After Spec Ops: The Line, I knew I could never play another military shooter again. At the very least, I knew that I could never take another one seriously. The game had taken all the ugly things about the genre, thrown them in my face, and asked, “Why do you enjoy this?” It was a question I really didn’t have an answer for, and once I’d seen the cracks in the walls, I couldn’t really look past them anymore. It’s one thing to know that they’re there off in the back of your mind, and another to have them shown to you in excruciating detail.
Put simply, the emperor has no clothes, and Activision and EA are hoping that they can dazzle you with enough explosions that you won’t notice. But me, well, I don’t know if I can kill any more soldiers in jingoistic crusades. The problem is that I love shooters. Thankfully, there are a few things that video games will never be able to make you feel bad about killing, and never try to: monsters, zombies, and Nazis (way to be on the same level as the rest of humanity, Nazis).
"There’s a story here, too, and a surprisingly serious, well-written and well-acted one that attempts to tackle a number of big ideas such as the horrors of war, discrimination, power, and even some metaphysical stuff."
It’s one of the things you expect from Wolfenstein, aside from the mountains of blood and gore, occult-powered super soldiers, and mechanized Nazi monsters: a conscience-free, Nazi blasting good time. And like every other entry in the series to date, Wolfenstein: The New Order delivers, and then some. Series protagonist William “B.J.” Blazkowicz was, as one character so aptly puts it, “born to kill Nazis,” and that is a tradition that The New Order upholds in a delightfully old-school manner.
But Wolfenstein isn’t just about shooting, stabbing, and strangling Nazis this time around. There’s a story here, too, and a surprisingly serious, well-written and well-acted one that attempts to tackle a number of big ideas such as the horrors of war, discrimination, power, and even some metaphysical stuff. Ol’ B.J. even gets some complex character moments and has a relationship with a nice Polish girl. This ain’t your daddy’s Wolfenstein.
But it starts out like it. The game takes place after the ridiculously underappreciated Raven Software’s 2009 reboot of the franchise, near the end of an alternate version of World War II. In this reality, it’s 1946, and the war still isn’t over yet. Worse still, the Nazis, led by General Wilhem “Deathshead” Strasse have gotten their hands on some extremely advanced technology that allows them to make weapons decades ahead of anything the Allies have and slowly but surely, the Allies are losing.
"The other big thing about The New Order is that you can dual-wield, which means you have the ability to take one of the biggest shotguns I’ve ever seen in a video game in each hand and turn everything in front of you into Nazi flavored giblets."
Enter B.J. and his team, who are attempting a last, desperate attack on Deathshead’s compound in an attempt to kill the general and break the back of the Nazi war machine. The action itself is fast and frantic from the word go, and the game seems to take a lot of pleasure in just how old school it is. The first thing that you need to know is that your health and armor are controlled almost entirely by pickups. Yes, there is regenerating health, but only a little bit of your health will regenerate (about 20%), which means that you’ll have to scavenge from the surrounding environment if you want to stay healthy. You can even overcharge your health for a temporary boost that will slowly fade out over time.
The same is true of the game’s armor system, though armor doesn’t regenerate at all. You can only restore your armor by picking up the various helmets, flak vests, shoulder pads, and other pieces of armor scattered around the map. In a lot of ways, the system doesn’t make any sense (How does picking up 15 different helmets help you? Is B.J. welding them to his body?), but it does imbue the levels with a sense of strategy and resource management that is lacking from most first-person shooters these days.
The combat is equally old school. There’s no two-weapon limit, so you can carry as many weapons as you want and switch between them at will. The other big thing about The New Order is that you can dual-wield, which means you have the ability to take one of the biggest shotguns I’ve ever seen in a video game in each hand and turn everything in front of you into Nazi flavored giblets. Hell, you can even dual-wield the game’s equivalent of a sniper rifle. That’s neither practical nor possible, as far I know, but it’s there because why the hell not? This is Wolfenstein, dammit.
