During the announcement of Wolfenstein: The New Order, Warren Spector raised the question, “Did the world need another Wolfenstein?” He was promptly ostracized for this due to his own recent shortcomings in the gaming industry, but, I always felt he was entitled to raise the question. Not necessarily the 'need' for a video game, but the basic idea: Is there a place in the modern video gaming landscape for another Wolfenstein?

It is easy to be dismissive of overused concepts, and Wolfenstein isn’t exactly bringing a new order to the FPS genre. Its answer to some of the shortcomings of the modern shooter is to rewind the clock a bit. Faceless terrorists are replaced with deplorable Nazis, regenerating health is combined with health packs, and you have a weapon wheel.

Dismissing Wolfenstein as a relic taking advantage of nostalgia, however, would be foolish. It isn’t a game about reinventing the wheel, but showing you why the wheel was effective in the first place. It's about going back to the staples of run-n-gun action, and then combining them with traits from modern first-person shooters. All along, it never falters on a simple premise: the Nazis are atrocious, and it’s gratifying to shoot their faces off.

Yes indeed, if there is one thing me and Wolfenstein can get behind, it is the celebration of bullets cutting through the wind and piercing delicate flesh, splattering several ounces of blood and separating vile Nazis limb from limb. While Wolfenstein’s gunplay will never be mistaken for anything realistic or grounded, it certainly will win you over on style.

The primary hook for the gunplay revolves around your ability to dual wield just about anything. Dual wielding pistols and assault rifles for the sake of efficiency in mowing down enemies. You can dual wield sniper rifles just so the developers could say, “You can dual wield sniper rifles.” But the true delight is being able to dual wield automatic shotguns. Why? Because fuck it, that’s why.

It’s a satisfying way to use the weapons in the game, and provides a cathartic release upon every kill. It guarantees that every time you pull the trigger, you will be left satisfied by the end result. It also mostly makes up for the fact that the game completely lacks any creative weapons. Beyond one laser gun that gains upgrades over time, the game doesn’t really flex any creative muscles when it comes to the weaponry. Generally, it’s a drawback that modern shooters justify with their setting, but we’re talking about a game where the Nazis took over the world with giant dog death machines.

To keep the game from getting repetitive, Wolfenstein delivers a healthy balance of encounter designs built around stealth, shooting galleries, cover shooting, and even some boss fights. The stealth is the most effective when the game decides to mix it up, and provides a brilliant incentive for playing laterally.

Any given area where stealth is emphasized can have a group of enemies, including one or two enemies known as commanders. These commanders call in for reinforcements if the player is spotted, and can turn a fairly simple stealth segment into an extremely challenging combat encounter with a seemingly never-ending horde of enemies. If the player can kill them swiftly, not only do they avoid reinforcements, but the player is rewarded with the location of different secrets on their map screen.

Wolfenstein’s level design is right in line with most level-by-level shooters, in the sense that there's a lot of corridors. It's built to 'feel' like an environment, but can be just as 'gamey' when you notice conveniently stacked up boxes for cover. What separates the level design from other shooters is the aforementioned reward for killing commanders.

The New Order takes its cues from the original, as well as older PC shooters of the 90s, in that it creates multiple points of entry for environments through interconnected hallways. This benefits The New Order gameplay by giving the player a pair of options to tackle any given situation. It also rewards exploration in form of world building via records, notes, and letters that help lend personality to the setting.  

These quieter moments also give the player a chance to appreciate the rich detail of the world. Simply going up to enemies and hearing their banter among one another can be an absolute delight, as the conversation between your foes help paint a vivid picture of the terrifying world you are in. The decision to have it all voiced in German with English subtitles is a brilliant touch.

Shooting segments are broken up by mixing old school run-n-gun with standard shooting galleries, turret sequences, and some cover shooting. It all works very well because, individually, you are never doing one thing long enough to get bored. Some fights require you to be patient, to lean and peak out of cover to take care of foes. Others require you to press forward through hordes of enemies and simply win through attrition. The best segments are when the game decides to cut loose and let you unleash hell with your arsenal.

