Wolfenstein: The New Order Review
The Wolfenstein franchise has had some weird resurgences since id Software pioneered many of the first person shooter features we now take for granted back in 1992 with Wollfenstein 3D. The franchise has enjoyed nearly as much success online as it has offline over the years, with the free Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory serving as one of the most interesting online shooters for a good five-plus-year period. Aside from that, single- and multi-player resurgences have come and gone a few times, with developers like Splash Damage, Gray Matter, Raven, and Nerve Software all contributing along with a few key interventions by the original FPS developers, id Software. And now, under the leadership of publisher Bethesda, Swedish studio MachineGames is making a new one. But while the studio name is likely unfamiliar to most, these developers are no newbies - key personnel from the now-defunct StarBreeze Studios (which were responsible for making great-but-mildly-underappreciated FPS games like The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness) helmed the creation of the game we're looking at today.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a fully-single-player, story-oriented first person shooter with tons of action and atmosphere as it takes you on an alternate timeline where the Nazis won and into a sci-fi "future" with high-tech gadgets, weapon upgrades, Nazi robots, and more. All of this is powered by id Software's mildly-maligned id Tech 5 engine, although for my money it's still a great game engine that allows developers who have the resources to make tons of art really run free.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Wolfenstein stars William Blazkowicz once again, who is usually depicted exclusively as an all-American jarhead. Here, he quietly and inwardly waxes poetic while having only a few things to say out loud. Shortly into the game, the Nazis have basically won World War II and Blazkowicz becomes a key part of a resistance movement that really only involves a few people in total, but they're pretty big hitters, making this a pretty interesting storyline. Sure, it stretches plausibility, but this is a game about sci-fi Nazis making huge robots in the mid-century, so I'll let it slide. Not all games or franchises can get away with making it so suddenly convenient for our protagonist to just slide in and do all the cool and fun stuff, but MachineGames gets a pass - and it does help that they slide in just enough subtlety and interesting characters to make it easier to accept just how convenient it is for our ragtag group of rebels to do massive damage to the solidified Nazi regime over only a ten-hour period once he joins that resistance.
You might be wondering why I'm going on about story in a frickin' Wolfenstein game, but I should point out that MachineGames put significant effort into building atmosphere and making this a full-on big-budget first person shooter, complete with a compelling reason to keep on playing. It's not like Serious Sam or the recent Shadow Warrior revival, which were released with solid production values but a huge focus on action. Here, we get a more serious focus on several characters as well as the horrors of the Nazi regime in a fictionalized world, and the conspiracies, wild sci-fi, and fleshed-out lives of those trying to live under the boot of the Third Reich make things more interesting than I imagined Wolfenstein would ever get to again.
Of course The New Order does involve lots of action as well, and it includes a fairly satisfying set of weapons, many of which can be dual-wielded, with a few upgrades for them spattered throughout the game. There's also a neat little perk system that challenges players to do many quick little things (like kill three enemies with dual-wielded assault rifles in one burst where you don't let off of the trigger) and get immediate, permanent, and fun little benefits like faster reload times, armor gains for certain kills, and more. The game also uses a segmented health regeneration system where after a couple of seconds without taking damage, you regenerate up to the nearest 20 health. This gives the game a feel of all-out action with the bigger benefit of taking cover being that less of Blazkowicz's body winds up exposed to enemy fire (unlike other games, where the biggest perk is that you can hide behind cover to fully regenerate your health). To make this easier, there's a simple system where you can manually or automatically lean to shoot out from behind cover, but simply put, you could go through the entire game without using it once and be just fine. To recover health otherwise, we're looking at picking up health and armor like the id Software originals, although you can also pick up as much health as you want and it will give you "Overcharge" health that quickly drains back to 100 - but you can grab some and burst into a room, guns blazing, and have that health burned off in service of making explosions rather than just waiting for it to drain away.
