“War. War never changes.” Ron Perlman once famously said. But sometimes, while it may not change, it does get tinkered with quite dramatically sometimes. Alternate histories has always been a popular subject for books, movies and games alike. Wolfenstein: The New Order is a prime example of this where it poses the questions, which have been asked by historians many many times:
What happens if the Nazis dropped the atomic bomb on the USA?
What if the Nazis never lost the war?
What happens if the Nazis had giant, armoured robots that shoot lasers?
OK, maybe that last question hasn’t exactly been posed by historians at any point in time, but it gives you the idea of what this latest Wolfenstein game is all about. It takes the tried and true World War II setting, turns it on its head so the Nazis win, and then throws in some sci-fi elements as well. It’s not the most sophisticated of storylines ever devised but, by jove, it works!
The story follows, once again, the exploits of B.J. Blazkowicz, the protagonist of every single story-driven Wolfenstein game since 1992's Wolfenstein 3D. The game opens up on the date of July 1946, nearly 1 year after the war should have ended, with Blazcowicz participating in an aerial assault, accompanied by grizzled Scottish pilot Fergus Reid, on the compound of General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, head of the Nazis SS Special Projects Division, whose technologies have turned the tide of the war in the Nazi’s favour. This sets us up for Wolfenstein‘s introductory level, which introduces you to the games mechanics and gameplay, the pace is a bit slow for the first 10 minutes, but soon picks up the pace once it throws you into the game proper where, without giving too much away, the mission goes horribly wrong, and Blazcowiz awakens in a mental asylum in 1960 in a world ruled by the Nazis.
The truth is, the gameplay here is nothing new, but what it does do, it does very, very well. What struck me the most about Wolfenstein is the openness of the levels. For the majority of the game, I didn’t feel like I was forced to either play in a particular way. Granted, there are parts of the game where you have no choice but to fight your way out of a dangerous situation, but it’s a First Person Shooter, so it comes with the territory. But between these segments, you can either try to go in all guns blazing, or you can use stealth to slowly eliminate the enemies patrolling the area using a combination of silenced pistols, throwing knives and silent takedowns. It’s this freedom to play how you wish that sets it apart from being another scripted event upon scripted event CoD-esque corridor fest (try saying that five times fast.)
It’s not just the differing gameplay styles that make the Wolfenstein experience slightly different depending on how you play, but also the choice that you make right at the start of the game. At the end of the first level you’re asked to make a choice, a difficult choice with no right answer, and the result of that choice means two slightly different timelines that play out. It’s touches like this, and a very well thought-out storyline of an alternative timeline Wolfenstein universe, that indirectly picks up from the previous game, and compelling and sympathetic characters that makes the whole game very compelling and you don’t always find in shooters. Indeed, I approached The New Order with a view that it would be a “big dumb shooter”, but once you get past the giant robots and the blood and gore – and the game is very visceral at times – there’s been a lot of thought and care put into the game.
Of course, this is a shooter and, while a good story and well-rounded characters are a great advantage, every great shooter needs an arsenal of weaponry that will murder, maim and mutilate your enemies, and Wolfenstein: The New Order has those in spades. There’s your established favourites such as knives, pistols – silenced and unsilenced – shotguns, assault rifles and sniper rifles, all of which can be dual wielded. Yes, dual wield shotguns and sniper rifles, no-one ever said that Wolfenstein didn’t like to throw the absurd into the mix every now and again. On top of those, there are Tesla Grenades, Turreted Machine Guns (which can be dismounted and carried around till their ammo runs out) and the mainstay of the games arsenal, the LaserKraftWerk, or LKW for short, which is a laser-based weapon that can explode your enemies into a bloody mess but can also double up as laser torch that can cut through fences and aluminium panels. This can be upgraded with various additional parts that can be picked up throughout the game, and adds various tasty extras which include – but not limited to - an automatically targetting scope, a built-in generator which allows it to recharge itself – very slowly, so it’s still prudent to recharge it via the stations littered around the levels – and a reflector that allows you to reflect shots off of walls onto hiding enemies. It’s a very satisfying weapon that you’ll find yourself using frequently, but not at the expense of the other weaponry.
Like most shooters these days, it introduces an RPG element with a skill tree for you to improve various aspects of Blazcowicz’s abilities, which is split into four categories: assault, stealth, demolition and tactics. But these aren’t improved by gaining by XP and distributing it via the form of skill points. In order to improve these skills, you have to perform tasks and challenges specific to that category which will then unlock various perks. For instance, kill a certain number of enemies with a knife, taking out enemies while performing a slide skill, overcharging your health to 200, and things like that. It makes for a more interesting challenge than just grinding out xp points, and encouranges you to use the entire arsenal of weaponry, and the challenges aren’t impossible so even the less seasoned FPS players, like myself, are more than capable of advancing through the skill tree. My only criticism is that a few of the challenges were a bit too difficult to gain through natural gameplay.
Naturally, it wouldn’t be a complete game, for better or for worse, if there weren’t collectibles to distract you from your bloody mission. I’m not a big fan of collectibles, I find the mostly to be an unwelcome distraction from the main game which usually seem pointlessly shoehorned in for the sake of padding out the overall gameplay time. But to it’s credit, some of the collectibles are interesting and add background and fleshes out the Nazi-ruled world and the characters within it, which are achieved through war diaries and letters. There are also health upgrades that can be gathered to boost your health up from the standard 100, this is a rare shooter that still requires you to collect health kits rather than regenerate your full health automatically over time. Lastly, there are gold items that allow you to… well… actually they do nothing whatsoever, but at least they’re pretty?
Unusually, in fact almost completely unheard of in a modern day shooter, Wolfenstein: The New Order has absolutely no multiplayer component. At all. Not even the almost seemingly obligatory co-op mode that nearly every game has tacked on these days. For someone is not great fan of multiplayer – I’m a gamer, do you think I want to socialise with other people? – this is a blessed relief. You have to wonder what a multiplayer mode here would’ve added to, not only the game, but the shooter genre as a whole. The devs probably realised the multiplayer you could get here would have already been done elsewhere and, more than likely, a lot better. Instead they’ve put their time and effort into the single player campaign.
For me, this was a wise move, as while Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t go to win any awards for originality, or any awards at all. It has taken the essence of a great shooter, added an element of openness to the gameplay, put in a decent storyline and fleshed it out with some memorable characters and lots of destructive weaponry and grisly violence. It’s basically everything you’d want from an FPS these days, without the constant, over-the-top set pieces and corridor running of many other games I could name. But, above and beyond anything else, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve said that about a game since People Can Fly’s 2011 shooter, Bulletstorm, and in an age where too many games try to go for sophistication over fun, I can only applaud Machine Games for the effort they’ve put in here.
+ A strong storyline
+ Well-rounded characters
+ Well-balanced action and stealth
+ Plenty of weaponry to play with
+ Unlocking skills is satisfying
+ A hell of a lot of fun
- Some of the skills can be a struggle to unlock
- Some pointless collectibles
- Graphically nothing special in terms of next-gen