Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein cover

In a recent podcast (#18 in fact) I talked about the previous Wolfenstein – made by Raven Software, iD Software and a team called Endrant Software – as a game of no-frills shooting. Co-contributor Dylan responded by calling it a breath of fresh air in contrast to all of the other First Person Shooters which insisted on draping their experiences with bells and whistles.

I didn’t really agree with him at the time. I had enjoyed my excursions with 2009’s Wolfenstein but not enough to be able to recommend it to anyone. However, with Wolfenstein: The New Order I think I get what he means.

This would not be apparent from the opening sequence, unfortunately, as the game starts extremely poorly. The opening tutorial shows you how to run back and forth, how to pick things up and how to do scripted turret sequences. That this all happens while the player is inside a burning World War II bomber doesn’t distract from the fact that mechanically speaking this is a very tired introduction.

After the plane crash-lands and you, in the role of the ever-amusingly named BJ Blaskovic, stumble out onto an island inhabited by beautifully rendered steam-punk Nazis, the game begins to show a lot of promise.

Certainly there are still some initial areas which involve running down corridors like a Call of Duty hero, but there are also plenty of areas where the level design opens up and offers multiple approaches into combat as well as incentives for stealth. The latter comes in the form of Captains who can call new enemies into the area if alerted, essentially infinitely spawning until the Captain is killed. Taking the Captains out with stealth can be an excellent approach, and in offering this Wolfenstein confidently straddles old-school and modern design.

I might be drawing meaning from this that doesn’t exist, but there are parallels with the story in which an American soldier in a coma comes to in a Nazi-controlled 1960s that has advanced beyond his understanding. The anachronistic and modern fuse so well that it left me wondering if this was intentional.

Likewise the health system features both health and armour pick-ups which litter the levels; taking damage to armour can only be replenished by more armour but health will regenerate up to the nearest multiple of twenty. This system is similar to the original Halo (albeit reversed) so it feels strange to say that almost twelve years on this compromise feels genuinely welcome. It allows for tension in each encounter, rather than favouring blind violence followed by a quick rest behind a corner followed by more indiscriminate explosions.

Where Wolfenstein: TNO doesn’t find a middle ground is when the action kicks off. Then you will find yourself duel-wielding auto-shotguns, slaughtering enemies with ricocheting ammo, biting chunks out of cement and shattering glass as shock troopers are vaporised in close range combat. In this one respect the game feels unabashedly old-timey, as in fire and brimstone with a giant chiselled jaw scowling at every opportunity.

There is never a point when this is not satisfying

There is never a point where this is not satisfying

Developers Machinegames also seem to understand that they cannot sustain a constant explosions-and-machismo tone. They wisely allow for quiet exploration in the hub level that breaks up the main plot; here you might be tasked with finding toys for a brain-damaged man, or simply reading bits of exposition about how Germany won the war. Alongside the stealth there are other moments of tension that heighten the all-out bombast of the levels themselves. The most notable takes place upon a train as you interact with an Aryan couple. This ability to pause and show restraint sets this game apart from the standard of the genre and deserves praise.

Also notable is the fact that, from a gameplay perspective, Wolfenstein: TNO manages to string together each area – a decaying Polish hospital, Castle Wolfenstein, a ravaged central London – with impressive plausibility.

Sadly less engaging are the cutscenes that daisy-chain the levels together.

Okay, I didn't say it actually looked like London but maybe a Nazi London?

Okay, I didn’t say it actually looked like London… maybe a Nazi London?

BJ was never a convincing protagonist and here Machinegames’s attempt at adding gravitas to his character falls just short of total farce. Character expressions are rendered well but when his all-growled internal monologue starts you can’t help but laugh; the Blaskovic you control is completely at odds with that earnestness.

Certainly in another game it might be poignant to experience the trauma of prisoner brutality in a fascist regime. However, this is juxtaposed with unloading twin miniguns and rocket launchers, from atop a bipedal mech, into hundreds of enemy soldiers, all while the modern equivalent of the Doom soundtrack kicks in (effectively, if I may say so myself). I found myself wondering if the horror didn’t end up becoming unintentional parody. There have been some suggestions that this jarring swing was intentional. The problem is that no one acknowledges it throughout the length of the game.

To see how to handle a main character who is an anachronistic jarhead you only need look at the first volume of The Ultimates, in which Captain America has to deal with the fact that his all-guns-blazing approach to life is no longer appropriate nor condoned; this results in a better-paced and toned work of fantastical fiction.

The good news is that large portions of narrative are skippable, so it is unnecessary to dwell on that particular weak point. Plus I am sure there are those who might actually be able to engage with the story without being bothered by the disconnect. Because, well, fuck Nazis.

Because lets face it there are only two types of people owe have no remorse shitting on: Nazis and Robin Thicke

Let’s face it, there are only two types of people we have no remorse shitting on: Nazis and Robin Thicke

For all the good things I have written about The New Order there are also some really glaring issues that drag this game down from being truly awesome.

The first is the fact that you are required to press a button to pick up every piece of ammo, armour and health. Due to the nature of the game as a periodic fragfest that urges you ever forward to blow away more enemies, and that already has enough down time incorporated into it, this seems nonsensical. It slows the pacing down in a way that can be deeply irritating. This is not a terrible flaw but when one set piece that has your blood pumping is then followed by you retracing your steps to replenish your ammo and health it seems that it would have made more sense to simply have BJ act as a sucking machine for regular boosts, and only force the player press a button when it comes to hidden items.

Less forgiveable is the inconsistent checkpointing. This tends to leave the player in situations where the game has remembered how little health the player had but fails to acknowledge what their default weapon was or any of the extra ammunition they have collected. On many difficulty levels this is not such a big deal, but the awful pattern of crippling the player makes harder difficulties – where even a full roster of health and armour can be eaten away by three or four well-placed enemy shots – utterly frustrating.

Progress through the harder difficulties also makes some of the bad AI more apparent… and also necessary. I saw one particular bullet-sponge get stuck on a corner and proceeded to circle around him and unload into the back of his head. After spending twenty minutes trying to fight him and being killed in seconds thanks to his unerring aim and severe damage, I was actually quite relieved.

My final but easily most minor gripe is the perk system. The game tries to introduce a levelling system that encourages different styles of play, but some are unrealistic while others require OCD levels of focus. In any case the end rewards are not significant enough to make a noticeable difference to play so as a result you end up wondering why Machinegames bothered.

All that aside The New Order still has plenty of moments where it is fun. The level design is solid, the arsenal is delightfully aggressive (every weapon has a sense of heft and impact that makes them feel like lethal machines) and the set-ups in which to use them are enjoyable.

Exhibit A: Empty hallway after unloading this beauty

Exhibit A: Empty hallway after unloading this beauty

My only recommendation is that to get the most out of the game you should stick it on medium or easy and romp through the levels with the frivolity that a game like this deserves.

Epilogue

It is interesting to have played both of the recent Wolfensteins so closely together as they share many similarities in design and vision. It feels that this was just a case of timing. Raven’s Wolfenstein was brutalised at a time when there were too many shooters to choose from and, instead of being recognised as existing in its own time bubble, it was taken out back and ignored. Wolfenstein: The New Order commits many of the same ‘crimes’ but happens to be in a next-gen market that is starved for pretty shooters, so people are embracing it.

That and its only other contender is Killzone. No one likes Killzone. Well, no one with any sense any way.