As a Jew-ish, World War II first-person shooter fan whose history with the Wolfenstein series goes back to the original 2D game from 1981, Castle Wolfenstein, I came to the first-person shooter Wolfenstein: The New Order cautious but hopeful. But MachineGames — who made it for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC — have managed to assuage my fears and exceed my hopes by making a Wolfenstein game that plays like modern-style first-person shooter.
When our story begins, longtime Wolfenstein hero William “B.J.” Blazkowicz is once again shooting Nazis during World War II. But after suffering a traumatic brain injury, he ends up in a mental hospital, unable to speak or move, and with only brief moments of awareness. By the time he regains his faculties, fourteen years have passed, it’s not 1960, and the Nazis have not only won the war, but now control the world. So, naturally, B.J. copes by doing what he enjoys most: kickin’ Nazi ass.
For those who’ve never played a Wolfenstein game before, don’t worry, you don’t need to know anything to get caught up (even though this is a sequel to 2009’s Wolfenstein). Just understand that while this is a World War II-flavored first-person shooter, it’s not like the early Call Of Duty or Medal Of Honor games, or any other realistic WWII shooter. Instead, because of the occult influence and counterfactual story, the World War II in Wolfenstein: The New Order is more like the one you know from Hellboy comics, the Nazi zombie parts of the Call Of Duty: Black Ops games, and the Hydra stuff from the first Captain America movie.
Which is why you’ll not only use energy weapons and advanced machine guns to shoot Nazis, you’ll also use them to shoot Nazis in mech suits, Nazis robots, Nazi robot dogs, and Nazi cyborg dogs. And because it’s a Wolfenstein game, you also eat food to replenish some of your health, stumble across a secret room or two, and carry an arsenal of weaponry larger than any you’ve had in a while.
But while the main bad guy is named Deathshead — What, were Baron Werner Ünderbheit IV and Girl Hitler busy? — and the big robot dogs are a little goofy, Wolfenstein: The New Order actually takes this counterfactual vision of a Nazi-controlled world seriously. There’s no stupid jokes about Adolf Presley or Jerry Lee Luftwaffe, for instance. Instead, you have a fully realized vision of what Europe would look like if Hitler’s master plan had succeeded, complete with all the Teutonic architecture, weaponry, and clothing you’d expect.
What really makes Wolfenstein: The New Order work so well, though, is that while it is in the spirit of the older Wolfenstein games, its mechanics, controls, and gameplay are all rooted in more recent first-person shooters.
For starters, its smooth controls — which include a slight aim assist — and intuitive button layout will feel familiar to anyone who’s played Call Of Duty, Battlefield, or any other big first-person-shooter in the last five years. Well, ten years, actually, since this lets you dual wield weapons like you’re Master Chief in 2004’s Halo 2. Which come in handy since Wolfenstein: The New Order also shares those games’ fondness for frantic firefights, where you’re being attacked from all sides by multiple enemies, as well as their love of explosive, cinematic moments and plot twists.
Wolfenstein: The New Order does, however, have some of its own tricks. While many of the places you’ll visit are drab, industrial grey — Nazis aren’t big on pastels — the game does a good job of mixing open areas and narrow corridors, often within the same space. This doesn’t just give the firefights some variety, though. It also sometimes gives you a tactical advantage, since you can use alternate pathways to sneak up behind enemies and take them out all quiet-like.
These are not the only times you’ll use stealth, though, since Wolfenstein: The New Order has a couple missions where you’re armed only with a knife and some quiet shoes. Which isn’t to say this turns into Splinter Cell: Blacklist — you don’t toss bottles to distract anyone, or move their bodies so they won’t be found — instead, it’s more like how you hit people with your gun from behind in most shooters so you can thin out the herd.
While Wolfenstein: The New Order is quite fun, it’s not without its issues. The most annoying of which is that instead of automatically grabbing ammo and other supplies when you walk over them, you have to pick stuff up manually. Which may not seem like a big deal…until you realize that when you do pick up supplies, you never get a lot at any one time. And since there’s always so much lying around after a battle — along with tons of collectibles and readable documents — you end up spending half your time picking stuff up.
Adding insult to injury, B.J. doesn’t always remember to switch guns when the one he’s using runs out of ammo. Which, also annoyingly, happens more often than it should.
Wolfenstein: The New Order also does a good job of breaking up the shooting with some other mission types, including some that have you committing vehicular manslaughter, the aforementioned stealth stuff, and even times when you run errands around the building where you’re staying. On their own, these moments provide a respite from all the runnin’ and a gunnin’. The problem is that, at one point deep in the game, one of the errand bits is followed by a stealth mission and then more errands. As a result, the game briefly (though not fatally) loses its momentum.
It also doesn’t help that the Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order aren’t always the most situationally-aware bunch. On many occasions, I was able to take out a cyborg dog without alerting his master, who was standing right next to his pooch. Though when they are aware of you, the Nazis do a good job of trying to avoid your bullets by ducking, and even sliding into cover (though, as you will also learn, not all cover in this game will cover you for long). They’re also not pushovers, as many of them are heavily armored.
Some might also lament that Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn’t have any multiplayer. Especially those who remember how much fun it was to play Call Of Duty: World At War online. But while it would be fun to battle other people with these weapons, especially if you could go mech-o a mech-o, the lack of multiplayer isn’t as big a deal here as it was in BioShock and BioShock Infinite.
Wolfenstein: The New Order also has a problem so common these days that I now just cut and paste this paragraph into almost every game review I do (seriously, go check): the type is too small. Unless you sit really, really close to your TV — y’know, like your mama told you not to — you’ll have a hard time reading any documents you find, the button prompts, and the captions. The latter of which is especially bad since a bunch of the dialog is in German, naturally, but the captions are often presented as white type against light backgrounds.
Despite these issues, though, Wolfenstein: The New Order is still an effortlessly fun first-person-shooter, as well as a great Wolfenstein game. Which is exactly what I was hoping it would be. Because while there’s always something satisfying about shooting a Nazi, it’s so much better when the shooting is just as fun, too.