Wolfenstein 3D is often credited with the proliferation of the first-person shooter, and its spiritual successor, Doom, brought the genre into the limelight. The series hasn't seen too many releases since then. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was considered an excellent follow-up to the classic, especially with the introduction of a class-based multiplayer system. A more recent game, Raven Software's Wolfenstein, didn't meet fan expectations in the single-player and multiplayer areas. Wolfenstein: The New Order has a new developer in MachineGames, which consists of veterans from Starbreeze Studios. The goal of The New Order is to bring the series into a more grounded reality while retaining the same kind of action. Mission accomplished.
The New Order begins in a completely different 1946. World War II is far from over, and the Nazis are on the verge of winning due to the scientific progress made under General Wilhelm Strasse, AKA Deathshead. With the Allies against the wall, a final assault with war hero B.J. Blazkowicz made its way to Deathshead's headquarters and failed, leaving Blazkowicz in a near-comatose state with shrapnel embedded in his head. Fast-forward to 1960, when Blazkowicz wakes up to a Nazi-ruled world. Eager to right his wrongs, he sets out in the heart of Berlin to find the remnants of the resistance and turn the tide — starting with the death of Deathshead.
There are three things that make the story stand out. The first is how it depicts the brutality of the Nazis. Since Nazis have long been the enemy in video games, most players are familiar with their use of propaganda and forced labor camps. There are some overt things, like seeing bodies get dissected while patients are still alive, firing squad by a handgun bullet to the head, and the mass burning of corpses. Subtle things also carve out their personality, such as a scene where they test your "purity" through a picture card survey and the various newspaper articles that are written from a heavily German point of view. Then there are things that are still disturbing to watch, like a scene where the prison warden holds a crying infant by her leg. This portrayal of the Nazis is much further away from the supernatural hunters of the last two titles, and the story benefits greatly as a result.
The second thing is how the game deals with the Resistance characters. Blazkowicz may be a one-man army, but through his flashbacks and monologues, you learn that he's a troubled soul. His actions and the fact that he dreams of a normal life make him an interesting hero. Other characters have backstories, like the ex-Nazi who turned to the Resistance, the crippled freedom fighter with lots of spunk, and the sound-obsessed guy who may or may not be Jimi Hendrix. You don't get too deep into their stories, but there's enough to flesh out the characters rather than have them be one-note stereotypes.
The third thing you'll notice is how the story plays out. The 1946 portion feels like almost every World War II game to date, but with more personality thanks to your squad. Once you reach the coma and fast-forward to 1960, the game becomes more stylized. Rapid fast-forward cuts and split-screen scenes creep in, and the story moves along at a faster pace. It takes on the same vibe as "Inglourious Basterds" due to your interactions with the Resistance. There's even some Indiana Jones thrown in with a search for ancient artifacts. It seems unfocused on paper, but the pace is brisk, and the escalating nature feels like a summer action movie. The situations might be unbelievable, but it's worth watching just to see what happens next. It shows that the developers at MachineGames know how to deliver a strong single-player narrative.
The gameplay feels like a natural evolution of the classic Wolfenstein formula, as it takes some of the traits of the old game and mixes in some aspects from modern titles. The two-gun system is ditched in favor of the classic "carry everything" mantra. BJ has no problems carrying an assault rifle, laser cutter, pistol, shotgun and sniper rifle at the same time. The game also tries to simplify the arsenal; you can only find one type of gun, so you don't have to worry whether you're carrying the right type. Each weapon comes with different firing modes, and with the exception of the laser cutter, you can dual-wield every gun. It's feasible to dual-wield double-barreled automatic shotguns with ricocheting pellets, so long as you are willing to deal with the reduction in speed. Holding two knives for melee attacks can give you an advantage in blocking.
The healing system also exemplifies the blending of both old and new gameplay. Health regeneration occurs at set intervals, so health packs, plates of sausages, and dog food are very valuable resources. Obtaining more health than necessary isn't wasteful, as you can overcharge your health beyond the 100 mark, but the excess degenerates over time. There's also the return of the armor system, which can't be overcharged but gives you lots of protection when needed.
The New Order employs a perk system, but it is largely invisible. In essence, BJ gets improvements based on your play style. Get more kills with grenades against particular infantry types, and you can hold more grenades or get increased blast power. Get more dual-wield kills, and you can start to run faster with both guns. The system works well, and there are a few paths to go down, but it never feels like it affects the game overly much.
Gunplay is rather tight, and all of the guns feel different. The amount of realism in recoil for automatic pistols and electricity-fed chainguns isn't as extreme as some modern shooters, but you'll feel some weight to each. This is very important since enemy AI isn't smart enough to perform flanking maneuvers, but they can take cover and slide into low barricades. Their only advantage in a firefight is the ability to go completely prone. Enemies are varied; the expected heavy- and light-armored soldiers are mixed in with a flying drones and larger mechanized foes with tons of armor and firepower. Believe it or not, the different enemy types affect your firearm choices, as some react differently to different weapons. It isn't exactly Mega Man as far as finding a weakness for each enemy type, but you'll be juggling gun types after you see shotgun-bearing soldiers easily shrug off assault rifle fire.
