Set in an alternate-history timeline in which Germany not only wins World War II, but goes on to systematically conquer the entire world, longtime series protagonist BJ Blaskowicz has his work cut out for him in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Far outshining previous attempts to modernize the franchise, developer MachineGames absolutely knocked it out of the park here, delivering a campy and wildly entertaining love letter to the classic that started it all.
The game’s prologue level begins in 1946 as the Allies, who are on the brink of defeat, make a last ditch effort to raid the compound of Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, perfectly setting the stage for the rest of the narrative and establishing a couple things right off the bat. First, through all the silliness and over-the-top, ridiculous violence that gives the series its charm, Wolfenstein: The New Orderactually has a story to tell – and a damn good one at that. Believable, interesting characters are established early on who players can get behind and sympathize with, contrasted by a cartoonishly evil roster of villains. Sure, making Nazis come off as an unsavory bunch isn’t exactly a stretch, but the writers and developers pulled no punches in assuring that we’d be facing off against the most horrifically despicable monsters imaginable. Second, the pacing is incredible. The action and suspense hit hard immediately and don’t let up for an instant. The game engine runs lightning fast and the narrative follows suit, always driving you forward, facing mobs of soldiers at every turn, unlocking objectives as you go to further the story while keeping cutscene breaks to a minimum.
Suffice it to say, the raid on Deathshead’s castle don’t go as planned, leaving Blaskowicz with a head full of shrapnel, institutionalized and barely functioning for over a decade while being nursed back to health. Regaining consciousness in 1960, he learns that the Nazi regime dominates the globe and has imprisoned all known resistance fighters. Barely able to stand, let alone hold a weapon, BJ is forced back into the conflict to wage a one-man war on his oppressors. The schlocky b-movie vibe is played up perfectly but, underneath it there’s a rather clever, sophisticated structure. The grindhouse gore and futuristic Nazi technology and grounded by Blaskowicz’s gritty down-to-earth narration and his interactions with the people suffering at the hands of the enemy. Make no mistake; this isn’t just another humdrum military shooter campaign that simply puts you through the motions for a few hours. Wolfenstein: The New Order features memorable, well-written characters who command attention and a thrilling story that will suck you in, making it the most enjoyable entry into next-gen console gaming thus far.
As far as mechanics go, it controls like a modern shooter but with an old-school sensibility. Gunplay is incredibly fluid and players can cycle through their arsenal on the fly with the help of an inventory wheel. Every gun in the game (with the exception of mounted turrets) can also be dual-wielded and there is nothing quite like charging into a room and ripping foes to bits with two shotguns at once. While dual wielding, the button you would normally use to aim down your gun’s sight controls the second weapon. The inclusion of a “lean” button is put to good use here, allowing players to easily pop up from behind cover, aim around doorways, and even shoot under doors. Grenades are, by default, tied to the right bumper on consoles and melee attacks to the right thumbstick. The melee button actually also allows you to throw knives at distant targets to silently eliminate them. This is one of the many components to a surprisingly robust stealth mechanic. When demoing the game initially at PAX East, I went in guns blazing and shot everything that moved. On the hardest difficulty levels though, stealth becomes an integral part of survival. Pistols can be equipped with silencers to headshot superior officers before they can alert their squad and up close melee attacks to an unaware target will usually result in fewer alarms being raised.
The difficulty selection screen, by the way, is presented in a throwback to the classic aesthetic, with an avatar of Blaskowicz himself that represents the chosen level (appearing with a pacifier in mouth for the “Can I Play, Daddy” setting and looking like a total badass for the challenging “Uber”). The old-school similarities don’t stop there either. There are still plenty of secret rooms to be found containing collectibles and all of your health, armor, and ammo packs must be picked up manually. This may seem daunting to some but I absolutely love the nostalgic feel. They compromised a bit by employing a health system that replenishes itself only in twenty point intervals; meaning that if you drop to 68, you can regenerate back up to 80, or to 60 from 52, etc. Health packs will still be needed to gain lost segments and armor can be obtained to soften the incoming damage. Something they used in New Order that’s altogether new to the franchise is its perks system. Instead of simply levelling up by scoring points, this system encourages players to complete many different feats in four different skill columns (Assault, Tactical, Demolition, and Stealth) by playing the game a certain way. “Scoring x amount of kills silently with x weapon” or “get x headshots on x type of enemy” are examples which will unlock the next perk objective. Completing them will allow BJ to do things like carry more ammo, move more quietly, access different weapons.
Over the 12 hour campaign, which will likely take you a bit longer if you decide to grind through the toughest difficulty mode (Uber difficulty offers a solid challenge and, in my opinion, is the best way to experience the title), players are treated to a brilliant presentation of the old “what if” scenario that Germany had won the war. The gripping plot and great characters truly make the game exceptional with visuals and sound design to match. In addition to running smoothly, the environments and textures are crisp and detailed and the character models are all distinct and imaginative. Tons of subtle variations on enemy costumes, armor, and character skins, whether they’re flesh & blood or hulking robotic killing machines, make you feel like you’re fighting through actual armies and not simply carbon copies of the same model. The audio cues tied to each gun carry an impressive weight when pumping through a home theater system. From the low-key hum of a chaingun barrel winding up to a room full of explosives detonating to the German taunts a soldier will throw at you before you turn their face into jelly, the sound is consistently top-notch. Even the soundtrack, which features an unexpected mix of upbeat pop and rock tunes to compliment it’s ominous, booming orchestral moments, is utterly fantastic. Wolfenstein: The New Order is now available for PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, and PC and it’s a hell of a ride.