Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game about shooting Nazis. That statement alone, in its surprising depth, should tell anyone potentially interested in the game more than they likely need to know to make an educated decision. Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game about shooting Nazis, robot dogs, mutant super cyborgs, and straight up giant robot war machines. It's about B.J. Blazkowicz, an America soldier, lost in battle, lost in time, lost in love. Let's just stick with shooting Nazis.
By now it should be clear that Wolfenstein: The New Order embraces an over-the-top ridiculousness that would be hilarious if it wasn't so damn disturbing. The secret, I think, is in Wolfenstein's dedication to self-seriousness. Don't take me wrong, because so many sequences are outlandish and beyond the confines of reality, but there's a grounding in reality, a humanity shared by B.J. and a cast of very interesting characters, that keeps Wolfenstein from stepping into Tarantino areas of excessiveness.
While I was only able to play three hours of Wolfenstein: The New Order, I think it was more than enough time with the game for me to say that yes, the Nazi shooting is more than adequate.
Real American Hero
Let's skip the shooting for now, because core to the Wolfenstein: The New Order's experience, unlike in any Wolfenstein prior, is B.J. Blaskowicz. Yes, B.J. is a real, fully voiced and doe-eyed character with a mysterious backstory and a deep-seated urge to kill Nazis. His boy scout, American soldier disposition is also hugely significant to holding together this twisted universe.
For one, being an American soldier and a first-hand spectator to the atrocities of the Nazi regime allows B.J. to mow down Nazis without consideration. He is good and the Nazis are evil -- and that's not even an assumption, as we're shown terrible, horrific things that the Nazis have done extremely early and continuously throughout the game. This includes extreme torture, human experimentation, the murder of the weak and innocent, and also General Deathshead is like, really ugly. Basically, it allows the player to disconnect (to an extent) from the atrocities they commit themselves in the name of justice. Unless MachineGames plans on throwing that back at us and twisting it so we turn into General Deathshead at the end of the game or something. ... ... ... Hmm.
The other side of the B.J. having a personality coin is his sense of care and comradery makes us genuinely care for the secondary characters around him, and hate the characters that threaten to take that away. That means that on the backdrop of this Nazis-taking-over-the-world overarching story we get these smaller, interesting if not meaningful character stories. We see B.J. working with several other soldiers early in the game, getting close to both Fergus and Wyatt on this terrible battlefield. Similarly, Nazis like General Deathshead and Frau Engel are frightening and enraging at the same time. Unfortunately a majority of this exposition is portrayed via cinematic, though there are sequences of direct gameplay that help bring us closer to the moment-to-moment story events. Let's not even mention Anya, for fear that MachineGames is listening and can still decide to kill her off and tear our hearts out. Don't do it!
What is this Wolfenstein: The New Order that actually has character development, cinematics and a rather complex and compelling plots? If you're feeling uncomfortable about this evolution in the series, perhaps it will comfort you to know the shooting is also very terrific. Before moving on however, know this: this is a good thing. It may be exactly what Wolfenstein needs to offset the intense, detached and brutal violence of standard gameplay. These cinematic pauses, they help us catch our breath... before the next level runs us to the point of exhaustion all over again.
Shootin' Feels Good
I said it before and I'll say it again, but the shooting feels good in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Man, I'm pretty sure this portion of the preview is going to make me sound like a serial killer. Why does shooting feel good? Because hitting Nazis, robots and even the environment with your weapons feel visceral and impactful. Even just a simple machine gun, when on-target, sends up clouds of red mist when on target, shoots long lines of sparks off of metal, shatters glass and leaves deep impressions in rock. The more heavy the weapon, the more intense the visual experience is. While not all of the environment is destructible, some is and when the player reaches one of those set-piece rooms it can feel Matrix-like. Did I mention gore? So much gore. All of the gore.
A big part of it is also the sound design, which again I think it best described by the word impactful. Sound effects and music are loud and heavy, like getting the wind knocked out of you. Again, they're not necessarily realistic, which I doubt they're designed to be, but more created to give a pronounced reaction to the events on-screen. Gah, when that music kicks in everything slow down, it feels good man. It feels really good. Then you run out of bullets for your machine gun and have to spend the next five minutes staring at the floor trying to pick up ammo, but even B.J. doesn't have infinite ammo. Maybe there's a cheat for that...
