Wolfenstein: The New Order Review
When Wolfenstein: The New Order was revealed at E3 last year, I did a bit of a shrug.
Its creative director, Andreas Öjerfors, was promising big things in interviews – a grown-up, character-driven story that would take series hero B.J. Blaskowicz’s flat, pixelated history and inflate him into a 3D character with cares and woes and personality, like some horrible sentient balloon.
Then the interviews would cut footage of the same heavily scripted segment of B.J. being chased round and round a courtyard by a robot dog.
It looked like what I expected a next-gen Wolfenstein to look like: guns and setpieces and all-American heroics. And make no mistake: Wolfenstein: The New Order has those things in bucket-loads.
But it’s also so much smarter than that. Let me tell you about it while I chomp on this hat.
The game finds its groove right from the off, with B.J. in a 1940s war plane, spearheading an invasion of Nazi territory on a mission to kill Deathshead, a German scientist as benevolent as he is handsome.
You’re shaken awake by Fergus, an instantly likeable Scottish war vet with an endearingly creative approach to swearing. Before you can bond properly, the invasion force runs into German AA emplacements, and minutes after starting the game you’re blowing up Nazi fighters from a nose-mounted turret and leaping from a burning plane to another.
Welcome to Wolfenstein.
Wolfenstein: The New Order Review – Call Of Duty, Dishonored & Stealth
The action is – with the exception of a few flabbier bits of what feel like padding in the middle – tightly scripted in this way throughout.
But while the structure borrows from CoD, Wolfenstein is smart enough to pick and choose gameplay elements from other successful series and stitch them into something great.
Sure, the first time you loot a downed Nazi and see the option to dual-wield the assault rifle, it’s hard to think why you wouldn’t just plough through the rest of the game with a weapon in each hand, hosing down waves of facist footsoldiers.
But while that’s always viable (and entertaining), Wolfenstein also cribs from Dishonored, of all things, presenting many areas with multiple paths.
For example, at one point you’re faced with the problem of how to cross a heavily defended Nazi checkpoint. Now clearly, old B.J. would have just grabbed himself a couple of semi-auto shotguns and blown the gate of its hinges.
But new B.J. has another option: scout around and find a broken drain, then sneak under the wall and bump the guards off one by one, Corvo-style.
And while plenty of games try to crowbar in stealth and get it horribly wrong, in Wolfenstein, that’s primarily how I played: sneaking up onto roofs, studying guards’ patrol routes through a sniper scope, then finding the window where I could shiv them in the back or cap them with a silenced pistol without their goose-stepping buddies being any the wiser.
This type of gameplay comes alive in the game’s big, open areas – a guard camp or underground railway, for example.
In each area you’ve guards to clear out, but also one or two commanders who will radio for reinforcements if they see you or find a body. Offing them first is your top priority, and at its best, feels just like similar stages in Metro: Last Light.
Skulking about in the dark and leaving an area full of dead stormtroopers without setting off an alarm feels great.
Wolfenstein: The New Order Review – Perks & Experience
The perk system is cleverly tuned to fit this sort of gameplay, too.
Instead of earning experience points and then picking your own level-up path, you unlock perks for completing specific challenges – getting a certain number of kills with throwing knives, for example.
It works for two reasons. In the beginning, it helps you develop a proficiency in your chosen playstyle – if you’re sneaky and thoughtful, you’ll start moving more quietly and dealing more damage with the silenced pistol, while if you’re more of an 80s action hero sort, you’ll be able to sprint faster with two guns or carry grenades that explode on impact.
It makes you feel good, quickly.
But later in the game, it also encourages you to experiment. After four or five hours, I’d pretty much maxed out my stealth abilities – but almost all the perks for heavy weapons remained locked.
You can see in the perks menu what you need to do to unlock what, so I started tip-toeing outside of my sneaky comfort zone.
When I came to an area, I might still creep about, but only so I could get to that heavy laser turret, rip it off its mounting and lumber around the area pouring death onto all the reinforcements called in by the panicked commander.
And while you’d expect combat to be the focus of a Wolfenstein game, MachineGames have done a very nifty job of tying its shootier moments together with a story that is not only exciting, but even poignant at times.
Wolfenstein: The New Order Review – A Surprising Story
Without spoiling things too much, B.J. is put out of commission for a while near the beginning of the game and comes to more than a decade later, during which time the Nazis have become the dominant global superpower.
B.J., as a swaggering, musclebound action beefcake, doesn’t understand.
Sitting round a dinner table with an old Polish couple who are hiding him, he tells them that his first priority is to contact the US military, to let them know he’s alive.
But there is no US military. The US surrendered to the Nazis years ago. What about the resistance? There is no resistance. The war’s over, the Nazis won and heroes like B.J. failed.
There’s plenty more backstory, if you want it, strewn around the game in the form of newspaper clippings, letters and documents, and it’s impressively comprehensive stuff.
The Nazi dominion of the world isn’t just a plot gimmick to give the player something to shoot at – read everything and you’ll find a whole, Fallout-style account of how the Nazis came to be the uncontested authority they are in B.J.’s world.
Every character you meet has a story to tell, if you can find them at the right moment (usually during the hub sections after B.J. finally does track down a rag-tag group of resistance fighters).
One guy in particular had been annoying me in our hidden camp: a black guy who never seemed to do anything except stand around playing guitar, while the rest of the group planned the overthrow of the Reich.
I found him in his room and triggered his optional conversation. B.J., it turned out, shared my feelings that this guy should put down the guitar and pick up a rifle.
What I got back from him was a hateful story about a time his dad had taken him to the movies. He’d had to go in through a special door. When he asked for an ice cream, he was told that the cinema didn’t serve food to blacks.
As far as he was concerned, white soldiers like B.J. weren’t heroes – they were working for the government that had segregated and oppressed him and his family.
I was not expecting moments like this from Wolfenstein: The New Order.
Wolfenstein: The New Order Review – Showing Duke How It’s Done
All that said, it’s not a perfect game. From time to time, and especially in the hub sections of the resistance base, the game suffers from some almost mockingly superfluous padding.
Seemingly every time you return, you’ll be asked to go and fetch a cutting tool, or an item from the archive room, or something else that really could be delegated to one of the many people just standing about, and who aren’t getting ready to single-handedly storm a Nazi doom fortress.
Find your own welding tool, Mr. Scientist – I’ve got worlds to save.
Then are times where you play out segments that really could have been cutscenes in first-person, as in when BJ has to go to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve a magic plot macguffin from a secret Jewish laboratory.
It’s important to the story, but after fifteen minutes with nothing to shoot but the breeze, I could feel my trigger fingers starting to twitch.
It’s never so dull that you want to stop playing, but there are definitely moments when the pacing sags.
But those are minor quibbles – single missed stitches in a Nazi tapestry.
Where Duke Nukem Forever looked like an anachronism, Wolfenstein: The New Order is close to a masterclass in how to bring a favourite old franchise back into the modern mainstream.
It’s a wonderful surprise that absolutely lives up to its E3 promises, and, for the moment, might be the best shooter on PS4 and Xbox One.
Version tested: PS4