfenstein’s roots, the pantry of levels are abundantly stocked with easter eggs. Some bonuses have more thought put into them than others, like the resistance HQ containing a particularly charming throwback to the 1992 classic Wolfenstein 3D, as well as fantastic collectible vinyls which play German covers of ’60s music.
Serving as the backbone of the campaign, The New Order frequently returns to the comfort of this resistance HQ to build its’ cast of characters (typically by having Blazkowicz play fetch for something important they’ve lost). Located in the sewers, conversations between the topside Berliners can also be overhead through the gratings. One woman enquires about where she can report a local child’s cross-dressing tendencies to the authorities – in light of the Nazi’s atrocities, we are only left to ponder, helplessly, about the dreaded outcome of such an action.
Elsewhere in the game, adverts in a space age museum detail the many steps of the Wolfenstein universe’s bureaucratic dating process. Another clever encounter on a train to Berlin sees BJ administered with a pseudoscientific “Aryan purity test”, in which antagonist Frau Engel attempts to determine if he has impure blood based on her equivalent of an ink blot test. These little narrative touches superbly contextualize how horrible the Nazi ideology was, helping to develop the evil of The New Order’s world without being too obtuse.
Blazkowicz frequently provides his own thoughts on the Nazi culture that surrounds him in a hushed tone. In addition to pushing the idea of him being a wounded old soul, his dampened voice makes even more sense considering that stealth is a surprisingly viable option in The New Order. Despite sneaking, on paper, seeming like it ought to be a break in character for the 6-foot-3 commando, his merciless executions and the deadly efficiency of his throwing knife makes it gel seamlessly. Mechanically speaking, the sneaking is facilitated mostly by how idiotic the patrol AI is – when an enemy catches sight of BJ, they will utter words of astonishment but will not immediately raise alarm bells. As a result, a lot of leeway is introduced to make stealth work in levels which would otherwise not be designed for it.
There’s an undoubted Half-life 2 influence in The New Order too. Gordon Freeman used the gravity gun to solve environmental puzzles and occasionally batter his enemies with scenery, and in The New Order the “LaserKraftWerk” serves a similar, albeit not as prominent purpose. The LKW can cut through metal plates in the environment by manually etching out a shape with the laser, like a death ray version of Okami’s painting minigame. It is also capable of cutting out cover to poke a sniper rifle through, however the level design and play style rarely encourages this. The device ends up being a rarely utilised curiosity, only really needed to occasionally zap a crate to access the contents within.
Many of the diverse locales of The New Order will also feel familiar to players of Half-life 2 and other classic first person shooters: the prison section, the destroyed bridge section, the water vehicle section. Other settings like ancient excavation sites, as well as the large amount of globetrotting, hints strongly at MachineGames taking inspiration from Indiana Jones. Similarities with Inglorious Basterds are also to be expected – as well as covering some of the same ground, the two relentlessly shift their tones in the same way. One minute The New Order will tackle a harrowing concentration camp; the next it will follow it up with a MechWarrior homage. Somehow, MachineGames makes it all feel coherent rather than ridiculous.
As well as its more campy elements, like battling laser wielding Nazis on a James Bond lunar base, Wolfenstein also commendably holds nothing back in its portrayal of the Nazi regime at its most brutal. Perhaps because of the game’s no-holds-barred approach to just about everything, this grants it the freedom to truly show its villians at its worst. The New Order’s only issue with its portrayal of the original videogame bad guy is that their leader, General Deathshead, is a bit too under-developed to feel like killing him will have much significance. Appearing only at the start and finale of the game, his role is a literal bookend for the storyline and little else.
The New Order also experiments with giving the player a choice between two story arcs. An early decision in the game forces the captured Blazkowicz to select which character they would have Deathshead dissect: Ken doll-faced Wyatt, or Scotsman Fergus (who funnily requires subtitles despite being perfectly intelligible). The decision of who makes it out alive subtly alters most cutscenes which follow, as well as switches out some of the minor characters in the resistance HQ. Most interestingly, the decision impacts upon gameplay by bestowing upon BJ either a lockpicking or hotwiring ability, which can be used to unlock unique areas in the levels.
This encourages two playthroughs if the player wishes to truly see everything that the already lengthy campaign has to offer. And just as well, considering that it is not propped up by any online multiplayer to speak of. Although The New Order has positioned itself as a ‘prestige’ single player experience in the same vein as a BioShock Infinite or a Dishonored, and succeeds as such, it nonetheless feels like a missed opportunity to also pay tribute to the online Enemy Territory’s place in the Wolfenstein heritage.
Wolfenstein: The New Order feels like a game which really shouldn’t work. It transplants the feeling of a ’90s first person shooter into 2014; yet also has enough sense to mix in elements of modern game design to ensure it doesn’t feel antiquated. It is an action game which is fully functional as a stealth game. Its narrative is equal measures serious and ludicrous. Its lead character is a superman who feels vulnerable. Its world effortlessly blends together retro 60s aesthetics with Nazi kitsch and futuristic sci-fi elements. Its beautifully realised world is powered by the id Tech 5 engine, which like RAGE looks gorgeous as long as you don’t stop and stare at it too closely. And its tonal variety works far better than anyone probably expected. MachineGames manages to keep all of these plates spinning aggressively throughout the entirety of their adventure, which is an increasingly rare commodity in a stalling genre.
4 Nazis in bloody bits out of 5