The weakest gameplay segments revolve around doing remedial chores in the rebel base and dull boss fights. The majority of boss fights simply aren’t engaging because it’s just running and gunning against a spongy enemy. The most drawn out fight is against the game's largest enemy, which by its very design is reduced to taking cover in a shelter where it cannot hit you, and then punishing it whenever it gives you an opening. It’s devoid of any challenge to make it satisfying, and it lacks the cathartic feel of the standard moment-to-moment action.

Likewise, the enemy AI can take away some of the raw satisfaction of the gameplay, namely in the stealth department. They are too oblivious to dead bodies and someone right in front of them. It’s jarring, and makes some stealth segments effortless. Even in combat, the enemy AI isn’t really worthy of merit, as they don’t have too many tricks up their sleeve. A few dodge moves aside, most of them just get behind cover and give you easy openings to take their face off.

On the flip side, a commendable aspect of the game is how bold it is with its setting. You get the impression that a lot of tender loving care went into creating the aesthetic of the game. The New Order takes place in an alternate timeline where, thanks to their advanced technology, the Nazis won World War II. The lengthy prologue has you playing as series protagonist William Blazkowicz (BJ for Wolfenstein purists) during an invasion of a Nazi castle.

By the end of the prologue, BJ is incapacitated and lapses into a coma due to a piece of shrapnel in his brain. He winds up in an asylum under the care of Anya (the love interest) and her family, and sits on the sideline as the Nazis take over the world. The game proper takes place 14 years after the prologue, in 1960. It paints a perverted pastiche of the 1960s, specifically focusing on the 1960s we usually see romanticized in modern entertainment by the likes of Mad Men.

Many of the cultural beats of that era are completely distorted under the Nazi regime. Music that was built on the ideas of anti-establishment and free spirit is corrupted into pieces that celebrate totalitarianism. Man’s greatest achievements in science and landmarks are turned into horrific monuments. No, it’s not a setting built on plausibility, but one of pure horror. It’s a frightening world that does much to convey a new reason to loathe Nazis, even more so than the game's script.

Which, to be fair, is actually a weaker element of the game. The plot itself is mostly ridiculous in its tone, set up, and overall execution, but it does find ways to handle it all with some grace. Mostly, even in spite of the script at times, the writers do a fantastic job characterizing the world and its characters. BJ himself is portrayed as a tired old soldier, trying to fight off the feeling of being completely drained from a battle that seems to have no light at the end of the tunnel. The rebels you come in contact with are equally exhausted and jaded.

Sometimes, the dialogue between characters is straight up cheesy to the point of being nauseating in a game that takes itself seriously. However, it often gets the point across because of some solid voice acting. With an exception that being the inner monologues by Blazkowicz. He’s soft spoken in general, but his inner monologues are conveyed with a whisper. It’s either done to give weight to the words he's saying or to differentiate spoken dialogue from his inner monologues. In both cases, it is neither effective nor necessary.

In fact, there are a quite a few other story beats that weren’t necessary, but they ultimately don’t take away from the overall effect of the game. The characters are relatable and easy to root for. They are reasonable people living in a world that might as well be a nightmare.

Some may state that the gameplay and narrative are a bit disconnected at times. I would argue that the gunplay actually fits the tone of the game, specifically in its brutality. It complements the horrific vision of a Nazi-controlled 1960s. For those not willing to sip the Kool-Aid? Let me put it this way. I enjoyed ludonarrative disonancing Nazis in the face.

It’s a great reimaging and modern take on Wolfenstein, while not being daring enough to put The New Order among the elite the genre has to offer. It's daring to have not one, but two sex scenes, but not daring enough to really put the game over the top as the next big thing in first-person shooters. What it accomplishes is showing off the strengths of the FPS genre, and how older ideas can be combined with modern ideas to make an entertaining first-person shooter.

Which brings us back to our original question: Is there a place in modern shooters for another Wolfenstein? In my opinion, no. The New Order didn’t justify “Wolfenstein” to me as much as it justified the developer Machine Games; a developer willing to combine the advantages of old school design with new school vision. A developer capable of creating a completely ridiculous pulpy romp, with enough intelligence and respect for its audience to create some characters with a modicum of depth. A developer who actually makes a good game. Your move, Warren Spector. 

 

Final Score: 7/10

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