Wolfenstein: The New Order is unapologetically old-school, yet is aware of and acknowledges modern shooter sensibilities. It brilliantly walks the very fine line between genuine, heartfelt storytelling and the cheesiest of clichés. It manages to turn what could have been a corridor shooting trudge-fest into a tense, white-knuckle thrill ride.
The New Order has all the hallmarks of big-action event cinema. Adventure, revenge, romance, Nazis and big set pieces that leave you speechless. Like action-movie classic True Lies, Wolfenstein: TNO is under no allusions regarding its identity. It knows what it is, who its audience is and what they want from it. And it delivers in spades.
The year is 1946 and William ‘BJ’ Blazkowicz is onboard a warplane heading to General Deathshead’s compound in the final days of World War II. But before you can question World War II ending in 1945, there’s no need to; this is just how it is in TNO. MachineGames’ depiction of the second great war is set in an alternate history. One in which the “Nazi war machine advances at an astonishing rate”, according to Captain Blazkowicz. The attack on Deathshead’s compound is critical and if it fails the Allies will lose Europe.
Upon crash-landing at Deathshead’s compound, it’s immediately clear that something is amiss. The Nazi weaponry and arsenal seem far too advanced and powerful. There’s little time to ponder this though as BJ and company can’t get the job done; they’re captured by Deathshead and the Nazis emerge victorious. While Blazkowicz manages to escape, he’s severely injured and left in a catatonic state for the next 14 years, being cared for in a psychiatric hospital by a Polish girl named Anya. The Nazis use the facility’s occupants as their own private medical research subjects, but eventually reach the decision to close the hospital down and kill its remaining patients. The threat of death, coupled with the feelings he’s developed for Anya spur BJ into action. For the first time in 14 years he takes a step… and, plunges a knife into a Nazi soldier’s throat. After freeing Anya, BJ and her set off to find the resistance and defeat the Nazis. Their journey takes them to Berlin, London, a concentration camp and even the Moon.
Of course the Nazis would build a lab on the Moon.
Playing TNO was not how I had imagined. I expected a big, dumb shooter in which I’d be filling bullet sponge after bullet sponge with hot lead. What I got was a thoughtful, well crafted and expertly paced shooter that was more about stealth than going in guns blazing. That said, the aggressive types among us can certainly play how they’d like.
The freedom of choice afforded to the player is one of TNO‘s greatest strengths, and why I enjoyed playing it so much. Even though the choice is usually between stealth or an all out assault, there are various ways to accomplish each approach. Players will — and should — be able to complete each level in a multitude of ways and feel satisfied. One of TNO’s greatest successes comes from allowing the player to truly feel freedom within what are essentially linear levels. Finding a new branching path or alternate approach never failed to excite me while plotting many a Nazi’s demise.
Speaking of killing Nazis, TNO isn’t short on options there either. Beginning the game with the simple pistol and assault rifle, Blazkowicz’s arsenal balloons over the course of the game to include all manner of death-dealing weaponry. The first-person-shooter mainstays are all accounted for as BJ acquires shotguns, sniper rifles and grenades, but a person favourite is the LKW or Lazerkraftwerk. A deliciously destructive device that can literally disintegrate an enemy when fully charged. Gibs ahoy!
Being able to dual-wield every weapon type — except the LKW — is a great callback to the bygone days of FPS. It also makes the player feel like an incredible and unstoppable badass. You try to tell me it’s not infinitely cool to carry two laser firing sniper rifles. Things can get a little awkward when changing weapons, especially in the heat of battle, as Triangle (or Y) is used to switch back to the previous weapon. However, pressing the button will only cycle between the previous and current weapon. To switch to anything else the R1 (RB) button must be held until the weapon wheel appears.
The R1 button is also used to throw grenades, so there is no option to ‘cook’ them. That’s not such a problem since their fuse is quite short, but more than once I accidentally threw a grenade rather than switching weapons… which gave away my position and quickly got me killed.
Enemies in TNO are not the brightest bunch. In fact, they’re pretty stupid. They’ll try to flank you — sort of — and will take cover, but for the most part they’ll die easily and quickly. Some may take issue with this, but for me it felt right. It suits the game’s style thematically and mechanically. BJ is a killing machine, so it makes sense that he’s much better, faster and smarter at fighting than Nazi grunts. It also seems appropriate that an enemy force used to being in supreme command and without an opponent would become a little soft around the middle. These Nazis haven’t seen active combat in years, of course they’re terrible at it.
Mechanically, it makes sense to send waves of idiotic enemies at the player. Their sheer numbers can overwhelm despite their intelligence; if you don’t use your own head, it’ll result in quick and frequent deaths. This is not a game that holds hands or panders. It’s fast and hard and ruthless, just like its antagonists. The shooting in TNO isn’t revolutionary, nor is it groundbreaking, but that’s not the point. It’s hard to complain when the shooting mechanics feel so solid and enjoyable.
In an age of shooters seeming like they’re in an arms race to one-up each other, it’s a nice surprise to see that gimmickry — for the most part — has no place in TNO. Aside from one or two set pieces there are no one-and-done features or weapons. Rather than relying on the ‘wow’ factor of “Press X to fire the big gun” type cutscenes we’ve grown accustomed to, TNO lets players create their own moments. MachineGames has provided the tools and it’s up to the players to use them how they see fit.
Wolfenstein: The New Order managed to surprise me not only with its unexpected gameplay but also with its excellent narrative. I went in with an open — yet admittedly skeptical — mind, yet from the word go it’s clear that a deft hand expertly guided the plotting of the game through some treacherous waters. It would have been so easy for TNO to succumb to genre clichés and video game tropes simply to become a parody of itself, yet it manages to avoid this pitfall.
These days, with mass media saturation and World War II being about as old-hat a setting as you can find, it’s easy to forget the horror that people experienced in that time. TNO doesn’t gloss over these facts, and while it doesn’t go so far as to truly show the player the true face of war, it doesn’t shy away from it either. Even when the story gets heavy it never gets heavy-handed. Somehow the development team nailed the tone from beginning to end. It’s a true achievement and testament to its writing and characterisation, minus a couple cringeworthy — yet harmless — moments of pure cheese.
Often, games cop flak for not being innovative or pushing boundaries, but it’s important to remember that not every game needs to. Innovation for the sake of innovation is just as pointless and boring as stagnation. Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t an innovative, genre defining game, but that’s not a negative. It benefits greatly from simply being what it is: a rock solid, perfectly-paced story-driven FPS. Nothing more, nothing less. The journey from 1946 to 1960 is a gripping one and one that’s definitely worth seeing. Skeptics may shake their heads and many may malign the lack of multiplayer, but that’s just knee-jerkery, plain and simple. When presented with a tight, tuned and fun game like Wolfenstein: The New Order, your best course of action is to sit down, play and bask in the greatness beaming out of your TV or monitor.
Wolfenstein: The New Order