As recently as 2013 I would've said without hesitation that the first-person shooter was my favourite gaming genre. Now thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Call of Duty and every publisher's desire to chase that crowd the genre has become bland and predictable, the lessons of Half-Life 2 forgotten, so now in 2014 there are only two FPS' I find myself interested in: the just-announced Far Cry 4 and Wolfenstein: The New Order. A new team, MachineGames, spun off from one of my favourite developers (Starbreeze), desperate to prove themselves on the grandaddy of the entire FPS genre. Time to bring some insanity back to the genre and get psyched.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how much of an emphasis MachineGames has put on The New Order's story. Their former home of Starbreeze is of course well known for making story-driven FPS', but Wolfenstein? The first three games were about escaping from the titular castle, and the last two were all about Nazis, pseudo-science, cyborgs and zombies and not much else. This was the series that featured "Mecha-Hitler" as a boss and stars square-jawed '80s action man BJ Blazkowicz. The thought that a developer would take such an intentionally over-the-top and ridiculous franchise and try to tell a serious story with it seems a recipe for failure, but that's what MachineGames has done, and you know what? It works.
Sliding Nazis. I hate sliding Nazis
The timeline of the series is a bit fuzzy, but this is certainly the last chronological Wolfenstein game. It once again stars William "BJ" Blazkowicz and pits him against brilliant but insane Nazi scientist Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse, the antagonist from the previous two games in the series and the creator of numerous technologies that are helping the Nazis win the war. After an assault in 1946 on Deathshead's compound (never referred to as "Wolfenstein" but I think it's meant to be the titular castle) goes wrong BJ sustains an injury that leaves him comatose in a Polish mental hospital until the 1960s. After waking he and a nurse named Anya plan to make contact with the resistance and fight back against the Third Reich and Deathshead.
A simple setup and plot, but it's amazing how deep The New Order gets in terms of characters, their interactions and the background of the world as it is under Nazi rule. I'm particularly happy about how MachineGames remain reverential to previous games in the series, bringing back the protagonist and antagonist and taking cyborg Nazi Super-Soldiers and Mecha-Hitler as fact and yet justifying them all. I'm particularly impressed by how they didn't shy away from two areas: the OTT comic-book pulp fiction stylings of the series, and the real-life atrocities of the Nazis. Despite there being a rather jarring tonal shift between the evils of Nazi Germany and robot guards powered by brains MachineGames actually makes it work by treating it all seriously. It's a bit like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which has a pretty dark storyline but still incorporates plenty of silly comic-book ideas. For example at one point you infiltrate a Nazi concentration camp, see all the horrors they've inflicted on the prisoners... and then you fight your way out by piloting a giant Mech robot you captured using magic. As mentioned, it all just works, and I can't overemphasise what a sterling job MachineGames has done with the writing. They even manage to make Blazkowicz, square-jawed '80s action star, sympathetic, with inner monologues whispered over the action and some rather sad blue eyes.
All of which would be for nought if the minute-to-minute FPS gameplay (the shooty-bang-bang stuff, if we're getting technical) was boring, so it's a relief to say that the shooting is equally fun. Guns are satisfying and meaty, often with a couple of fire modes (from simply adding a silencer to turning a sniper rifle into a damn laser assault rifle) that really mark the difference between defeat and victory if used correctly. While the Laser Cutter (which is slowly upgraded throughout the game from blowtorch to super-powered space cannon) is the only "out there" piece of weaponry every gun can be dual-wielded for maximum fun value. Similarly unless it's a mounted turret don't expect to be carrying a chaingun around, which is a little disappointing but doesn't spoil the fun. Enemies are pretty smart, rushing or covering at the right moments and even pulling off decent flanking manoeuvres, and are always satisfying to bring down. Of course they're Nazis as well, and the world will never get tired of shooting Nazis.
Not a fair fight! Not a fair fight!
While admittedly far more linear than I'd of liked, with far more locked doors than is healthy, compared to Call of DutyWolfenstein feels like f***ing Skyrim. Areas are fairly large, often with many avenues of attack, with tons of secrets to find (remember those?) and lots of reasons to explore. It's far closer to Half-Life than the COD-love that's been infecting the FPS, with interesting shoot-outs and locations coupled with cool level design, fun exploration, and not a single goddamn "follow this guy and let him open all the doors for you" moment. For replay value there are Perks you can unlock through various actions, diaries, newspaper clippings and even music records to find, Enigma codes to pick up to unlock various harder game modes, and an early choice that creates a moderately different story.
