Can you believe that Wolfenstein has only seen four home console installments since Wolfenstein 3D was crammed onto an SNES cartridge back in the mid ‘90s? Being one of the oldest names in the book when it comes to first-person shooters, Wolfenstein has a legacy most brands can only dream of achieving, and it has somehow remained relevant all these years despite a conservative number of releases. With the latest entry in the series coming from a new developer, on new hardware, and lacking a multiplayer component, does Wolfenstein: The New Order have what it takes to survive in a new generation? Now that we've blasted and tiptoed our way through MachineGames' (comprised of ex-Starbreeze Studios staff) debut effort, we can answer that with a "yes." Well, mostly.
In this alternate reality, the Nazis won World War II and now reign over the globe. To say that times are dire would be an understatement equal in size to the blast radius of an atomic bomb. Series protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz — a sergeant in the United States Army before the collapse of the nation — rallies a resistance with one goal: dismantle the Nazi empire while simultaneously sending them to hell. The story itself isn’t great, per se, but its ability to keep the setting fresh, the gameplay revolving, and its commitment to featuring a steady stream of lively personalities, earned our full attention and kept us always-interested in what was around the next corner.
Where many contemporary first-person shooters appear more concerned with pure spectacle than they do dynamic gameplay, The New Order does things more akin to the old(er) regime. While most levels push you from point A to B in linear fashion, there are always a slew of branching pathways and numerous offshoots to explore. To keep the action ripe and interesting, there is more variety than simply brainlessly blasting away armored Nazis and oppressive robots. Solving an ancient puzzle miles under the sea, quietly exploring a concentration camp with little more than a knife, and partaking in a half dozen or so fetch quests means it’s not all about guns. On occasion, you’ll even command various vehicles – though these are mostly brief and take place during scripted sequences. Balancing large-scale destruction and unapologetic gruesomeness with plenty of intimate and personal moments, results in more depth than the typical testosterone-fuelled bullet-fest.
When it comes to controls, FPS fans should be able to pick up a controller and instantly have a grasp on the button mapping and the feel of the actions. There is, however, one minor shakeup that does have an effect on the way you play, and that’s the implementation of a manual lean mechanic to the left bumper. When hiding behind cover, hold in LB and move the joystick to the left and right to peek and fire around walls and objects. This is essential at times, and instills a better sense of strategy than if you were just running-and-gunning. But for those of you that prefer firing ferociously without aiming down the sights, hip-firing is effective and accurate.
In fact, shooting mechanics and gunplay are smooth and satisfying overall, with a diverse, if predicable, lineup of weapons to choose from. Outside of the standard pistols, assault rifles, shotguns and snipers, you'll acquire a powerful laser that needs to be recharged at outlets throughout the environments after every few shots. This weapon is also a utility that is required to cut through chains sealing pathways and also melt openings into fences and steel panels. Even though it’s a pain to recharge so frequently, especially during the peak of a battle, this is an interesting weapon that meaningfully affects the way you play the game.
Completing various tasks with weapons will unlock perks that enhance gameplay abilities. For instance, logging five kills with a pistol from cover or tallying kills with throwing knives, can grant weapon upgrades or quicker health regeneration. This perk system is a comfortable addition and it provides a challenging secondary agenda throughout the campaign for those who like that sort of thing. Not into it? You can completely ignore it and you'll likely unlock numerous perks indirectly throughout your playtime. It's a nice extra layer on top of a game already brimming with variety, depth, and personality.
With stealth being proposed in most situations, and occasionally required, the freedom of approach lets you play how you want to. Don’t expect to be moving around like Sam Fischer or anything, but if you can make your way through a dense courtyard or warehouse without sounding an alarm, well, things will be a hell of a lot easier for Blazkowicz. On the downside, though, there are levels where you nor there Nazis will be armed with guns, and knives are the primary means of survival. It’s in these moments that the enemy AI moves in a lackadaisical manner, barely reacting to your presence and putting up little fight when they’re being attacked. Due to the infrequency of these circumstances, it’s not a huge deal; but it’s unrealistic and the lack of difficulty is out of place compared to the rest of the campaign.
