It doesn’t play like Wolfenstein, and it barely feels like Wolfenstein, but maybe that’s a good thing—this is the best entry the franchise has seen in years.
Let’s go over what Wolfenstein: The New Order is not. It’s not a twitch shooter, so fans of classic Wolfenstein beware. It’s also not really a modern shooter. It’s also not a World War II shooter, at least for 90 percent of the game. It’s also not a game that cares one damn instant whether you think the gaming medium needs to strive towards “art.”
Here’s what is it is: Glorious. Utterly glorious. Summer’s right around the corner, and The New Order could not come at a better time. I’m in the mood for explosions, and Wolfenstein has that in spades.
Call me Billy
Wolfenstein: The New Order throws you back in the well-worn shoes of one William “B.J.” Blazkowicz. Blazkowicz is looking good, considering that in video games terms he is ancient. Twenty-two years on and the poor guy’s still stuck fighting Nazis.
The game opens with BJ and the boys making one last assault against General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse’s compound—cut off the head of the snake, and all that. And, because it’s Wolfenstein, Strasse’s compound is a gigantic castle. And there are so many explosions.
Unfortunately, in the midst of a daring escape our lovable protagonist takes a big ol’ hunk of shrapnel right to his brain bucket and plummets into the ocean. He spends the next fourteen years in a coma, and upon waking finds that the war’s over—but the Nazis won.
Wait, did I say won? I meant took over the entire world. Britain fell in 1946. Then America surrendered in 1948 after Hitler dropped a nuclear bomb on Manhattan and vaporized it. If you’ve ever read Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle (or, seriously, any other alternate World War II history) then you’ve got a good idea of what to expect.
Nazis all over the world doesn’t sit well with Mr. “my-blood-is-made-from-apple-pie” Blazkowicz, and with the help of a few friends he sets out to dismantle the Nazi regime and restore those proud Stars and Stripes to their rightful place as a global superpower.
There’s your premise. Wolfenstein: The New Order is dumb, and it revels in its dumbness.
Take, for instance, this sequence. BJ and an old friend are slowly lifting off in a helicopter. He asks her how she survived, all those years ago. She’s a paraplegic now, but otherwise seems no worse for the wear. She explains what happened. Then, BJ says “Sorry about your legs,” to which she responds, “Don’t be. I’d forgotten how to fly,” and the helicopter rockets up into the sky and chugging guitar riffs kick in and oh my god I think I just heard a bald eagle cry somewhere outside my window.
I’m not going to sit here and make a case for Wolfenstein as high art. It’s not. It’s alt-history, sci-fi schlock. But you know what? It’s the smartest rah-rah-shoot-some-bad-guys schlock since the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. For instance, there’s a great running gag about 60s pop music that made me laugh each time it surfaced.
But then in amongst the dumb there are also a lot of moment-to-moment interactions that hammer home life under occupation. Wolfenstein has a habit of contrasting your best accomplishments with the worst of humanity’s evils. It’s enough to give you whiplash sometimes, and thus is all the more effective. Listening to a grandma frenziedly explaining how the resistance has been wiped out, or hearing a man sing a lullaby to another grown man whose lost half his brain in the fighting—there’s a lot of tragedy to address if you choose to dig past the breakneck tour across Europe and stand still a few seconds. Some of Wolfenstein’s best moments are the quiet interludes.
It’s hard to stand still too long though because you always want to see what’s next. The game is masterfully paced, the dialogue sounds like the stuff Stallone writes while watching himself flex in the mirror, and there’s (I swear) a lot of cleverness hidden underneath the explosions.
There’s a weird mix of old and new in Wolfenstein. In the “New” column you have heavily cinematic storytelling, linear environments, light roleplaying-esque elements, and recharging health. In the “Old” column there’s medkits and body armor, an infinite supply of guns and ammo, ridiculous robot enemies, hidden rooms, and an irreverence that’s far too uncommon in shooters these days.
There’s a strange tension in Wolfenstein brought about by mixing two completely different eras of game design. For instance, your health recharges but only up to the next-highest 20%—go down to 49 health, and you’ll recharge to 60. The rest must be restored with medkits.
It’s a completely insane way to try and reconcile old Wolfenstein fans with modern game design, and it doesn’t work at all except it doesn’t even matter because you’re too busy just shooting everything in the face to even pay attention to health. Plus, on the game’s “Normal” difficulty the entire game is a Nazi-filled cakewalk where BJ Blazkowicz is more god than soldier.
And he only gets more powerful as you unlock perks. Yes, Blazkowicz has a perk tree. No, I don’t know why, but I like it. You gain more skills by accomplishing certain feats—basically, it’s an in-game award for unlocking achievements. Take down five commanders with stealth kills? Now they show up on the map. Kill five guys with throwing knives? Now you can carry an extra knife.
It’s totally inane and yet you’ll still feel proud every time you unlock some new dumb skill. Skills are split into four trees: Assault, Tactical, Demolition, and…Stealth? Really?
Yes, really. Are you ready for some heresy? Wolfenstein: The New Order is actually a ton of fun as a stealth game. Leading up to release Bethesda touted the two ways you could play—as a lock-n-load gunner or as a creep-through-shadows assassin. And I laughed.
Despite Wolfenstein’s (very early) roots in the stealth genre, it’s not exactly what the series is known for nowadays. Imagine my surprise when I realized I was stealthing through the game as much as possible, picking off baddies with my faithful throwing knives and silenced pistol. Wolfenstein lets you crouch-walk around environments, pick off a few strays, and maybe even nab a commander. Then when lead starts flying you calmly stow your knives away, pull outdual shotguns, and put the fear of Uncle Sam into a few dozen Nazis. And by “the fear of Uncle Sam” I mean you punch some holes through those Nazis with high-velocity metal.
It felt…well, a lot like the classic Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. There are even multiple levels that take place in prison, and these feel exactly like the Butcher Bay sequel I always wanted (sorry, Assault on Dark Athena). And then I looked up the developer, Machine Games, and it all made sense—some of the developers on the team are ex-Starbreeze. In other words, some of the team did work on Escape from Butcher Bay.
It’s not Wolfenstein, but it so, so is. If you’re only coming to Wolfenstein for an old-school, twitch-shooting experience, stay the hell away. This game is not the game you want. This game is Modern Warfare in a crazy Nazi Castle setting.
But oh wow. Forget Citizen Kane. This is the Torque of video games. If you’re the type of person who quotes Schwarzenegger one-liners, finds something inherently funny about robot dogs, and (maybe) put Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon on your Game of the Year list last year, then yeah—you should pick up Wolfenstein: The New Order.