Then of course, we have the stealth. While the Wolfenstein series has a reputation for being a crazy action shooter in reality the first two non-FPS games in the series were stealth titles, the last two had optional stealth elements, and even Wolfenstein 3D was supposed to have some until id focused on action. Just how it does with the story, The New Order embraces this duality. You can run in guns-blazing, taking cover, dual-wielding shotguns to murder all Nazis, cyber-dogs and robots that cross your path, or you can sneak in, silently murder the commanders so they don't raise an alarm, and execute all the soldiers and dogs before they know you're there. It's fun to have this choice and I always go for stealth. It's not admittedly as fun or efficient as Far Cry 3's stealth (no deaths-from-above, marking soldiers on your radar or anything like that) but it's still enjoyable, although sadly it's not always available. Sometimes you just have to shoot things, and I can't believe I said that in a negative way.
Regarding things on the technical side, I'll buck convention by instead starting with the audio. Music is generally excellent and the voice acting surprisingly is too, with some creepy performances from the actors playing General Deathshead, Frau Engel and her sadistic toyboy Bubi, but it's Brian Bloom (who's had a number of notable voice roles, including Varric in Dragon Age II and Jackie Estacado in The Darkness II) who keeps it all together as the surprisingly emotional BJ Blazkowicz. He's one inch away from Marcus Fenix but manages to keep him human.
Fine, you don't care about audio, graphics things then. First can I say how ridiculous The New Order's minimum PC system settings are? 64-bit Windows 7 or 8 (goodbye Vista!), i7 processor, 50Gb of hard drive space (twice every other game ever)... for a game that's also coming out on Xbox 360? It also has the most incomprehensible video settings page I have ever seen. I'm fairly technically minded but I just expect things I can set to 'Very High', like Antialiasing or Shadows, not 'Max PPF = 32', 'Shadow Resolution = 2048', 'VT Compress' and 'Screen-space Reflections'. What do these all mean?!. Then even with everything turned up to full I still had the id Tech 5/Rage engine quirk of textures vanishing when I turned around quickly. And while Wolfenstein: The New Order did look very pretty indeed and had the occasional nice effect, I still didn't feel I was looking at a next-gen game. Maybe that's just me as I'm not really impressed by graphics, but I'm pretty sure I didn't see anything that justified such absurdly over-inflated minimum specs. Furthermore plenty of people on the forums seem to be having trouble playing it, so beware.
I'm about to be punched in the face by a zombie Nazi robot. And this day started off so well
That aside I still loved the look and design of the Wolfenstein world, and there is a load of detail everywhere so the visual side still ends up with a thumbs-up from me. With the story and gameplay also getting me wet is there anything else I can nitpick? Actually, yes, unfortunately. Nothing too big though. For some reason 'Lean/Cover' is its own button, and with the dozens of other buttons the game has (there's a button each to change the fire mode on both guns separately when dual wielding for example) I found myself very rarely leaning anywhere just because I couldn't find the button. Still it's nice to have that option, but the Sprint-Jump move I'd be happy to ditch since it's utter bollocks. You need to use it all of three times in the entire game, and on the third time (a jump from a helicopter to a "safe platform") I died about a dozen times - and worse, BJ made fun of me for it each time. I didn't die that many times over the entire rest of the game! The occasional instance of respawning enemies is annoying too, as is the frequent appearance of Cutscene Incompetence Syndrome (a term I coined while playing Max Payne 3 for when after killing fifty heavily-armed enemies in a room the main character suddenly becomes useless during a cutscene, usually facing one guy with a small pistol or knife).
WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER VERDICT
Small nitpicks aside, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a fantastic game. It’s exactly the kind of FPS I want to play and are far too rare these last few dark years: a single-player-orientated shooter packed with fun battles and imaginative level design that is worth exploring in. To top it all the storytelling is excellent and neatly shifts between the incredibly dark and the gloriously silly. Characters are believable, even the crazy villains, and dialogue feels completely real (well, apart from “f**k you, moon”). The game took me about 11 hours to plough through on Normal (“Bring ‘Em On”), and with two higher difficulty modes and plenty of secrets to find that can unlock even tougher modes (like Iron Man) there’s a lot of replay value - and with that early timeline-altering choice I’ll definitely be playing it at least once more. If you’ve been depressed at the way the FPS genre has declined buy Wolfenstein: The New Order right now and put a Nazi-killing smile on that face.
TOP GAME MOMENT
While the mech escape from a prison camp and BJ’s moon trip are highlights, nothing beats the ‘nightmare’ he experiences if you sleep in the bed at the top of the hideout.