"At the end of the first level, The New Order throws you a curve ball by asking you to make one of the most morally terrible, well-designed choices I have ever seen in a video game. That choice changes everything that comes after it, from the characters you’ll encounter to the routes available to in missions."
Of course, you don’t have to go loudly a-murderin’ everything in sight if you don’t want to. The game’s levels are large and offer you multiple approaches to any given situation, so you almost always have the choice between a stealthy approach that favors a silenced pistol, sneaky takedowns, and throwing knives or your dual-wielding antics. Stealth has its advantages, such as marking collectibles on the map should you kill certain enemies silently, but both will work in nearly any given situation. Performing certain actions will also unlock perks, which might range from increasing the number of knives you can carry to the maximum amount of ammo you can have a clip. It’s not essential, but it does encourage you to try new things just for the heck of unlocking something.
You’re introduced to all of this stuff in the game’s first mission, and if those things were all Wolfenstein had to offer, it would still be a pretty good game. But at the end of the first level, The New Order throws you a curve ball by asking you to make one of the most morally terrible, well-designed choices I have ever seen in a video game. That choice changes everything that comes after it, from the characters you’ll encounter to the routes available to in missions. The game begins in earnest after this, and while the core gameplay doesn’t change much, the divergence does provide a good reason to see the action again.
No matter what choice you make, B.J. wakes up in 1960, and the world around him is nothing like he remembers it. The Nazis used their incredible futuristic tech to win the war and have spent the intervening fourteen years rebuilding the world in their image. It’s a frighteningly realistic image, too. English is a dying language. People in America are taught that they were oppressed by their government before they were liberated under German occupation. Londoners have traded fish and chips for bratwurst and sauerkraut. Worse still, there doesn’t seem to be any form of resistance left.
"The other impressive thing is how well Machine Games uses environmental storytelling to compliment the main narrative. Little touches abound, from the way that Nazi architecture is so accurately recreated to the little newspaper clippings that fill in fundamental backstory. "
Blazkowicz decides this won’t stand, and starts putting the band back together so he can set things right in an adventure that takes him everywhere from Berlin to the moon. The story always has a tongue-in-cheek element to it, usually delivered in Blazkowicz’s inner monologues to hilarious effect. And yet, the attention to detail in the environment goes a long way to selling the setting. A lot of this is due to the fact that The New Order is a damn good looking game, and the one that goes the furthest towards fulfilling all of the hype that was behind id Tech 5. From animations to textures to the level of diversity in the environments, Wolfenstein delivers.
The other impressive thing is how well Machine Games uses environmental storytelling to compliment the main narrative. Little touches abound, from the way that Nazi architecture is so accurately recreated to the little newspaper clippings that fill in fundamental backstory. Some just talk about the way things have been since the war, while others are eerily familiar, like one that discusses the rationale behind the Nazi decision to drop the atomic bomb on New York City – probably because it’s the same justification that the U.S. used when we wiped Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map in 1945.
"Wolfenstein is a shooter for people who are tired of the current trends in the genre and are looking for something smart and viscerally fun."
Ultimately it’s moments like that that you’ll remember long after the credits have rolled. Wolfenstein is a long game – about twelve hours if you really explore each of the levels, maybe more – and it has some excellent action and story beats, but it’s not flawless. There are some pacing issues as some of the non-combat sections drag a little too long, and there are a few sections that feel too difficult or unfair, but these issues are so rare, and so minor when compared to what the game does right that it’s easy to overlook them.
Put simply, Wolfenstein is a shooter for people who are tired of the current trends in the genre and are looking for something smart and viscerally fun. It’s not a perfect game, but it is one that is begging for a sequel, and will scratch that shooter itch for a long time – or at least until the Nazis come gunnin’ for Blazkowicz again. Friggin’ Nazis, man.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Excellent gunplay. A meaningful choice provides replay value. Excellent writing, worldbuilding, and characterization. The game looks and sounds beautiful. Largely excellent pacing. Old-school game design done right.
Some non-combat sections run on too long. Some combat sections are very frustrating.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great shooter that balances old school design sensibilities with modern storytelling and excellent production values to produce a Nazi blastin’ good time.