Wolfenstein: The New Order Review (PlayStation 4)
Nearly 22 years after his original MS-DOS debut in Wolfenstein 3D, William "B.J." Blazkowicz is back again, killing as many Nazis as he can. No matter how many changes have struck the first-person shooter genre, you can always count on B.J. to be eager to grab a superpowered gun and stop the Third Reich the only way he knows how--with a plethora of bullets. Sure, modern shooter mechanics and standards, such as regenerating health, a two-gun limitation, quick-scoping and an overabundance of assault rifles, have started to make most popular FPS franchises sort of bleed into each other in terms of experience and looks. Developer MachineGames went into the creative process completely honest about where Wolfenstein stands when compared to the Call of Duty, Halo and Battlefield franchises -- it's the dinosaur that was miraculously resurrected after the ice age. Luckily, MachineGames realized that playing as that old monster can still be really enjoyable. Just as you would expect, BJ Blazkowicz is fun to play as and snarls when you want him to, usually when he's planting a knife deep into a Nazi's face. But what you don't expect is the brilliant narrative that arises from its over-the-top story.
It was initially difficult to label Wolfenstein: The New Order as a reboot or sequel when compared to 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D. Technically, its story takes place three years after the ill-received 2009 Wolfenstein, which was a sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein (the 2001 remake of the original title). While The New Order is the third (and possibly last) piece of this modernized Wolfenstein series, it acts as the swansong to the id Software era of first-person shooters, which was a time when John Carmack and John Romero introduced the world to the genre with the likes of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake and Heretic. The New Order acknowledges our expectations from both the id Software era and our current standards of modern FPS titles. The result is a nostalgic critique of the state of gaming combined with solid FPS combat within a surprisingly stellar narrative. All of this can be attributed to the excellent, underlying presentation of B.J. Blazkowicz as the man-out-of-time.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is filled with wonderful textures, clean backgrounds, gorgeous cutscenes and smooth animation. It is also filled with some really bad textures and some significantly bland backdrops. Wolfenstein pays tribute to its pulp magazine and Tarantino influences by cranking the blood and gore to the max in some shocking ways. Since most of this violence tends to happen to Nazi soldiers by B.J.'s hands, it's all fine and dandy, but we felt like cringing when we saw what happened to the innocent people caught in the mix. We praise MachineGames for being brutally honest and not pulling any of its punches -- the studio reminds us that the Nazi regime was the scum of the world then, and would be the scum of the world now if they were still around.
There were some significant hiccups in The New Order's graphics that appeared while we were playing. We had much higher expectations for id Software's proprietary id Tech 5 engine (which is being used for Doom 4 and The Evil Within). Wolfenstein's graphics quality shouldn't have ranged as much as it did for a next-gen title using a brand-new engine. The New Order certainly isn't the prettiest FPS ever made, but once you have everything in motion, its aesthetics, atmosphere and unique visuals blend in to create something that just feels real, despite the complete absurdity of its premise. Everything is believable and thought-provoking while being completely otherworldly and over-the-top. Whether it's the missions on the Nazi's lunar base, escaping a Polish psychiatric asylum or walking underwater in a strange breathing apparatus to Deathshead's castle, everything seemed organic and true to the game while still being completely ridiculous in concept.
Much of Wolfenstein: The New Order's excellent presentation comes from its sound design. Similar to BioShock Infinite, we found ourselves exploring every little detail throughout Neo-Berlin and all of Wolfenstein's other locales. MachineGames successfully made it believable in this game that the Nazi's never lost, expanded to a global empire and became the reigning superpower of the entire world. Accordions, concertinas, bagpipes, clarinets, scheitholt strings and base-y wind instruments make up most of The New Order's soundtrack, making things feel very German. This overwhelming expansion of Nazi culture throughout the game hit a ceiling with us when we listened to a German rendition of a Beatles song, which sounds fun at first until you realize its translated lyrics are nothing but propaganda. Every voice actor in The New Order does a stellar job, none of the German accents in this game ever felt cliche or repeated. In particular, we must commend Brian Bloom on an absolutely amazing job as B.J. Blazkowicz. It's hard to think that the voice of Captain America from 'The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes' and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 could have such a dynamic range, going from the understanding, loving and empathetic voice B.J. shows to the people he cares for, to the snarling, guttural hatred that he spits into the face of every Nazi he slays.