The New Order also gives players the opportunity of using stealth in many sections, allowing you to stab enemies from up close, throw knives (which are quite limited in capacity) from short-to-medium range, or use a silenced pistol. Choosing a quiet assault of some sections of the game will require you to make your way to the enemy commander undetected and kill him stealthily so as to completely suppress reinforcements and require you to only kill a few enemies in that area. If you fail to do this without detection or if you just choose to go in with guns blazing, those nearby commanders will call in reinforcements so that you'll have a bigger handful of enemies to take on. What I do like is that the game basically notifies you on your HUD when it's a good time to try a stealth approach, so you know when to steady that itchy trigger finger and try something a little quieter. During my 10ish hour playthrough of the game, I found it fun to at least try and make a stealth attempt when possible, often having to switch to all-out action if my execution went poorly. Actual gunfights are satisfying, too, with some of that signature id Software-driven action where bullets never hit silly "hitboxes" that cover the gap between an enemy soldier's legs, and a locational damage model that's both gory and impactful with respect to the power of the bullets you're firing out. Detachment of body parts happens often in this iteration of Wolfenstein.
The game will rarely throw an overwhelming amount of enemies at you at once, instead opting for what feels like waves, and the AI is passable but not amazing. Most enemies are about as dehumanized as you can get, with most of the Nazi characters' dialogue you hear being delivered as disembodied voice work filtering down from non-combatants as you crawl through a tunnel or traverse some little scripted sequence. When it comes to the Nazis you actually fight, they're mostly barking tactical orders and your gunfire will silence them handily with headshots often delivering instant kills. The game takes your weapons away several times throughout the campaign, forcing you to start over more than once, but never did I feel like this dragged down the flow at all. On top of this, the upgradeable laser cutter (and later, the Laserkraftwerk weapon that replaces it) eventually becomes a solid primary weapon that can take out mechanized troops and robots very well. All of this works well and is pretty standard, if not quite good, for a $60 first person shooter. That's not really the interesting part about this game, as the enemies, weapons, and combat are mostly what you'd probably expect out of a big-budget game in 2014. Here, it's more the atmosphere and the characters that MachineGames gave life to that are more unique.
MachineGames also hid some devious and interesting secret areas in Wolfenstein as well as more than a few references to the past games, and they did include quite a few things hidden in levels that you can collect both for achievements and for unlocking new gameplay modes. Finally, there's a specific choice you're forced into early on with two options and which will affect the rest of the game, although it doesn't greatly affect the events or levels - it's mostly just some minor story stuff and a couple of other relatively small changes.
The thing is, I don't see Wolfenstein: The New Order's carefully crafted, almost bullet-point-on-the-back-of-the-box attempts to deliver replay value really doing much for it. The two paths you can take for the story aren't different enough in my mind to warrant a second playthrough on their own (although the game is often a blast to play, so it's got that going for it), and the hunt for collectibles is only really good for achievement hunting. Sure, it can be a half-decent reason to go back through some chapters if you're just looking for any reason at all to play the game again, but otherwise, one time through will pretty much be it for most, I think. And for many, a 10-12 hour FPS that really only offers one playthrough and no multiplayer is just not good enough to pay full price for, so if you're concerned about that yet the game still at least mildly interests you, wait for a price drop and then you should be able to jump in with confidence.
MachineGames won't be bringing this franchise back to its original legendary status this time around, but with Wolfenstein: The New Order, we're back to killing Nazis in a big-budget shooter for the first time in a while, and the final result is certainly better than I imagined it would turn out to be when it was first announced. In these new adventures of Captain Blazkowicz, you'll get heart-pounding action, satisfying shooting mechanics, and an atmosphere that I think will be surprisingly fleshed-out and interesting to most players. It won't likely be a Game of the Year candidate in most peoples' eyes, but that doesn't make it a bad purchase, even for full price. Just know what you're getting into and I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail PS4 copy provided by the publisher as well as a PC downloadable post-release copy provided over Steam. The primary review platform was PC.