The shooter genre has gone through fits and starts of change in the last few years. Since the genre was created in the 90’s with games like Wolfenstein leading the charge, shooters have become the critically-dismissed part of mainstream video game culture. The occasional shooter has stood out, breaking the mold of the traditional roller-coaster shooting gallery, but these games have been the exception rather than the rule. Wolfenstein: The New Order, the latest addition to the Wolfenstein franchise from Machine Games, attempts to be one of these exceptions. The game takes the sci-fi-infused World War II series and attempts to give it emotion, weight, and strong characterization. At times this attempt is successful and Machine Games creates some strong moments which are bound to linger in your memory, but soon the effort to ground Wolfenstein gets tossed to the wayside and the game dissolves into trigger-happy warfare.
Players assume the role of Cpt. William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, who is on mission to take out a high-ranking Nazi, codenamed Deathshead. The mission goes south and after losing a comrade (a choice-scenario with game-changing implications), Blazkowicz is struck in the head by shrapnel and rendered unconscious. Waking up in a mental hospital, Blazkowicz spends 14 years without motor functions, sitting in a chair while the Nazis take over the world. When he finally regains control of his body, our hero goes to find the resistance and overthrow the Nazi regime.
The throughline narrative of The New Order is what you would expect from a game about sci-fi Nazi’s taking over the world. Blazkowicz travels the globe (and beyond) blowing things up. While globetrotting Nazi killing is a cool premise, The New Order never seems to get comfortable with the story it is telling. It knows where the game is going to end, but isn’t quite sure how to go about getting there, so instead it constantly tries one-up its last locale, playing narrative Jenga and hoping the whole thing doesn’t topple over.
Interesting narrative isn’t something one would expect from the series that invented Mechanized-Hitler, but Wolfenstein is often saved by the personal and intimate monologues of Blazkowicz. In between the blowing things up and video game insanity, The New Order fills its time by having Blazkowicz recount moments of his childhood, reflect on the state of the war, or dream about a peaceful future. These moments of honesty are well-written and well acted, an impressive feat given the bizarre circumstances The New Order is often dealing with.
There are also fleeting moments of intriguing content. A choice near the beginning of the game offers two, slightly different playthroughs. Scenes where the villains are introduced, highlight gunless encounters where you stare evil in the eye. These moments of The New Order are fantastic, but quickly dismissed and forgotten about halfway through the campaign.
While the story tries for something more substantial, the gameplay feels very much like an evolved Wolfenstein. The weapon loadouts are pretty straightforward, providing the players with automatic pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, you’re pretty standard fare. Almost all weapons can be dual-wielded, but it does take away the ability to look down the sights of your weapons. As you progress through the game, more of the sci-fi weapons begin to make appearances. Your laser cutter upgrades to a laser cannon and your sniper rifle gets the secondary function of a laser rifle. These weapons run on energy, which can be picked up from soldiers using the weapon or recharged at the game’s energy stations. Each weapon has a secondary function, whether it is something simple, like a silencer on your handgun, or elaborate, like the rocket launcher on your assault rifle.
The actual shooting in Wolfenstein itself is strong. The game doesn’t have a traditional cover mechanic, but if you run around out in the open you’ll find yourself taking heavy amounts of damage. Instead you are encouraged to crouch behind objects and use the game’s leaning mechanic to pop out and do some damage. It’s not a bad system, but it can be tricky to lean and look down the sights of your weapon, meaning you are either wasting bullets at far away targets or forced into acrobatic finger-twists. The aiming mechanic is tight and has gives a little leeway to players, correcting their aim if it’s off ever-so-slightly, making it a frustrating to lose when you are forced to lean out.
One point Machine Games has tried to stress, is it intuitive leveling-up system. The more you use a weapon or skill, the more you will upgrade and earn unlocks for your play style. If you use stealth to get through levels, you will earn upgrades to help you play-style. This design is an interesting idea, but did not affect me in any way. I didn’t try to play a certain way to earn upgrades, because I really couldn’t tell when I would earn them. It was cool to get upgrades for my weapons – a scope for my laser cannon was very clutch – but I couldn’t tell you how I earned it or how I could have earn a different upgrade.
The level design is where The New Order is a mixed bag. Occasionally you will come across areas where a Nazi commander is overseeing the guard detail. You can run in and take on the Nazi’s headfirst, but these commanders will call for reinforcements, making you waste ammo and health. Taking these commanders out before they can spot you, will prevent reinforcements from being called and conserve your supplies. Conservation doesn’t do a whole lot, as all health is immediately consumed, buffing your health over 100 in an overcharge mode, but it simplifies challenging fights. There are times when there are no officers and you are simply tossed into the fray. These are the weaker points of Wolfenstein as you are forced to duck behind cover and the game becomes a shooting gallery.
The enemies populating this shooting gallery are decently varied. The game starts with stock Nazi soldiers and mechanized war dogs then ups the ante with heavily armored warriors. All of these mechanized soldiers have their weak-points, but it mostly boils down to point-and-shoot. It makes the game decently varied, but far from creative.
Adding to the poor design of The New Order, is the game’s poor sound mixing, at times Blazkowicz will whisper a hint to the player or get instructions over the radio which are lost in loud gunfire. I couldn’t tell you much about the score of Wolfenstein because it’s usually drowned out by explosions and gunfire (there’s even an option to simply turn it off, a resounding endorsement).
The New Order isn’t all action, the game has really great moments of quiet and tension, especially early in the game. Occasionally, Machine Games creates interesting locations like a labor camp, space station, and POW prison. When the game lets you explore these environments and take it in, it is a blissful change of pace to the bombastic nature of Wolfenstein’s combat. A few times, Blazkowicz returns to resistance headquarters after a mission where he interacts with the characters, can do small side-quests, and take a break from the Nazi reign of terror. It’s the moments you’re not firing a gun in The New Order that separates it from other shooters, not when you are engaged in bloody combat.
Like many games currently out on the PS4/Xbox One, Wolfenstein: The New Order looks good, but fails to separate itself due to keeping one foot in the previous-gen door. Certain cutscenes are really pretty, but the in-game performance won’t blow your mind. The biggest knock against the look of the game is The New Order’s search for a cohesive theme, something to pull all of its levels together. There’s Nazi paraphernalia scattered throughout, but artistically the game lacks any sort of artistry to pull it together. You think globe trotting from London to the Strait of Gibraltar would provide more opportunities for visual flair, but The New Order passes on these opportunities.
Wolfenstein: The New Order attempts to escape the well-worn tropes of the shooter and surprise its audience, but the game lacks any real vision about how to fulfill its desires. The moments of quiet tension, the musing of Blazkowicz, and the scenes where he interacts with the world around him are something special, but they are fleeting moments in a game which succumbs to its genre. At first, you might be taken aback by Wolfenstein’s more thoughtful moments, you might enjoy its stealth or the ridiculousness of dual-wielding shotguns, but as you progress through the game you are bound to revisit the checklist of a AAA shooter. For those who are looking for something to shoot at, Wolfenstein offers some standard fare. Anyone looking for something more, you’re not likely to find it.