In 1992, Wolfenstein 3D revolutionized first-person videogames. Now, more than 20 years later, Wolfenstein is back. But much has changed since BJ Blazkowicz first escaped from the titular Castle Wolfenstein. Since the first game was released we’ve seen two other sequels, 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein and the simply titled Wolfenstein of 2009, both with a different developer at the helm and diminishing degrees of success. But now MachineGames has taken the reins for their freshman project and considering the franchise’s critical history, The New Order has no right to be any good at all. Going in, you’d expect it to be the same action-hero malarkey we get every year with gameplay that’s either too old school or too modern. But somewhere along the way the fine folks at MachineGames managed to balance the old and the new and deliver a touching, well written look at a man born to kill Nazis.
Wolfenstein: The New Order starts in the same manner as every other Wolfenstein game, in WWII. You, William J. Blazkowicz are assaulting the compound of Wilhelm Strasse, known to Allied forces as Deathshead. But the Nazis are winning and the last ditch effort fails leaving Blazkowicz in a hospital for nearly 15 years only to wake up and discover that the Nazis won and there’s barely even a resistance left to fight back. Thus The New Order tasks you with finding the resistance and making a plan to strike back. Striking back not only takes you through prisons and concentration camps, but underwater to hijack a submarine and even to the moon.
The level design and art direction go a long way towards making The New Order what it is. No level feels like it is simply a maze of winding corridors but series of actual buildings and facilities that exists in a real world. It’s an odd thing to praise in a game in 2014, but Wolfenstein has a great sense of place. The alternate time of the Nazis winning is fully realized by MachineGames. For instance, the London that you see is not simply London with Nazi banners and swastikas; it’s a reinvention of the city. Wolfenstein takes place in a world that is decidedly of the 1960s, just not the one in history books, which makes it partially familiar and partially unfamiliar, but completely off putting.
Regarding the story, one of Wolfenstein’s greatest strength is its cast of characters, especially the villains. Deathshead is like something out of a James Bond flick. He’s as creepy as he is insane as he believable. But he is also outdone by Frau Engel, whose first encounter with Blazkowicz is one of the most standout moments of the game. But then, Wolfenstein is filled with standout moments. From scaling a castle Adam West-style, to walking on the moon, to riding a mech the size of a bus, to fighting a mech the size of a building, Wolfenstein is literally one amazing set piece after another. But even more amazing than this is that the game does not breakdown when changing between cutscenes and gameplay.
Often games that try to have this emotional a tale and this high-octane of action lose themselves in terrible narrative dissonance. Wolfenstein sidesteps this common landmine by introducing humor, a love story that isn’t “the point” of the story and through Blazkowicz himself. A show of bold and grand design, Blazkowicz thinks throughout the entire game. The entirety of his character is not dependent on how he comes across in cutscenes. Instead, much the same way characters in novels do, Blazkowicz has an ongoing internal monologue that is used to show his struggles with what he does as well as his self-perceived fatalism.
The way the cutscenes are handled also help carry the burden of material that Wolfenstein shoulders. A prime example is how before some missions the cinematics take on an Ocean’s Eleven and 24-like quality. Splicing in and out of scene and even having multiple camera angles represented on screen at once. It surprising just how much this tactic lightens up the mood in an otherwise very oppressive world.
One element of Wolfenstein’s story that I’d like to point out as an example of just how maturely MachineGames takes the issues tackled in Wolfenstein is that of sex. Sex in video games is still a rather taboo topic. Those games that do contain of sex often do so in the most immature manner as if to say “You’re an adult! Look, here’s some boobs to prove it!” Wolfenstein doesn’t do this. It is has two separate sex scenes. Neither of which is gratuitous or voyeuristic. Nor are they interactive mini-games. The on-screen nudity is not the point of each scene but rather a connection between two people. The New Order treats all of its heavier scenes this way and it’s honestly quite refreshing.
