Playing Wolfenstein: New Order reminds us why shooting Nazis never gets old

Check out our full written Wolfenstein: The New Order review.

We’ve been away from World War II games for a few years now, so it feels okay to say this: killing Nazis really doesn’t ever get old. That’s the big takeaway we picked up from our time with the first three chapters of Wolfenstein: The New Order. These may be alt-history 1960 Nazis with access to mechs and exo-suits and the stuff of classic sci-fi, but you still get the same sense of satisfaction from watching their stupid, hateful faces explode after a well-placed headshot. Then you steal a bunch of treasure and eat a bowl of dog food to heal yourself.

Wolfenstein, we’ve missed you.

Story/Concept

Different world, same jerk Nazis. While Wolfenstein: The New Order exists as a vehicle for lovers of video games to kill Nazis, this particular take is quite a bit different than what we’ve seen before. The world that B.J. Blazkowicz navigates is not the one we all know. He wakes up in 1960 after an extended time away from the world (more on that below) to find that the Nazis won World War II and conquered the world. Having mechanical four-legged monsters that never existed in real-life 1945 probably helped a little bit. Following an extended intro that sets up the story and the main villain, B.J. ventures into the Nazi-controlled world to organize a resistance a free humanity. Piece of cake.

Everything about Wolfenstein: The New Order screams role shooter… until you play it.

Not quite World War II. The game begins with an aerial battle set during the late days of World War II. B.J. Blazkowicz and his crewmates aboard a flying B-17 Flying Fortress (or this alternate history’s equivalent) are fighting to stay alive while Nazis jets – yup, the Nazis have jets – pummel them from all sides. The basic control tutorial plays out as a frantic scurry to keep the bomber aloft. You run around finding tools to fix broken parts with and manning a turret to keep the swarming enemies at bay. 

It’s all for nothing of course, and you eventually bail out of your doomed bomber – by leaping out the cockpit door, naturally – to  land on the wing of another doomed bomber – something that could TOTALLY work out okay in real life – which promptly crashes, setting up the next section of the tutorial. Once on the ground, you creep through the wreckage of the downed aircraft and make your way to a surviving turret that you then use to save your comrades by blasting the crap out of giant Nazi mech dogs. 

Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Blazkowicz and his fellow crash survivors head to their destination: the castle fortress of Nazi General Deathshead, a depraved madman with an appreciation for human experimentation. Your advance up the sheer cliff that the castle sits on top of and then through the fortress itself is a mixture of run-and-gun combat, stealthy exploration, and set piece-driven action. It’s very much in the vein of the series’ earlier entries, all stone corridors and rooms decked out with suits of armor and swastika-adorned tapestries, though it’s peppered with technology that just shouldn’t be there. A glow-emitting machine here, a cyborgified attack dog there.

The chapter concludes with Deathshead trapping Blazkowicz and a few of his fellow soldiers, including their commanding officer. Something about our hero catches the general’s eye, and he puts a choice to B.J.: one of the other two uninjured U.S. soldiers is going to be horribly maimed. There’s a somewhat green rookie and the tough-as-nails CO. You’re left to choose which. It’s not clear how your decision ripples forward through the rest of the story, but the moment speaks to a more evolved story than the series’ earlier “don’t ask questions, just kill Nazis” approach.

Reviving the resistance. B.J. manages to escape at the end of the opening chapter when he leaps from one of the castle’s windows, but the fall leaves him in a vegetative state. He convalesces in a European hospital for more than a decade after he’s found washed up on a shore with nothing to identify him. The stupor is broken when Nazi forces come to the hospital on General Deathshead’s orders to shut it down, eliminating all patients. B.J. fights back and gets away with Anya, his longtime nurse and daughter of the hospital’s murdered husband-and-wife administrators.

The two make their way to the home of Anya’s grandparents, where we learn that the Nazis were the victors of World War II. The United States was overrun and conquered, and all who resisted were either killed or jailed. Our demo concluded with B.J. making his way to a nearby Nazi prison, hoping to free a few folks that may be able to help him fight back against the oppressive, globe-spanning regime.