The game also makes some attempts to incorporate some stealth. There are a few sequences where you're only armed with a knife and are forced to use stealth, but there are times when going this route prevents commanders from calling in waves of infantry to swarm you. There's not much you can do aside from duck and sneak up behind enemies to take them down, but it is still satisfying to see BJ use his knife to expertly slit throats or stab guys in the neck. The technique can also be used on the cybernetic dogs, though the amount of gore is significantly lessened when killing animals.
All of this is encapsulated in level design that, like the gameplay, is a mix between old and new sensibilities. Levels are largely linear and follow the tried-and-true method of you calling in more troops once you pass certain areas or invisible markers. There's still a sense of entering "monster closets" with this design, but there are only a few places where this feels overwhelming. Despite this, there is some room for exploration. There are secret areas that hide things despite not going too far off the designated path. Some are upgrades, while others hide ammo and armor, but they're all worth exploring. There's also a small assortment of secret modes to uncover via coded puzzles.
The New Order does so many things right that it's noticeable when things go wrong. From a gameplay standpoint, the moments when you're playing errand boy in the Resistance headquarters feels like the developers were trying to pad out a game that is already lengthy by today's standards. The first time you do this, it feels like a good opportunity to get caught up with the new world, but when they force you to explore the sewers more than once, the padding feels obvious, especially when BJ mumbles this very thought after the final fetch quest.
The same goes for some of the background elements, which flesh out the world and its history. Finding newspaper clippings is one thing, but by the time you're given diary snippets that are only accessible via your audio log, it feels a bit much. Another element that disrupts the smooth gameplay is the AI in the stealth sequences. Enemies react fine when they hear gunfire or are hit by it, and they are surprisingly good at hearing a thrown knife miss its mark. However, if they briefly see you, they'll comment but not bother to investigate. The same thing happens when they see a fallen body on the ground or see one of their own go down. Players may not expect the level of AI seen in Dishonored, but it's still disappointing.
From a technical standpoint, you'll often see things like broken robot pieces and bullet casings stuck in the air, especially near walls and on uneven surfaces. Enemies sometimes get stuck on the environment, and while it doesn't happen often, it is still rather bad to see. The weapon-switching system is clumsy, as it uses a mix between a quick-switch system and a weapon wheel like Resistance. This works nicely on paper, but sometimes, you can just switch weapons with the weapon wheel and the quick-switch obeys, but most of the time, the quick-switch changes to a weapon that is more powerful but is out of ammo. More consistency in this system would've been nice. Also, the mechanic of having to go over an object and hitting a button to pick it up is annoying, especially since the same button is used for reloading. The simpler method of walking over the ammo or weapon to pick it up would've been more ideal.
One of the more surprising things about the game is that it lacks multiplayer. There are none of the modes that players have come to expect from first-person shooters, like deathmatch or capture the flag. There's no cooperative play, and there isn't a leaderboard system in place. There isn't even a visible plan for future DLC. This is a purely single-player experience with a definitive beginning and end. With so few titles making up the lion's share of the potential market, any attempt to carve out some multiplayer could've resulted in wasted potential. The single-player portion is so well crafted that taking away resources from that would've been disappointing.
According to the developer, The New Order was originally delayed to ensure that versions for the new generation of consoles would come out. As a result, the game has some new flourishes while still holding on to the main architecture of the more familiar consoles. Using the id Tech 5 engine, the character models are very well detailed in both clothes and skin, and the animations are great, especially lip movement. The designs are especially nice for the main officers, but even the regular foot soldiers have a memorable look. It falters when you see some of the non-essential characters sporting dead eyes, but with so many characters in masks, this doesn't happen much.
Environments are still dominated by the too-familiar gray that defined most games from the previous generation, but the designs are better since they do a good job of conveying a dystopian future with a minimal amount of destruction. The rest of the environmental touches, like the use of old computer equipment and distinctly German architecture really pulls you into the world. Textures never suffer from pop-up, but there are a few that have compression artifacts. Effects are pronounced, from the haze of fire to the lens flare that comes through from almost every light source. All of this comes together at a constant 60 frames per second with no slowdown or frame rate drops. It makes for a great gameplay experience, but it's also disappointing when the game shows off pre-rendered cut scenes at 30fps. It might make sense for low-spec PCs to do this or for the PS3/Xbox 360 due to the lack of horsepower, but for the new batch of consoles and higher-end PCs, it would've been nicer to go with the in-game engine.
Despite being set in an alternate 1960, the game takes on a very wide mix of musical genres. The title screen is purely metal, but the rest of the score encompasses several different genres like classical, orchestral, and even industrial. There's also a dose of familiar music from the decade but with a German twist, and there's one tune that is so iconic that it's unchanged here. The whole score fits well with the tone of the story. The effects are done nicely, especially the outdoor section of the moon, where everything is appropriately muffled. Voice work is good all around. The whole cast plays their roles well, even if some are slightly cheesy, but the standout of the cast has to be BJ. He really sells the idea of a man who's tired but determined to win and regain some normalcy in his life. Compared to the constant bravado and lack of personality of some heroes, this portrayal of Blazkowicz feels refreshing.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is an excellent entry in the series. The gameplay is varied, with a combination of decent stealth and very solid gunplay. The levels may sport drab colors, but the variety in location and inclusion of secrets in the level design make up for that. The story works well in a series that's not really known for telling a good narrative, and the dual pathways mean that an already long campaign is made longer for almost all the right reasons. If you gravitate toward a strong single-player experience in your shooters, The New Order should be high on your list of games to play.
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