The Nazis dropped an atomic bomb on Manhattan. The Second World War was won by the Third Reich. The world’s most powerful nations fell like dominoes to the fascist regime as they tightened their iron grip, weeding out the weaker members of society, the vulnerable and the different as they went. The resistance has been crushed under the heel of Aryan supremacy. A new building material enables super strong concrete to quickly build enormous structures that blight the landscapes of conquered nations.
Machine Games’ Wolfenstein: The New Order plays out its own altered timeline in succession from the 2009 game by Raven. The lengthy prologue is largely classic Wolfenstein, with you attacking and then escaping a Nazi stronghold in a castle in 1946. B.J. Blazkowicz is once again our all-action protagonist but this WWII prologue mission simply serves to set up the meat of the game.
A tragedy befalls Blazkowicz and he ends up suffering a lengthy convalescence under the care of a nurse called Anya and her parents. He spends fourteen silent years in a vegetative state, watching helplessly as the Nazi terror squads regularly arrive to steal away recovering residents for experimentation. When the hospital is subjected to a more damaging attack, B.J. is finally ready to start fighting back. His oft-repeated and, even in the presence of some attempts to engender emotional attachment, primary character motivation is the joy of killing Nazis.
At times, the game shows an adroitness in setting up the kind of characters that are quite unsettling and that really helps with building tension but it sometimes feels like those characters aren’t explored particularly well so are left feeling a little one-dimensional – perhaps solely because of an eagerness to return to the rather base motivations of the protagonist himself, and his general air of invincibility.
As you make your escape and Blazkowicz comes to terms with the length of his recovery, the player is treated to a gradual reveal of a very different 1960. It’s a bleak world and one with a very tangible sense of tension that the game does a great job of picking out from time to time. At key moments, between bouts of mindless Nazi-slaughtering mayhem, the player is pushed into very restricted situations that encourage stealth or set up a jump-scare in a kind of survival-horror-lite way that is quite a change from the usual all-action gameplay.
Whereas the prologue mission – probably deliberately – feels very old-fashioned in its narrow hallways and point-to-point progression, the bulk of the game – once you’re into the 1960s – has evolved too. It still has its confined spaces but they generally link much larger areas of the often maze-like maps that can usually be approached in a number of ways.
Stealth is encouraged by the presence of commanders in many areas. If you can kill these commanders without being spotted, you gain their knowledge of the collectibles in the level. If you’re seen by them before you manage to carry out the assassination, they sound an alarm that calls in reinforcements and makes your immediate future that much more Nazi-ridden. It’s a nicely executed idea that gives the gameplay another facet, even though the enemy AI is a little hard of hearing and not at all observant.
It could reasonably be argued that Wolfenstein games have never been too keen on embracing tactical approaches or strategic methods of play so it’s not entirely unexpected that the enemies tend to follow rigid patrol routes, attack in straight lines and leave cover at a time that’s most convenient to your waiting shotgun. But the short-sightedness and rote patrols do detract slightly from the tension of the stealthy approach that is otherwise encouraged.
The prologue has one other profound impact on the rest of the game too. Towards the end of the mission you’re forced to make a choice which then branches the timelines and opens up one of two slightly different skills in addition to the incremental unlocking of various perks as you play, based on whether you’re favouring stealthy, tactical, assault or explosive approaches.
One of the choices at the end of the prologue mission gives you a lock picking ability and armour upgrades while the other allows you to hotwire certain locks and gain health upgrades. Your choice manifests later in the game too, with different characters being available for certain moments in the story’s progression. For a game without a multiplayer mode, it gives some extra incentive to replay the 15 hours or more of story.
You might find more incentive to replay in the amount of collectibles that are there too. Records, papers, fragments of Enigma codes that unlock four additional game modes, treasures and plenty of gun upgrades all mean that there’s every reason to explore each map as thoroughly as you can and you can replay completed chapters to pick up anything you might have missed on your first run through.
You will also encounter short optional side missions in certain areas like finding a series of lost toys or recovering a treasured item for someone. Most of these seemed to pop up at your home base, which is a dilapidated series of rooms that house a plethora of newspaper clippings that provide backstory as well as the set-up cutscenes for the next step of your adventure. It’s also where you’ll engage in a series of more sedated fetch quests that ostensibly gather the necessary intelligence or materials for the next mission.
In many ways The New Order feels slightly old fashioned in the way you still have to pick up ammunition, health and armour with a button press as you pass over it and your health only regenerates back up to the nearest multiple of twenty, otherwise you’re collecting health packs. There’s a nice retro “overcharge” ability for health too, you can stack health packs over your maximum but the total will gradually return to your maximum over time. That’s not a bad thing though, much of Wolfenstein’s allure is that it has such a long and storied heritage – something which it plays on quite regularly throughout the campaign.
It’s not just about the mechanical beasties and super soldiers, either, there are other elements that hark back to the seminal first person shooter and plenty of smaller touches that make this game feel very much a part of the id Software lineage. For one thing, the shotgun is suitably meaty and dual-wielding it makes for some very satisfying blood-eruptions when faced with a room full of jackbooted fascists.
While the game is generally a little rough around the edges in terms of its presentation, there are some very striking moments of graphical fidelity, particularly in some of the cutscenes. Unfortunately, there is a persistent and mildly frustrating texture fade-in issue as new areas load and the audio mixing on the surround channels meant that speech was regularly very quiet in comparison to ambient sound.
The New Order is unlikely to feature in many Game of the Year lists and it does have a few areas where perhaps it could have benefitted from a little more polish. Shooter fans, and especially those who remember the halcyon days of id’s seminal shotgun-and-chainsaw, blood-soaked titans, shouldn’t let that put them off. It’s clearly not perfect but it is a very enjoyable and respectably lengthy shooter that embraces its heritage while successfully striving to evolve its core gameplay in a new and interesting direction.
Version tested: PS4