Wolfenstein: The New Order developer Machine Games has created something sinister, hard-hitting and most importantly, fun, in its sequel to id's classic. Dave Cook goes deep into the German-occupied sixties to see how it handles.
”The New Order is a game about silly men shooting sillier men and robots in the face with hyper-violent results. It's fun. That's why games are made to begin with, right?”
I was going to start this review by discussing the dangers of crafting a sequel to something as celebrated as Wolfenstein, but you already know the risks. Much is riding on this one, and for all of Machine Games' attempts to inject some new - and admittedly enjoyable - ideas into the template, it still manages to feel like it belongs in series. That can't have been easy to achieve.
There's a grease-smeared, mechanical heart beating at the core of The New Order's sinister aesthetic that recalls the menace of those original pixelated corridors and their scores of shuffling Nazis. It all sits beneath a veil of carefully-crafted atmosphere that hangs over the whole thing like a smog cloud, dirtying and adding weight to everything it envelops. If you like your games dark, savage and violent, you've come to the right place.
The opening stages see all-American hero BJ Blazkowicz storming a Nazi facility in a push that could see an end to World War II. You'll stalk filthy stone corridors in search of hidden ammo and armour stashes, while slotting countless German troops to create vast explosions of blood, before ascending a formidable stone castle. Inside you'll find intimidating portraits of generals, banquet tables lined with delicacies and golden goblets. This section is clearly a love letter to the original.
”Thanks to id-Tech 5′s destruction model you’ll be evaporating tables to expose hidden enemies, send stacks of papers flying around the scenery, and erode stonework with each discharge.”
But all of those memories fade as soon as Blazkowicz enters a coma after a brush with insane Nazi leader Deathshead. He awakens in a Polish mental asylum in 1960 to find the world overrun by German forces, thirsty for revenge. It's at this point that the old Wolfenstein tropes recede and Machine Games confidently puts its own stamp on the series, like the passing of some brilliant, gore-filled torch.
Combat has obviously moved beyond the simplistic format of the 1992 original, but The New Order manages to retain the pace and no-nonsense approach established by id Software while piling some new tricks on top. If you know shooters then you already understand how this handles at base level, but once you dual-wield a pair of fully automatic shotguns and go on a glee-filled rampage of destruction, you'll wonder how you ever lived without them.
So dual-wielding is in there, as is stealth. It's possible to pass through certain sections without being spotted, and this is advisable in areas containing generals. These high-ranking officers will call for never-ending waves of back-up until killed if they spot you, so it's advisable to ghost your way to them first before taking out nearby grunts. You can do this by adding silencers to your pistol, stabbing them with a brutal melee attack or hurling throwing knives into their back.
Doing this in total silence is hard-fought given the lack of mini-map, but it's rewarding as all hell. When the passive approach fails you can enter full slaughter mode with The New Order's bulky arsenal that dispenses heft with each kick of the trigger. Thanks to id-Tech 5's destruction model you'll be evaporating tables to expose hidden enemies, send stacks of papers flying around the scenery, and erode stonework with each discharge. It's a game that makes you feel unstoppable in the face of overwhelming force.
There's also a cover mode that roots Blazkowicz to the spot when you hold R1 (I was playing on PS4), and enables the player to lean or go prone quickly by moving the left stick. It's perhaps not as slick as the contextual method found in Call of Duty: Ghosts, but because you have full control over it, the mechanic never gets confused. I like it, although I found the running knee-slide move didn't add much aside from looking rather cool.
All of these weapons and tools are in there to allow for a variety of play-styles, and this factors into the game's Perk system. It's made up of four skills trees dedicated to stealth, assault, demolition and tactical play styles. Achieve 80 kills with the assault rifle from behind cover for example, and your clip size will improve. It encourages you to mix up your methodology and gives you more to aim for than just killing everything in sight.
”At a time where features and mechanics are being piled on your plate like pork pies at an all you can eat buffet, it’s nice to see a game going for the ‘less is more’ angle without comprising quality.”
But through all of The New Order's wanton destruction and death, there's a great story that is told through moments that feel similar to Jackie's trips to the subway in Starbreeze shooter The Darkness.
Unsurprisingly, Machine Games was founded by several core members of that game's team, and it shows once Blazkowicz kick-starts the resistance. You'll walk around their hideout, talk with NPCs, read up on how the Nazi's conquered the globe and listen to stories from their past. It's not literary benchmarking, but it's a welcome respite from the carnage. A breather, if you will.
There's also some truly menacing scenes that put you on edge, such as an encounter with an Aryan profiler that recalls the opening farmhouse scene in Tarantino's flick Inglorious Bastards. There's also an unfortunate incident with a chainsaw early on, not to mention some gameplay sections in a prison that feel positively similar to Half-Life 2's locales. As I sneaked past patrolling guards and under the gaze of auto-turrets, I was reminded of the Combine and the oppression felt in City 17. Later on, a long journey up a towering research facility in London brings platform sections that feel close to Freeman's escapades.
And like Half-Life 2, The New Order also has it's 'Gravity Gun' moment in the form of Blazkowicz's laser cutter tool, which is later swapped out for a more-powerful rail gun. Using these devices, players can burn their way through mesh fences and steel covers that collapse with accurate physics, and no, I didn't use it to cut out a giant cock. Anyway, this simple mechanic gives you the option to prize open alternative paths, burn through fortified ammo crates and complete simple platforming puzzles. It's not earth-shattering, but certainly neat.
”While I’m certain other critics and gamers will pick larger holes in The New Order’s blood-stained fabric, I was perfectly happy to kick back and hip-fire my way through an entire army of enemies while laughing.”
The game's not perfect of course, as the AI stumbles at times between being ruthless and deceptive, to simply walking into the open or idling, waiting to die. While it runs at 60FPS on PS4 and is often wonderfully-presented, there are other areas that feel murky and drab by comparison.
I'm happy to overlook these dips based on the game's grimy aesthetic, although there's also a real disconnect between the visuals in cut-scenes and gameplay at times, with Blazkowicz's model looking fine in some cinematics, but lacking polish in others.
Also, where's the multiplayer? It should be in there.
While I'm certain other critics and gamers will pick larger holes in The New Order's blood-stained fabric, I was perfectly happy to kick back and hip-fire my way through an entire army of enemies while laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. It handles well, makes a decent stab at pathos and narrative, while keeping things sinister like its parent.
I like it because it retains that base simplicity, and at a time where features and mechanics are being piled on your plate like pork pies at an all you can eat buffet, it's nice to see a game going for the 'less is more' angle without comprising quality. The extras are there if you wish to fully embrace them, but if you want to ditch stealth and ignore the story, then that's entirely up to you.
The New Order is a game about silly men shooting sillier men and robots in the face with hyper-violent results.
It's fun. That's why games are made to begin with, right?
Disclosure: To assist in writing this article, Bethesda sent Dave a PS4 copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order.