The story of The New Order isn't as absurd as the 2009 Wolfenstein, but still adheres to the over-the-top expectations we have come to expect from the series. MachineGames successfully delivers this to its players by making everything believable and thought-provoking, which is something we never expected from a game that is simply about shooting as many Nazis as you can. Gone are the supernatural, undead and magical themes of the 2009 title, which revolved around Nazi mysticism. Instead, The New Order reverts back to A Return to Castle Wolfenstein's focus on science. The Nazis you fight start off being regular soldiers and lone guards. After a while, you will start fighting mechanized attack dogs, gunners with cybernetic implants and mutated super soldiers decked out in battle armor. Everything you encounter might seem ridiculous on paper, but its just that Wolfenstein delivers it so well that you don't stop to try and refute its reasoning.
The man-out-of-time trope has been done before in many games. Whether its the ramblings of Tekla, or watching B.J. being confused by simple machinery, we are reminded that B.J. should be dead. The characters ask why is he still fighting when everything has changed and the game even encourages you to question whether this is the same B.J. from the previous games or if that even matters. The ultimate answer to all of this is MachineGames' notion that killing Nazis is absolutely fun -- that it doesn't matter if Wolfenstein's actual premise is stupid or if the franchise should never have been resurrected to begin with, all that matters is the fun.
The actual gameplay of Wolfenstein completely abandons the modern cliches of current FPS titles and brings the old ways back. Instead of carrying an assault rifle and a sidearm, B.J. carries an entire arsenal you can choose from at will. If you want to dual-wield sniper rifles or shotguns, you may do so. Most of these guns are modern, logical extensions of old Nazi weaponry, which all felt very new to play and fun to shoot. You don't have to use iron sights all the time, shooting from the hip is almost just as accurate. Don't expect to regenerate life like Wolverine. Instead, you must always scavenge each level for med-kits and armor. This resulted in an experience which felt very nostalgic and inspires us to hope for change within modern FPS conventions.
Despite brilliant storytelling, The New Order offers many instances of incompetent design. The Nazi soldiers' AIs are lackluster -- they either chase you down blindly or stay in position until you come back around. If you take the stealth approach, most patrolling enemies won't even respond to finding a dead comrade clearly visible in front of them, including the important enemies that can radio in reinforcements. Many of times, enemies didn't react to my presence at all, even when they should have clearly detected me. Many of the boss battles were a bit underwhelming as well and featured the same questionable AI. All you had to do for most bosses was either get into a turret and keep firing (no more infinite ammo turret sequences please), or keep unloading your heaviest weapons as you strafe around them. We must say that making the button that accesses your weapon wheel the same one you must tap in order to throw grenades was a horrible idea.
In terms of replay value, Wolfenstein noticeably lacks any form of multiplayer, which is a shame considering its unique arsenal and solid combat mechanics. Since the game's enemy AI and boss battles were so bland, multiplayer could have helped round things out in terms of satiating our need to blow things away with futuristic Nazi weaponry. Instead of multiplayer encouraging you to keep playing, Wolfenstein offers choices you must make for B.J. which tremendously change the plot. For example, at the beginning of the game, you must choose which one of your two captured comrades lives and which one dies. Tekla was our favorite supporting character of the whole game, but she doesn't even appear in the story at all depending on which soldier you saved in the beginning. Ultimately, there is plenty of incentive for you to keep playing The New Order and getting your money's worth. Like its ending, Wolfenstein: The New Order reminds us that time may have moved on and we're not playing the same BJ that killed Mecha-Hitler in '92 but killing Nazis will always be a blast.
This review was completed with a purchased, retail copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order for PlayStation 4.