Wolfenstein: The New Order Review – A Surprising Rebirth

The original Wolfenstein 3D on PC occupies a special place in my personal pantheon of gaming. Growing up, we weren’t allowed to have gaming consoles in our house – a problem I rectified as soon as I had a job and a car and could buy my own without permission – but we were allowed to play games on our family PC. When my brother and I were small children, this meant playing Commodore 64 games, but as we got older this expanded to Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, and eventually, to Wolfenstein 3D.

Given a somewhat limited ability to actually purchase games, Shareware games made up a big part of our catalog, and we’d often play the free parts up to the pay wall (for games that had one) over and over again. I can’t remember how many times I played the same levels on Wolfenstein 3D, but I  can tell you that when I played the “hidden” level in Wolfenstein: The New Order (an Easter Egg that has you replay the first level of Wolfenstein 3D) that I knew where all the secret pushwalls still were, 22 years later.

Wolfenstein 3D was, in its original incarnations, pretty much a story-free, visceral shooter, widely considered the game from which all other FPS games followed. In a world of regenerating shields, co-op campaigns, multiplayer supremacy, can Wolfenstein rise again?

If nothing else, it sure looks prettier these days.

2014:

wolfenstein pretty

1992:

wolfenstein 1992

Overview

Wolfenstein: The New Order presents an alternate reality earth where the Nazis use highly advanced technology to conquer the world. The conceit of the game is that it takes place in an alternative 1960, which is mined both for comedy and for tragedy in a surprisingly deep and emotionally affecting story.

As you’d expect, the game is a single-player FPS, and it is relatively “old school” at its core. It has no multi-player component at all. If you’re concerned about getting your money’s worth out of this title, there’s plenty of playtime for your money here. It took me about 16 hours to beat the campaign on the middle of five difficulty settings, but I found only about 1/3 of the total hidden items, and there’s also a decision made in the first chapter that results in you following one of two continuities, with changes to the story at various points as a result.

Carrying the old school feel is the game’s lack of regenerating health, and armor pick-ups a la Doom. But this Wolfenstein has plenty of modern FPS additions, including stealth takedowns, dual-wielding, secondary fire options for every weapon, a perk system,  a sprint-slide move, and more.  Various perks unlock as you complete specific tasks, like takedowns, kills with turrets, kills during slides, and so on, related to different aspects of the gameplay such as stealth kills and explosives.

wolfenstein takedown

All of these features have been done elsewhere in recent AAA games, of course. What differentiates this game, perhaps shockingly so, is the story. More on this later.  First, let’s look at the various components of the game.

Gameplay and Mechanics

As noted above, the game itself is a single-player only FPS that blends old-school ideas with new-school mechanics. In some ways, there’s a strange duality to the game. It has some interesting and over-the-top weapons, and lets you dual-wield every weapon except for the laser gun / laser cutter combo (the LaserKraftWerk).

As you unlock perks and find add-ons in the game for your guns, they get increasingly powerful and, well, awesome to use.  Dual-wielding two high-powered laser rifles or auto-shotguns shooting insane ricochet bullets all over is as fun as it sounds.

Yet, this is also a game that frequently asks, if not demands, that you utilize the stealth system so that you’re not facing overwhelming odds. Long portions of some levels can be completed without firing a gun at all, and I found that there were entire sections I could beat using the silenced pistol alone. This felt a bit jarring in that the stealth system is functional, but there’s no cover alerts like in Far Cry 3 or Metro: Last Light, and enemies ignored corpses of their peers in plain sight. That may be for the best, since you have no ability to drag corpses.

However, while a run-and-gun approach works in some sections, in others, commanders will call upon reinforcements if alerted to your presence, and at times these sections were unbelievably difficult if not approached with a stealth mentality. Some stealth areas felt almost silly, with a commander just standing in place and staring in one contrived direction, begging to be murdered. More than once when I killed via takedown or silenced pistol, while I was out of site, the person I was killing was within site of other enemies, but they didn’t react at all.

“Just another one of those spontaneous throat explosions, I suppose!”

wolfenstein murdered

In general, though, the shooting felt suitably entertaining, if not ground-breaking. There’s some solid variety to the enemies, and you’ll face regular soldiers, officers, armored troops, and enemies with shotguns and missile launchers. You’ll also use turrets and vehicles; explore surfaces as diverse as the bottom of the ocean, a concentration camp, and outer space; fight all manner of Nazi robots and cyborgs; and, for better or worse, take part in some boss fights.

Breaking up the full-on action missions are some nicely executed story and exposition levels, which actually have some of the best moments in the game. Not only is the character dialogue excellent, but all sorts of background dialogue and newspaper articles further flesh out the setting of the alternate reality of A New Order.

wolfenstein on the moon

As the game progresses, your arsenal of weapons increases, in multiple ways. You get new guns, new secondary fire modes and ammunition, and perks that you unlock add additional methods of dispatching Nazis (such as thrown knives to increase your stealth takedown range, the ability to throw back grenades, and so on).

Despite all this variety, though, there’s something that feels a bit off in the gunplay. Some weapon hits feel substantial and full of weight, others floaty and lacking in substance completely. Enemy AI and animations are pretty good throughout, with the possible exception of their hit and damage animations. It often seemed like, going by the animations, my first five bullets glanced off harmlessly, but that sixth one did catastrophic damage. Later enemies, especially robots and armored soldiers, are absurd bullet sponges.

