Wolfenstein: The New Order Review
First-person shooters have existed in some form for forty years, and have been a staple of mainstream video games for 20 of them. Indeed, it was 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D that helped create the genre as it was known for quite some time, crudely crystalizing some of the trends that dominated the games for years. Recently, however, many classic FPS hallmarks have fallen by the wayside in favor of increasingly more elaborate multi-player games, which ignore or even outright do away with storytelling in favor of a more immediately visceral experience. Now, Wolfenstein: The New Order, the newest game in the long-lasting FPS franchise, is here to see if there’s still some life in the old warhorse.
It’s 1946, and series hero B.J. Blazkowicz is participating in a massive raid on the compound of Nazi General Deathshead, but it goes wrong, and Blazkowicz slips into a coma… for 14 years. He wakes up to a world where the Nazis not only won the war, but conquered the vast bulk of the world, America included, and have introduced enormous, horrifying technological marvels to the world. Blazkowicz immediately jumps into the long-faded resistance movement and takes the fights to the streets, to the moon, even, at one point, to a concentration camp.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is still something of a throwback, though it borrows liberally from modern games as well. You have a set amount of health and armor, which you can only recharge by collecting items, a far cry from the Immortal God Warrior of today’s ‘cover recharge’ shooters, and one that amps up the drama considerably – something rarely seen today. The maps offer some exploration, more than many new games, but less than was typical in years past. And you blessedly lack a ‘squad’ that plays the game for you. But you also unlock perks as you play that enhance your playstyle – pulling off certain stealth maneuvers will unlock new abilities in that tree, while you can go in guns and grenades blazing and build up those skills. It’s a common feature in modern gaming, but it’s well implemented here, challenging you to pull off specific maneuvers and rewarding you when you do so.
Perhaps the game’s best surprise is its story. In an era where AAA video game writing ranges from amateurish to non-existent, Wolfenstein: The New Order definitely falls on the strong end of that spectrum. The content may be ridiculous – giant mechs and Nazi moonbases; we’re not in Gone Home territory here – but the game plays straight with its conceit, and finds a relatable human heart amidst the chaos. More than one, in fact. Protagonist BJ Blazkowicz is infinitely more relatable than the average nameless, faceless, voiceless hero in games like this (he’s a thug and a monster, but the game understands this and even plays, at times, with your expectations of what that means), and he’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Anya is a fairly fleshed-out character, and the other soldiers at your home base and over coms often also come alive throughout the game. One particularly memorable (and wonderfully easy to miss) segment finds you dropping acid and listening to some music with a character who is more than he first seems, but there are a lot of similarly interesting moments scattered through the game.
None of that would matter (… or would it?) if the gameplay was rubbish; thankfully, it isn’t, though there are some flaws. For the most part, it’s fairly typical for this genre. You have the option of stealth, cover-based combat, or run-and-gun arcade style fighting, though players will typically need to mix-and-match as the situation demands. You have a set amount of health, and a small mistake can force you to run through chunks of the level hovering near death, though health packs and armor are fairly plentiful, and it’s perilously easy to run out of ammo for your favorite weapons, forcing you to master them all. There are some minor flourishes to give it a little variety, though. Perhaps the best of them is the ability to cut small holes in certain areas of cover, basically creating small, impromptu loop holes to fire through for added protection.
One sizable flaw, at least on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, is the mapping of the shoulder keys. L2 aims and R2 fires, while R1 throws your grenade. While it seems like a fairly small issue, players used to the more typical modern controller map will likely take some time to adjust (and waste a number of grenades), and the game offers you no option to modify that mapping to better suit your preferred style, a sizable, easily fixed flaw.
I’m not someone who is going to speak excessively about graphical power, something I personally find to be almost meaningless in video games. I will, however, talk about something I find vastly more important: Design. And the game looks… good. Not spectacular – at this point, we’re so used to post-war dystopias in our games that it would be tough for a game to really stand out without breaking the obsessive ‘realism’ AAA titles demand – but functional. The 1960s setting could have been its saving grace, but the retro landscape only periodically comes out in any interesting ways, leaving us with fairly typical war iconography. The game comes a bit more visually alive when its sci-fi and horror elements are highlighted, but I’d still like to have seen the designers really cut loose on more than one or two levels.
Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t a groundbreaking game. It lacks the high-concept hook of some of 2014’s flashier releases, like Watch Dogs or Titanfall, but it makes up ground where neither of those games did: In its writing, in its characters, in its core, boilerplate design. Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t going to blow your mind* or define a genre, but you’ll have a damn good time playing it regardless.
*Unless your mind is blown by how much fun it is to to dual-wield assault rifles or automatic shotguns. I know mine was.
My Rating: 4 / 5
For the purposes of this review, Wolfenstein: The New Order was played on the PlayStation 3. The game was released on the PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One on May 20th, 2014. It was developed by MachineGames and published by Bethesda Softworks.