Similar to other classic FPS titles, players will pick up progressively more radical weapons, some of which can be acquired earlier than normal by discovering secrets. That includes a big turret mini-gun that positively mows down troopers and robots alike. I guess that's mean to replace the actual mini-gun that B.J. used to lug around on his back back in classic Wolfenstein 3D days. Armor chunks and health packs are also spread throughout levels, just like the classics. It's a retro mechanic that should be oddly familiar to old gamers like myself, but I wonder if it's something newer gamers will complain about since it's not automatic pick-up. Frantically searching for items adds a some very excellent moments to combat.
Picking Up Ammo As We Go
Level design also has a classic feel. I mean, it's impossible to recreate that original style of levels being endless labyrinths of corridors, but Wolfenstein still does a good job of making certain areas feel claustrophobic, with others nice and wide-open (which is when the huge robots come in). That said, the levels I've played have all been extremely linear. While every route may have a side corridor or an upstairs and a downstairs, don't expect much exploration or backtracking. Unless you're hunting for the secret areas, another returning classic, of course.
As for graphics quality, well, there are ups and downs. It's rather clear that Wolfenstein was not made purely for next-gen consoles. It doesn't stand up astonishing well compared to the eye-candy of the generation like Killzone Shadow Fall, Ryze or even Infamous. It certainly looks good, it just could look better. However, it does make up for it in other ways. The game flowed like silk, with no noticeable frame rate issues that I could see. And while not everything in the environment seemed to feature the highest quality of texture, they made up for it bye filling the screen with particle effects and other animations -- like for instance the sparks, smoke, shrapnel and so on I mentioned earlier. I'd describe it as visually cohesive, intensifying gameplay with complementary details, but not exceptional.
I do have my worries with Wolfenstein: The New Order, as with any game. Some of them are just dumb mental things, like how B.J.'s stupid one-liners after he gets through an encounter. Occasionally they're clever, but sometimes they're just terrible puns. These lines are rather in contrast to his character in cinematics, but they're almost a necessity given the type of game Wolfenstein is. Other worries are more substantial, like the fact that the early levels I played, while interesting narratively, weren't particularly exciting to me from a design standpoint. Trenches on a beach, a dark castle with brick and metal walls, a hospital and a checkpoint with small metal buildings. I'm really hoping the setting gets a touch more larger-than-life, a little more "Wow!" and a little less "Meh."
One big worry was that I played through three levels of Wolfenstein: The New Order, just over two hours of gameplay, at the medium difficulty which was the second easiest of four available. I died four times. Three levels in two hours, each rife with cinematics? Are gamers going to burn through the entirety of Wolfenstein in 6-7 hours at launch and be unwilling to play through again because of the heavy narrative? Next time I get to play I'll choose the next difficulty up without hesitation. It may make the difference between a short, cinematic game and a lengthy, challenging thrill-ride.
Finally, there were a handful of quick-time events that I found rather dumb. One resulted in a Nazi stabbing me in the chest maybe ten times before I realized I had to press a button. B.J. walked away without a scratch, of course. While I enjoy mixing up the shooting with random gameplay... things, don't add lame things to the game. It'd be better without the worst of them.
I'm excited to see how B.J. Blazkowicz's story plays out. It's not an easy thing to wake up in a world controlled by a Nazi regime after fourteen years in a waking coma to find you and your secret love interest in danger. Then to put the revolution on your own shoulders? One man against a world of Nazis? Rough, bro. Real rough. He seems to be handling it like a champ, however, picking up all the guns he can find and shooting all the Nazis that stand in his way.
Let's be honest. Wolfenstein: The New Order isn't aiming to be a game of the year candidate. It's looking to be a fun shooter with crisp gameplay and enough of a storyline to hook a wider audience than the hardcore FPS and retro gaming crowd. If that's accurate, then Wolfenstein is absolutely over delivering based on what I've been able to experience in the game. Now to see if it's actually marketable in our day and age.