The mission structure and level design walks the line between modern and archaic, usually concocting a mix of the both for the better of the experience. But there are instances when the primitive design choices will degrade your enjoyment. First, ammo, armor, and health are so excessively strewn about floors, countertops and crates, that clearing a room all too often becomes a collectathon. Instead of merely standing over or near an item and pressing X to collect it, you must aim at the item with such pin-point precision to even be prompted with the option. This is an annoyance that persists throughout the entire campaign because it slows down progression and can also lead to unnecessary reloads in the middle of bullet-hell scenarios. Then, somehow, after all of that constant collection of ammo, it’s still common to deplete your reserves almost effortlessly.
Another example of this is how easy it is to die, and how often it’ll occur. Here and there the ante is upped by seemingly never-ending waves of enemies. Going up against these insurmountable odds while rushing out in the open to recover needed ammo from fallen foes, can quickly become a slaughter fest where Blazkowicz is the one meeting his maker. There is also the case of objectives not being as clear as they could be. On multiple occasions we were thrust into a situation detailed with a short explanation but not enough description of what needed to be done. At times figuring things out for yourself is rewarding and enjoyable, but then there are times where wandering around a large space trying to find the item of interest or way forward stagnates the momentum and rips you out of the moment.
Throughout the first half of the game we were, for the most part, head over heels with all of the elements that differentiate the The New Order from shooters of recent years. Then, around the halfway point, that feeling was intermittently subdued by difficulty spikes that revolve around boundless supplies of enemies that push the player into a corner with limited resources. In these situations the intensity of the gameplay is brought to a halt, and we found ourselves attempting to exploit the slowest, safest method of attack to avoid split-second deaths that reset you at the start of a lengthy checkpoint. This — along with the other unpolished, primitive edges – is what keeps The New Order from being the great game it’s so close to being.
Thankfully, a rock solid technical performance continuously works to apologize for any turbulence. With many Xbox One games struggling to run at a smooth 60 frames per second, we’re happy to report that The New Order not only appears to hit that mark, but never seems to drop below it. Regardless of how much action bombards to the screen or how quick you move, there isn’t a hint of screen tearing, either – a blemish all too common so far this generation. While the graphics and environments might not appear to fully capitalize on “next-gen” power, this is a pretty great looking game that could be likened to Rage in terms of detail and fidelity. When consistency is the name of the game, it’s hard to whine about a few awkward polygons in the character models and the occasionally drab environment, when the overall integrity of the presentation is never compromised.
The campaign is a rollercoaster ride of sorts, with memorable locations and scenarios, a handful of boss battles, and soaring highs sometimes matched by low lows. For those beat down by the stern challenge, even on the normal setting, there are multiple difficulty options that can be accessed from the pause menu. If you find yourself getting frustrated early on, we recommend dialing back the difficulty in response to ensure maximum enjoyment and thwart off potential controller-meets-TV-screen scenarios. When it’s all said and done, expect to spend roughly 10-12 hours to reach the end credits.
But even with those degrading bits we confidently recommend The New Order to shooter fans looking for something to tide them over between the year’s biggest releases. Whether that means investing at full price, securing a weekend rental, or waiting for a bargain price down the line, is up to you. Without any sort of multiplayer, it’s hard to say that this is a game that needs to be played immediately, but it is one that we think should be played by anyone interested. General Deathshead — the lead bad guy — isn't going to kill himself you know.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a blast from the past that many will surely see as a breath of fresh air. While some archaic design choices and patience-testing difficulty spikes will attempt to compromise your enjoyment on occasion, the moments to follow generally smooth over any past transgressions. It's a campaign built around memorable settings, circumstances and characters, with gameplay that allows for the freedom and variety to keep things fresh and interesting throughout. When you top that off with an impressive technical performance, you have a game that's positively worth playing despite its shortcomings.