Well, this game was significantly better than it had any right to be. Wolfenstein isn’t really a series known to have aged with dignity and wasn’t really on my radar at all, lacking any nostalgia for the earlier ones. I gave it a shot though, and lo and behold I think I have my favourite game of 2014 so far on my hands.
The New Order follows long time series protagonist BJ Blazkowitz, and opens in an alternate universe where World War 2 has extended into 1946. Blazkowitz and a range of other soldiers launch an attack on the compound of Deathshead, a Nazi scientist and long time foe of Blaskowitz. During the attack, Blazkowitz gains a shrapnel wound to the head, which leaves him in a vegetative state in a Polish asylum until 1960. In this universe, the Nazis have taken over the world following the dropping of an atomic bomb on the United States. After Nazis storm the asylum and murder the kind doctor and his wife who run it, Blazkowitz re-awakens and, with Anya, a young pharmacist and daughter of the operators of the asylum, sets off to Berlin to free his former comrades and join a new revolution against Nazi rule.
The first pleasant surprise of The New Order is the great story. The alternate universe Nazi stuff has been done a lot, but rarely better than here. The true horror of a Nazi victory suffuses the entire experience, and The New Order does a great job of showing rather than telling, letting the clear misery of the populace and scattered propaganda impart to the player the sickness of this regime. Although any sane person will acknowledge the evil of Nazi ideology, it’s always been so far from my own experience that I could only appreciate this on an intellectual level. The New Order made me feel my disgust, on an emotional level, with the sickening reality that, robots and goofy technology aside, the attitude which underpins these villains was one which was widely held, and not that long ago.
Blazkowitz is an unsophisticated protagonist, but the excellent voice work and writing make him a cut above the average gruff, square-jawed American protagonist. Blazkowitz isn’t a misery, he doesn’t brood, he’s capable of a range of emotions. Admittedly, his most common emotion in Nazi slaughtering rage, but we see him capable of joy, love and grief. On the surface he may look like just another bland protagonist, but trust me, Blazkowitz is no Aiden Pearce. One disappointment is that while a Jewish heritage for Blazkowitz is hinted at, it’s never confirmed, something which would obviously change the context of his character significantly. I don’t really know why MachineGames held back from confirming this, but I really wish they had. The supporting cast a likeable and well developed too; they regularly sort themselves out of situations, and aren’t just passive targets for Blazkowitz to protect. So many games feature the American hero who parachutes in and saves everyone, but while Blazkowitz is a help, the rest of the resistance are all perfectly competent without him. There are some wonky tonal issues, with one chapter in particular veering from a viscerally horrifying depiction of a concentration camp to gloriously cathartic killing spree, but mostly The New Order balances its silliness and it’s seriousness well.
Of course, all this would be null if the actual shooting wasn’t good, but, happily, it is! There’s little in the way of gimmicks; all the guns are ones we’ve seen before, but it’s simply flawlessly executed, and never less than satisfying. The New Order balances the strengths of classic and modern shooters brilliantly, whilst jettisoning the weaknesses. The fast pace chaos of classic shooters meets an effective cover system, with none of the weightlessness of classic shooters or the blandness of infinitely regenerating health of modern shooters. The game is linear, but there are multiple approaches to most levels, with the stealth being simple but hugely satisfying. Guns blazing is a viable tactic though, and never less than gloriously fun. It’s worth taking your time through the levels though, as there’s a lot to scavenge and find. An unlockable perks system means that the player is rewarded for mastering particular play styles, whilst also perhaps encouraging you to eventually tackle situations in different ways to unlock perks which might otherwise remain locked. The New Order is a great case of not reinventing the wheel, focusing on tight gameplay and clever level design instead.
The campaign is lengthy, but doesn’t outstay its welcome. The New Order is a great example of just how good a single player only FPS can be, when a developer doesn’t need to divide their resources. It doesn’t even have pointless immersion breaking co-op! It’s brilliantly paced, with a wide range of different environments and situations, meaning that it never descends into the mindless corridor shooting that has infected modern shooters. There’s a timeline split early on, with two versions of the campaign, which will offer some changes, but felt mostly to me like an artificial way to inflate value. This game was plenty good value without it. There are a range of gameplay systems outside the shooting, but they’re always short but sweet.
The New Order isn’t exactly a visual powerhouse, and is one of those games depressingly held back by the need to appear in the last console generation. It still looks great though, and the actual visual design is fantastic, really helping to immerse the player in this world. There are all kinds of fun details as well, such as a great soundtrack including the Nazi version of The Beatles and The Animals. The voice acting is stellar, both for the English and German parts. This game isn’t afraid of making you read subtitles sometimes! Deathshead is a bit too muchof a silly cliché to be truly menacing, but he gets the job done as a baddie. You certainly grow to hate him very quickly. The better villain is the secondary Frau Engel, who runs a concentration camp with gleeful sadism. The New Order has a really strong aesthetic, and it’s a setting I really hope MachineGames return to.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is, most of all, a focused game. It doesn’t aim to be a jack of all trades, opting instead to simply to the basics really well. In the end, this produces an overall more satisfying experience than the sprawling variety of something like Watch Dogs. The New Order joins Mario Kart 8 as a surprise contender for game of the year so far.