But thankfully, Wolfenstein: The New Order is not only this heavy hitting tale I’ve been describing, it’s also fine action game. Since the release of Halo in 2001, limited weapon slots and regenerating health have grown in popularity to the point where even 2009’s Wolfenstein bowed to the trend in regards to health. The New Order, thankfully, does not. Rather, The New Order attempts to blend old and new design elements. This is not a new idea and it’s a balance that many developers have sought and failed to attain. MachineGame hit the proverbial nail on the head. With a sledgehammer. How? By having virtually every element of both types of shooter.
Wolfenstein of course has the elements we’ve come to expect from modern shooters. There’s sprinting, aiming down the sights and an automatic cover system similar to the one found in Syndicate as well as grenades and knives being accessible via their own buttons. But here’s the thing, grenades and knives can be equipped on their own in the same way guns are just like older games. Also, the cover system that allows you to lean out just by aiming down the sights? You can forgo it and use the game’s manual leaning ability. And aiming down the sights does not actually make you any more accurate. You may be reading these sentences thinking that this makes half the games systems superfluous and on the surface level that is true. But the beauty is that you can play Wolfenstein like a modern shooter and (not “or”) an old-school shooter. It’s completely your choice and the game supports you either way.
The best picture of how Wolfenstein marries old and new is in its health system. There are both regeneration and health packs as well as armor. Effectively, The New Order uses the same health system seen in The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher’s Bay where health partially regenerates. But in lieu of literal blocks of vitality regenerating, health regenerate in segments of 20 units up to 100. For example, if your health is at 100 and it drops to 85, it will regenerate back to 100. But if your health drops to 75, it will only regenerate to 80. Armor, however, does not regenerate.
In addition to providing old and new school thrills, Wolfenstein also has a fully functioning stealth system. With a knife or silenced pistol, many enemies can be taken down without alerting others. The New Order is by no means stealth game, but the option is there for much of the game should you want to partake in. And unlike so many games that have stealth as a mere side component, it not only works but is rewarding and satisfying. It even has its own system for alarms. In any given area there may be one or two Nazi commanders. If they become alerted to your presence, they will call for reinforcements. Now, Wolfenstein is not the Metro series, resources are not scarce and Blazkowicz is more than capable of fighting however many foes. But if you can silence commanders without their knowing you’re there, then the number of Nazi forces you must wade through is easily cut in half.
Further deepening the combat system are Wolfenstein’s perks and upgrades. To be clear, The New Order has no economy or black market to purchase weapon upgrade, nor does it have experience points for you to spend on new abilities. Instead weapon upgrades are found strewn throughout the world. These upgrades manifest themselves most often as alternate fire capabilities such as a silencer for your pistol or a rocket launcher for your assault rifle. Perk, on the other hand are earned by completing actions, almost as though they were mini -achievements with real tangible rewards like increased ammo capacities, faster reloading and even the ability to gain health from stealth kills. Many of these perks will be unlock over the course of a normal playthrough without you having to do anything other than play how you want to, thus encouraging the manner in which you play. Wolfenstein not only allows for multiple play styles, it reinforces yours without forcing any others. Perks and weapons upgrades also stack across multiple playthroughs of multiple difficulties.
But the most splendid part of Wolfenstein I have saved for last: the gunplay. All the neat perks and alternate fire modes can hardly make a bad game good. Thankfully the core mechanics of The New Order are as solid as they come. The weapon design and handling found in Wolfenstein actually feel more like the descendant of Black, The Chronicles of Riddick and the original F.E.A.R. than it does a direct relative to any of its contemporaries. It as fast as it is fluid without being too twitchy. And the feel of the various guns and how they fire is makes it feel like a love song to bullets.
There are so many shooters and so many of them pit Nazis as the antagonist, it’s hard to imagine a world where we need one more. One more game with over the top action and gratuitous violence. But Wolfenstein: The New Order makes the case for this in spades. With superb writing, a memorable cast of characters and excellent gameplay that blends the old and new methodologies so thoroughly as to provide nearly countless ways to play, Wolfenstein reminds us just what video games can do. Wolfenstein 3D changed how we looked at first person games in 1992 and The New Order, while not as big of a step, may be just as important of one for the future of the genre.