If we had a scale to measure a sort of "grin-inducement factor", Wolfenstein: The New Order would frequently be maxing it out, much of which has to do with the merry gusto with which MachineGames have gone about their business.
It's a shooter that remembers what dual-wielding automatic shotguns is actually all about: a feeling of hysterical power, frequently followed by breathless silence as you empty yourself of all ammo and take a look at the carnage you've wrought as the smoke clears. It's a game that understands the attraction of stealth even when you're bristling with guns, and the importance of making every takedown and knife throw satisfying in accomplishment, and deliciously rewarding in terms of feedback. It's a game that reimplements the FPS lean mechanism when the brightest modern staples have abandoned it.
It might be my favourite throwaway FPS campaign since Singularity.
Our bull-necked hero, William "B.J." Blazkowicz, kicks things off by smashing an Allied assault into the walls of the Nazi General Deathshead's fortress of nightmares. The year is 1946. The assault doesn't quite go to plan, and a spot of bother leads to Blazkowicz spending the next fourteen years in an asylum having been catatonic for almost a decade and a half. In that time, however, the Nazis have won the war thanks to a bunch of giant robots and laser cannons, the Allies have surrendered, and just as Blazkowicz begins to recognise the world around him once more, a bunch of Nazi troops swarm the asylum, start killing the patients and the owners, and our gravelly-voice protagonist has to blast his way out, pausing to save his nurse on the way.
Taking the fight to the Nazis is an absolute hoot. MachineGames, a studio founded by some of Starbreeze's leading luminaries, have shown real top-tier pedigree with this debut outing. The aiming feels responsive, the feedback to each of the guns is pleasantly meaty and precisely balanced, supported by some outstanding sound design that makes every single weapon in the game feel impactful in some fashion, from the boom, blast and ruin of the explosives, to the punchy, muted zip of a silenced pistol, or the grisly, wet sound of a blade piercing flesh. Having the grenade and weapon menu functions mapped to the same button seems a little odd at first, but I never once had an actual issue where I'd accidentally bring up the radial weapon select rather than tossing a boomstick.
Stealth is implemented in simple fashion here -- crouch to sneak, and try to stay out of sight. The enemy AI is not the most curious we've ever seen, and it sometimes takes a little bit of jumping around directly in front of them to lure them away from their scripted areas, but The New Order is not a game that's really about skulking around for too long. It's more a case of speedy, satisfying stealth. There are officers dotted here and there who can sound alarms if they spot, conjuring more and more troops until you silence them, but you can detect their radio transmitters, so hunting them is fairly easy too...so long as you take care of any armoured dogs in the area beforehand. Peeking around corners by holding down L1 and leaning left or right or over to check the coast is clear is a doddle. Everything feels wonderfully fluid and handles like a treat.
There are some welcome old-school touches here and there. Separate health and armour ratings are welcome, with the former only regenerating up to the first twenty points. Overdrives from supplemental health packs, and the return of munching dog food for a little life boost are welcome elements. It's also nice to have an uncluttered HUD, free of brightly flashing waypoints and objective markers, encouraging players to soak up the details a little more, and MachineGames have done a fine job of ensuring that there are things to take in, adding to the world-building. Perks are won organically through gameplay -- killing a certain number of guards with the throwing knives will up your carrying capacity, for example. It's a smooth system that works well and allows players to get on with more important things as the game automatically rewards you for doing things your own way.
That being said, it's not long before a feeling of familiarity sets in. The New Order is not particularly imaginative when it comes to the actual framing of the action itself. MachineGames have nailed the thrill of squeezing both triggers and mowing down platoons of pixellated soldiers, but after the first few levels, combat encounters begin to feel less fresh, less exciting, and not enough is done to vary the one-note, monotone feel that begins to creep into every run in with your Nazi foes. Once you've unlocked most of the Perks and seen most of the foes that the game will throw at you, The New Order begins to lose its lustre a little as linearity and ammo-sponge enemy spamming become the order of the day. One could argue that Wolfenstein has never exactly been synonymous with the most sophisticated of shooters, but we're not going to make excuses for a next-gen game just because it has an old name.
