Wolfenstein: The New Order
Twenty-two years after its smashing debut, and the godfather of first-person shooters is still piling up Nazi corpses. Over this impressive span, the Wolfenstein franchise has experienced highs - namely Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Enemy Territory - and a few lows, like the hollow 2009 re-imagining. To reinvigorate the brand, Bethesda tapped Machine Games, a new studio led by former members of Starbreeze Studios - the developer best known for its criminally under-celebrated The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is an amalgamated reimagination featuring a few familiar characters and a new central premise. After a failed attempt to assassinate General Deathshead in 1946, B.J. Blazkowicz suffers a head trauma and spends the next 14 years as a vegetable. During his absence, the Nazi Wehrmacht conquers the world. Only after his caretakers are shot and killed does Blazkowicz snap out of his vegetative state and start a new rampage against the totalitarian regime.
Along the 20-hour campaign he joins a colorful resistance group hiding within Berlin, infiltrates a prison to save some old friends, steals some valuable vehicles, and even journeys to the moon to retrieve the nuclear launch codes necessary to wipe the Nazi regime off the map. The varied environments do an effective job of keeping things fresh, and the varied cast is much more memorable that most first-person shooter campaigns.
In building its own vision for the brand, Machine Games is hardly forgetting the series' past. Many homages exist to The New Order's precursors, including the muscular character model for Blazkowicz, using Nazi helmets as icons for armor pickups, secret rooms hidden in each level, and even a "nightmare" dream sequence that lets you play the first level of Wolfenstein 3D.
Traces of Machine Games' DNA are also evident throughout the game. From the surprisingly varied and satisfyingly brutal close-quarters melee takedowns to the quiet moments interspersed between action sequences, The New Order shares many similarities with the Riddick title. The studio also endows Blazkowicz with an internal dialogue to give the character more depth, but these monotone, philosophical ponderings feel at odds with the wanton brutality he projects through the rest of the game.
The combat is a mash-up of both lineages. You can dual-wield and decapitate enemies with headshots, or take a more measured approach to combat. Most levels have Nazi commanders stationed throughout. Sneaking up and performing a stealth takedown prevents them from pulling the alarm once the bullets inevitably start flying, giving cautious players a tactical option. You can also fire from cover, but the cumbersome mechanic makes this the least valuable tool in your arsenal.
The RPG-lite perks system offers some incentive for experimenting with your approach. Meeting certain requirements, like completing a certain amount of stealth takedowns or racking up a set body count from cover, unlocks useful upgrades that give you an edge in combat that isn't necessarily needed thanks to the stunted A.I.
The New Order offers a wide array of enemies, from traditional soldiers and panzer hounds to monstrous mechs and heavily armored super troops. None of them are very smart. Their casual approach to patrols makes it easy to run through levels carelessly making stealth takedowns (including on the hounds, which seems highly implausible), and they have the unfortunate habit of running for the furthest cover away from them in the middle of live fire, giving you ample time to line up kill shots. The final boss fight is the only exceptional challenge, but this battle essentially boils down to classic trial-and-error. If you're looking for a challenge, I strongly suggest you up the difficulty.
With no multiplayer modes on offer, Machine Games adds replayability by littering levels with collectibles and introducing an early choice that changes the trajectory of the narrative. Deciding which of two fellow soldiers lives changes who participates in the resistance, and gives you different alternate navigation routes in levels, but otherwise the game is essentially the same. Scavenging for enigma codes and cracking them also unlocks new challenges to give seasoned players a run for their money.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a positive step forward for the series after the last dud. Machine Games presents a competent shooter with more polish and a better array of characters, but ultimately the game feels more comfortable recompiling established conventions than it does striving for innovation.
Twenty-two years after its smashing debut, and the godfather of first-person shooters is still piling up Nazi corpses.