Wolfenstein: The New Order
The Good: High nostalgia value. Excellent plotline and acting.
The Bad: Wrapped around a pretty run of the mill FPS.
The Ugly: Iffy enemy AI at points.
This is going to be one of those reviews where I reveal that I’m old as dirt. I was a freshman in frigging high school when Castle Wolfenstein was released, and I’m not referring to Wolfenstein 3D which was an FPS that came out a decade later and is probably the first Wolfenstein most of you have ever heard of, but the top down stealthish game from Muse Software in 1981 (extra credit: do a little math and figure out how old I am, and I’ll thank you very much to get the hell off my lawn). Over those lo and many years FPS games have come a long way, and Wolfenstein: The New Order takes a lot of those advancements and integrates them very successfully, pulling together stealth elements and bullet blasting without really cheaping out on either one. At its best moments, it calls to mind some of the most memorable scenes from Halflife and Portal and Bioshock, games that draw you so deeply into their story that you actually care about the people you’re trying to save and want righteous vengeance against thine enemies. At its worst, however, it doesn’t exactly slog – the game isn’t long enough for that – but it becomes a very pat slit a few throats, hose down a few rooms, and activate the next cut scene activity that I think a better AI might have avoided.
For those who are looking for a capsule review, those with short attention spans, think of W:TNO as Halflife with more bullets or Serious Sam or Bulletstorm with way more plot. And though I’m not going to delve into that plot, because I think it is one of the biggest joys of the game to experience firsthand and you meet many memorable and complex characters through a slew of cutscenes, I will say that it is as satisfying as it is ludicrous. Some may believe that there are too many cutscenes, as sometimes you have a cutscene, then take control of your character long enough to do a single trivial task, like bring a note from one character to another, and that kicks off another cutscene. At points I was just about in that camp as well, even though all the acting and voicework are very well done. The plot is also outlandish, cartoonishly so. So outlandish that Schwarzenegger would have difficulty playing it with a straight face, though let me clarify that this isn’t in any way a funny story. I’ve had a number of people who know I do game reviews ask me if W:TNO is funny, and I have no idea why that should be so. Maybe they’re confusing it with Duke Nukem which was plenty snarky, but you used to stab guard dogs in the head in W:3D for christsakes, and W:TNO has not gotten more jovial with age. It’s dark, real dark, but so outlandish that you can dual wield auto-shotguns turning enemies into pink mist with some giblets, and dual wield sniper rifles that can blow off someone’s head so blood fountains out their neck. They also have you travel to the moon in a level lasting all of five minutes. Why they went to the trouble of altering the physics engine to make you jump around on the moon for only five minutes of gameplay – that’s beyond me – but they did. The game equally briefly sticks you in a mech suit – another glorious piece of the game engine that kind of isn’t put to any good use.
The game is chock full of Easter eggs and notes and letters, newspaper clippings and tchotchkes. There are perks you can earn which enhance your character depending on how you play, so if you spend a lot of time sneaking around and killing Germans, you get better at it with more kills. In a wink and a nod to W:3D there are secret rooms cheesily secreted behind bookcases and the like. There are also pieces of the enigma code lying around that if you collect all of them unlock new game modes. I wish to heck I could write more about what those modes are, but at least sort of casually going around picking them up, I never managed to complete an entire set, so you need to actually search for those suckers I guess. There are many weapons (knives, handguns, rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, chain guns, laser weapons) and every weapon has a secondary firing mode (though if you dual wield, often only the weapon in your right hand can perform it), and health upgrades, and armor pieces and weapon modifications lying around. So the game is loaded up with stuff that completists are going to go nuts over, but it also has some very glaring omissions given the state of FPS games today.
There is no oxygen meter when you are underwater. The game even mentions your need for oxygen once on a mission in the sewers under Berlin, but you can ignore that message and you never run out. An omission? A bug? Whatever it is, it’s peculiar. You also have to hit ‘E’ to pick up anything – a bit of armor, a note, some ammo. Autopickup is a luxury you definitely come to appreciate after hitting E for the eleven hundredth time. There are also no significant branching points in the story. Let me amend that: very early in the story there is a very major branching point in terms of plot, and I kind of shed a tear making that decision, but regardless of which way you choose, the actual gameplay from that point forward doesn’t change all that much. Individually the levels also seem to have a fair selection of paths in getting from A to B – you can stick to the main hallway which is likely highly defended or crawl through the air ducts to catch a lot of the enemy by surprise and sometimes third and fourth routes exist as well. But big picture gameplay branching stuff doesn’t happen. Even if you’ve been stealthing it up for 95% of the game, there’s nothing stopping you from becoming a meat grinder at that point beyond the perks that you might have missed, but the perks are not that major, and you definitely don’t need them to complete the game.
If the game has a weak point, and it does, it is the enemy AI. Sure, the guards walk totally repetitive patterns and spend an inordinate amount of time staring at walls or out windows allowing you to execute (pun intended) quick and easy instakills – but that’s a given in stealth-based games. They also take cover behind objects that simply offer them no cover, and poke their heads around corners despite the pile of bodies from the last five guards who have poked their heads around that very same corner. They also attempt to flank you so consistently that it’s more the rule than the exception, and if you pay attention you can always be pointed in the right direction waiting for them. Boss fights seem to have even greater problems, as you can typically locate a place where you can shoot them from that they can’t seem to quite get a bead on you, and they don’t adjust their strategy and they don’t change their approach and they just die.
I realize as I read this over that this review is pretty all over the place, even compared to my usual structureless reviews. Wolfenstein: The New Order is an electric veg-o-matic of FPS gaming bits and pieces set thrown into the hopper and set for puree. It lacks some stuff that we’re sort of gotten used to seeing in our FPS games these days and adds, a thousand collectable widgets aside, not much that we haven’t seen elsewhere before. That said, for me at least, it struck a strong nostalgic chord, and has a plot that more than carries it across the ten or so hours of flying lead that it takes to complete it.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
This review is based on a retail copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order for the PC provided by Bethesda Softworks.