It's a problem that's unfortunately exacerbated by the game's wayward tone. In both form and function, MachineGames' shooter swings wildly between moods. One moment it seems to be an almost cartoon-esque romp. The next, there's a scene that attempts to take a harsh look at the realities of war and the cruelties of men. Then there's a robot dog. And then B.J. is off doing his laughably solemn, hilariously written monologues again. There's a levity here that fits the style of the game, but every so often you get the feeling that MachineGames almost feel ashamed to commit to that, instead seeking to force a tension and a seriousness that requires more consistency.
It's a shame, too, because there are some interesting, well-worked characters here, though the script never quite gives them their dues. The backstories for your nurse, Anya, and the former-Nazi, Klaus, who each play their part in the resistance that you join early on, are nuanced and horrific and thought-provoking. There are moments when The New Order almost strikes resemblances to the Metro games, especially when you're rooted deep within semi-recognisable places in this alternative history such as Berlin. The moments of respite in your base of operations, with banned art and books and music stack floor to ceiling, are wonderfully detailed, but feel a little out of place, such is the ridiculousness elsewhere.
There are other, smaller little inconsistencies that grate too. For a game that seems to be about speed, even where stealth is concerned, having to manually pick up every single bit of ammo and armour instead of just moving over these items proves really annoying, especially if you're in a firefight, you're down to your last sliver of health, and you need to perfectly execute a slide and a med kit snatch in order to get back in the fray. Blazkowicz himself is a little problematic too -- at times bloodthirsty, uncaring beast, at times the world's worst philosopher. His monologues are horrifically painful on the ears (despite some rather worthy voice acting) -- another forced mechanism to try and make The New Order more than just a big, dumb shooter.
But big, dumb shooter is exactly what this game is. There's not enough variety in terms of the guns or the enemies or the level design to make The New Order an action classic, and MachineGames' attempts to introduce some brevity fall fairly flat. I'd love to see a game that really embraces the latter and deals with the horrors of this fascinating alternate history properly, but this isn't it.
Thing is, I can't be down on Wolfenstein for that. As soon as I finished the game, I wanted to play it again -- the are unlocks and collectibles and smatterings of contextual news clippings and letters that add more to the world. Moreover, the game is just lots of fun. Big, dumb, fun. The New Order might be a thematic, tonal mess, but it keeps slapping a great big grin on my face, and MachineGames' alternate history is a fascinating one, even if it's not quite explored as fully as I might like. My biggest gripe, though, is that at full price, for a singleplayer only game, you can't afford to be a mess. News has just rolled in that Wolfenstein had the second biggest launch of the year thus far, but I'd say that says more about this year than this game. It's the sort of game you wait a few weeks for and pick up once its £10-15 below RRP.
You'll probably have a blast when you do, mind.
- It's a rollercoaster ride of FPS boom, blast, and ruin
- Absolutely nails the basics
- Dual-wielding is glorious
- As are the simple-but-effective stealth and leaning mechanics
- Captivating alternate history setting...
- Plenty of secrets and collectibles to find
- ...Even if the story squanders it a bit
- Horribly inconsistent in tone
- Not the greatest variety in terms of weapons or combat strategies
- Full RRP -- no multiplayer
The Short Version: Wolfenstein: The New Order is big, dumb, fun no matter how much MachineGames might have tried to force it to be otherwise. The alternative history explored here is fascinating, if a little under-explored, but it's the boom and the blast that'll keep FPS fans coming back. A respectably lengthy game with modern looks but buckets of old-school spirit, The New Order is a silly, inconsistent, overblown treat. But give it a couple of weeks.
Platforms: PC | PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One | PS3 | Xbox 360
Publishers: Bethesda Softworks