Since becoming the most popular genre in video games nearly a decade ago, first person shooters have switched focus to multiplayer. Single-player campaigns continue to exist, but the majority of players will never start, let alone complete them. Even many of the high-profile shooters have completely abandoned solo experiences.
Wolfenstein: The New Order takes a different route. By only creating a single-player title, Machine Games has chosen storytelling over deathmatch and killstreaks. Thanks to solid mechanics, well-written dialogue, and an original take on the Wolfenstein franchise, The New Order is easily one of the best traditional single-player shooter campaigns in the past few years. Unfortunately, the cliched enemy types, dull level design, and mundane boss fights keep Wolfenstein from becoming a must-own title.
The year is 1960. 14 years prior, the Nazis won the second World War and have since changed the world (and even the moon) to match their brutal ideology. Thanks to robotic weaponry and advanced technology, the world is helpless to overthrow their oppressors. Super solider B.J. Blazkowicz, has awoken from a coma inside an insane asylum in Germany. Horrified by the world around him, and inspired by the love his former caretaker, B.J. takes the fight to the Nazis in an effort to turn back the clock.
What makes the story so strong in The New Order is the internal monologue and behavior of Blazkowicz. While he never strays too far from his action hero roots, the relationships he forms and the insights he provides have a realistic slant. B.J. never complains about killing, but he never relishes in it either. Instead, Blazkowicz finds a sliver of silver lining, and within that hope, something to fight for. Even more exciting is the supporting cast. Outside of their shared hatred for Nazis, none of the crew has too much in common. Disagreements break out, which challenge B.J’s black-and-white world views, and there’s more than a few truly fascinating concepts explored in The New Order’s 8-hour story. Sadly, the majority of the good is shuffled off-stage for more commonplace tropes.
The narrative problems lay in Wolfenstein’s need to set up gameplay scenes. A conversation about God’s abandonment of man is interrupted by a laser fight with robots. An African American explains how little the world has changed for his people compared to the 1920’s and 30’s, which is quickly followed up by a dull military combat meeting. The individual scenes are beautifully written, voiced, and directed. Past news articles and diary entries create a credible world with real emotions, but the actual story rarely connects to these smaller threads, and most of the time I couldn’t remember the actual purpose of the individual missions. Still, I could not be more thrilled by the risks taken in the subplot, and hope to see a more personal work come from The New Order’s five person writing team in the future.
The combat of Wolfenstein is also a mixed bag. Staying true to it’s early 90’s beginnings, B.J. can dual-wield almost every one of the six or so weapons. Shotguns, machine guns, laser weapons, and knives each have two abilities, allowing players to customize their approach. However, the game’s later, laser-based weapons need to be recharged, which makes them more of a chore to use than traditional guns.
By holding down the left shoulder button, B.J. can lean in any direction to get a better angle on the action. The cover system has a feeling similar to Killzone. It gives the user complete control and I’d love to see this style influence future FPS games. Blasting Nazis can be a ton of fun thanks to their limited health and satisfying death animations. Firing two auto shotguns multiple times in a crowded corridor is a real thrill and a great throwback to more action-heavy shooters.
Stealth can be used to avoid large portions of combat, and it all works surprisingly well. By taking out the commanding officers in an area, B.J. can prevent reinforcements from being called in. The A.I. is generous to avoid frustration and the rewards create a compelling incentive. I took every opportunity to sneak up for melee kills or throw a knife for a silent kill. If there’s anything disappointing about the stealth in The New Order, it’s that there isn’t enough of it.
Unique to The New Order is a perk system. By completing a number of actions, B.J. will be given increased abilities pertaining to the user’s play style. Do you use throwing knives in stealth? Have more throwing knives! Spend most of your time using two guns at once? Have more ammo for each gun.
Yet, the enemy types often ruin the fun. Giant robots or heavily-armed soldiers cannot be killed by using stealth, removing its usefulness for the final fourth of the game. In heavy combat sequences, these stronger types act as bullet sponges that take far too much damage and don’t give any visual indication as to remaining health. One common enemy has a weapon that shoots through cover, stripping away another great feature of The New Order. The giant robot boss fights are mostly designed around shooting and trying not to get shot. Sadly, it turns an exciting adventure into a stone cold stupid trigger masher.
The New Order takes place in a large variety of environments. From a death camp, to a post-world-domination Berlin, to the face of the moon, Wolfenstein tries its best to give every location its own feel. You’ll take out pleanty of Nazi’s in hallways and large rooms, but the color palate and surrounding objects do a good job of spicing up an already repetitive experience. The overall design lends itself to a realistic, though alien, 1960. The resistance base feels lived-in and desperate, and it establishes and reinforces a grounded tone no matter how fantastic the game’s later locations get.
Wolfenstein is tremendously exciting at its periphery, but it’s center is a bore. Real emotions and challenging subjects are left in the background in lieu of a paper-thin plot. After finishing off the moronic final boss, I was treated to a touching, poignant, and original ending. Can I recommend beating The New Order just to see that cut scene? Absolutely not.
Wolfenstein has all the components of a great game, but its unfortunate choice to mirror games of the past makes it more of a slog than an homage. Hopefully, this okay experience is only a stepping stone to Machine Games realizing their potential greatness.