Gameplay

Wolfenstein redux. The three hours of Wolfenstein: The New Order that we played feels heavily influenced at its core by the games in the series that preceded it. Stealth is a new (and seemingly optional) element, but combat is the main focus. You run. You gun. Nazis die. All of the guns (that we picked up) can be dual wielded, and most of them pack a satisfying punch. There’s also an unusual approach with ammo that divides your bullet supplies into two categories: light and heavy. The light ammo is what you use to feed your smaller weapons, like pistols and SMGs, while the heavy ammo gets plugged into larger guns, like assault rifles and shotguns. There’s an obvious inspiration here from Wolfenstein 3D, which didn’t trouble itself with silly concerns like ammo clips. The same ammo that fits in your assault rifle also fits in your shotgun. Stop asking questions.

You run. You gun. Nazis die.

The linear shootfest that characterizes the first chapter – which covers everything from the bomber on through Deathshead’s fortress – opens up a bit when Blazkowicz sets out to rescue his pals. Wolfenstein: The New Order is a linear shooter, to be clear, but it isn’t all close confines and blood-spattered deathcubes. That’s as much a necessity of design as it is a welcome evolution, since the hulking Nazi mech machines take up so much space. The pair that we faced off against appeared in a wide open outdoor prison yard dotted with bits of cover and turret-mounted guard towers. Hopefully the rest of the game sticks to the same mix between corridor run-and-gun and “choose your own murder path” exploration.

Wolfenstein The New Order hands on screenshot CleaningMyCastle

Expanding your role. Shooting every Nazi you see in the face is a perfectly acceptable (and rewarding) approach to take with Wolfenstein: The New Order, but we’ve come a long way since the days of no-reload firearms and spamming the space bar while you mash yourself against every wall in search of a secret room. This new take on the series adds a layer of progression, defined as Perks, which spreads across four categories: Stealth, Tactical, Assault, and Demolition. Unlocks come from completing various challenges. Sofor example, the Assassin perk – which eliminates the sound you make when sprinting and increases your crouched movement speed – is earned once you’ve stealth-killed 80 soldiers and 5 “Kampfhunds,” the aforementioned robo-dogs. The Tactical tree’s Deadeye perk, which increases headshot damage when you’re aiming down a weapon’s sights, requires five headshot kills apiece with your assault rifle and pistol.

Presentation

A brave New Order. The first three chapters run through an assortment of environments, all of which drip with detail. From your frantic scramble through the sparking, fiery innards of a doomed bomber to your creeping nighttime advance through a secure prison, there’s a distinct feeling that these are inhabited spaces rather than carefully constructed playgrounds of Nazi death. Deathshead’s fortress is adorned with suits of armor and tapestries that immediately put you in the mind of the original game. There’s treasure to be found, some of it is even locked away in secret rooms (you even get a completion percentage at the end of each chapter). Health pickups come in the form of first aid kits, of course, but you can also interact with food – even dog food – to use it as a healing item.

While all of the throwbacks are welcome, developer MachineGames also takes advantage of present-day gaming hardware in some fun ways that even 2009’s Wolfenstein didn’t. The PlayStation 4 version of the game (which we played our demo on) pops with eye-catching visual effects, but it’s not just there to look pretty. You might not get destruction on par with the likes of a Battlefield: Bad Company game, but enemy fire shreds most points of cover convincingly. Wood splinters, stone chips away. The visual feedback is a welcome bonus, and one that really helps to enhance the immediacy of the action. It’s going to pop a little more on the new consoles than it will on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, but something as simple as destructible cover – which all consoles can handle – represents an improvement to what we’ve seen from the series previously.

Takeaway

Everything about Wolfenstein: The New Order screams rote shooter… until you play it. It seems clear from the handful of hours that we’ve spent with it that MachineGames knows and loves the series. More than that, the developer seems to have used what came before as a strong framework for building new ideas on top of. All of this could change in the final analysis of the finished game of course, but what we’ve seen so far is a very promising step forward for games bearing the name Wolfenstein.

(Images and video © ZeniMax Media Inc)

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