As a point of comparison, I kept thinking of the unadulterated joy of running and gunning in Shadow Warrior, another 1990s game brought back from the dead in the last year. Wolfenstein: A New Order has higher production values and a better story, but the combat – which should be the bread and butter of the game – wasn’t quite as fluid and, well, fun, as in Shadow Warrior.

The word I’d use for Wolfenstein: The New Order’s gameplay is competent. This is by no means a bad shooter, in fact it is above average for the genre as a whole, but in stealing the takedown and perks systems from other games and meshing them with the old-school shooting of Wolfenstein, this is neither an exemplary action shooter nor an exemplary stealth FPS.

I also have to say that the boss battles are a bit hit or miss; the plus side is that for the most part, they’re more based on puzzles or weak points than throwing a ridiculous amount of bullets at armored foes. The negative is that in general they felt a bit thrown in and unnecessary, or even downright silly. This isn’t a realistic game, but there’s still a certain additional suspension of disbelief required for a few of these bosses that far exceeds the rest of the game.

london monitor

 

Setting and Story

It is rather shocking then, considering the general absence of story in the franchise’s origins, that Wolfenstein: The New Order has an absolutely fantastic story. The characters are unique, the voice-acting and dialogue superb throughout, and the story emotional and gripping.

While the game starts with a bit of a cliched conceit –  amnesia and head trauma and if he’s comatose for 14 years how does he keep all those muscles and forget it because reasons! – to get main character BJ Blazkowicz from 1946 into Nazi-controlled 1960, once there, this is one of the best videogame stories of the past few years.

wolfenstein its time

The story actually forks early on into one of two different timelines, and while the main thrust of the story remains the same regardless of which storyline you choose, there are enough changes that I could easily see playing the game through twice to see both takes.

I never, ever thought I would see a day where a Wolfenstein game has one of the year’s best stories so far, but here we are. If not for Bioshock: Infinite, I’d say this has the best FPS story of the past few years, easily. It is honestly that good.

Part of that is due to the tremendous job of world-building the game does. Equal parts comedy and horror, like the sci-fi world of Fallout gone Fascist, there’s a never-ending supply of twists on 50s and 60s culture.

I’m not surprised at the generally positive reaction to this game, because the story is that good.

Graphics and Sound

High production values are present throughout Wolfenstein: The New Order. Sound design in particular exudes quality, from the music to the sound effects and the voice-acting. You can even listen to some German versions of pop music, which are comically disturbing.

fascist beatles

The graphics are what I would expect from a AAA PC title in 2014, for the most part. Having recently played Metro: Last Light, this game doesn’t quite live up to the bar set by the game, but Wolfenstein is no slouch. This is a good looking game, complemented by excellent art design. Even the architecture of the buildings established by the Fascist regime seems well-thought out, and the Nazi space program is downright frightening.

more nazis in space

 

The only knock I have against the game’s graphics is that for a AAA PC title, I would’ve expected more customization options. Compared to recent titles like Bioshock: Infinite, Tomb Raider, Metro: Last Light, and Far Cry 3, Wolfenstein: A New Order lacks some of the visual options other top titles possess.

Conclusion

Wolfenstein: The New Order does the Wolfenstein name proud, and is a pretty good example of how to update a classic franchise. This is a tough shooter that keeps just enough of its old-school mechanics and mostly merges them successfully with the best of this decade’s top FPS titles. Sound and art direction contribute to the setting of a great story, one that you’ll want to see through to the end, which will stick with you long after.

There are some difficulty spikes, and as noted the mechanics themselves are a bit imperfectly blended,with the stealth sections a bit too frequent and the boss battles sometimes poorly executed, but the overall experience is enjoyable and one I recommend you try.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is available for $59.99 MSRP on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

I played the PC version, which ran smoothly on Medium settings on a Core i7 with 8 GB RAM and a GTX 660, at 1920×1080 resolution.

 

NOTE: My One Story Issue (Spoilers)

For anyone reading this that has played the game, there is one thing about the story that irks me: the concept of the Da’at Yichud. Maybe it is just me, but the idea of a secret Jewish society with technology far beyond that of the rest of the world, hidden deep in the earth in vaults, is a weird thing to have in a game like this.

Why?

Frankly that is more or less one of Hitler’s paranoid anti-Semitic fantasies, and some version of that concept is a common one among anti-Semites in general. Something about this part of the story feels off to me, like it just shouldn’t be there. I wish they’d come up with an alternate story explanation.

One thought on “Wolfenstein: The New Order Review – A Surprising Rebirth”

  1. With regards to your story spoiler at the bottom:

    I also disliked the twist with the secret society, but mostly because it creates implications for the story that are never dealt with. The story gives a great deal of characterization with respect to the Nazi’s attitude toward those they label as undesirables, and the Nazi eugenics program is entirely based around their belief that they are getting rid of those “undesirables” because they are holding back the human race as a whole. The twist is that the Nazi empire turns out to be built upon technology that they stole from one such group of undesirables, and the problem I have is that nobody ever calls them out on it after learning this. At least in the timeline I played, not one character in the resistance ever seems to realize what giant hypocrites that makes the Nazis. Even when BJ confronts Deathshead in the end, and he’s going on about how the world is superior now because of Nazi rule, BJ never throws the fact in his face that the Nazis really aren’t responsible for all the advances they’ve made. I don’t think I would have felt so awkward about the secret society twist if the story would have actually realized the implications this meant for the fascist philosophy espoused by the villains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *