In the massive hype train leading up to E3, I had my doubts about Wolfenstein: The New Order. Sure, the debut trailer certainly sold me, in all its Jimi Hendrix rockin’ glory. But when actual gameplay was revealed, I was immediately underwhelmed. It looked like just another shooter to me, and even the scif-fi weaponry and alternate history theme failed to tickle my pickle. I was certain I’d be in for a forgettable ride.
Never before have I been more glad to be wrong. Somebody open a window, because Wolfenstein: The New Order’s stench of personality, badassitude and concentrated fun is just too much to handle.
Remember the Wolfenstein reboot from 2009? You probably don’t, because it was unusually bland and boring for a game by Raven Software. The problem was that it didn’t play to its strengths often enough. Rather than emphasize its paranormal abilities and Indiana Jones-esque set-pieces, too much time was spent listening to a dull story play out, exploring a barren and unnecessary open world, or engaging in stale shootouts with standard WWII weapons.
The exact opposite is true of The New Order. Right off the bat, I was treated to Machine Games’ imaginative and oppressive alternate-history world. In the first 10 minutes, I witnessed a large mechanized wolf barking at the car I was in, had a gigantic statue fall on me, used a wall-mounted battery to power up a laser cutter and burn through a fence with it, saw a piece of debris fall and brutally crush a Nazi, and took down a menacing pulse-blaster wielding robot.
In case you didn’t realize yet, The New Order doesn’t screw around. It’s extremely well paced, alternating seamlessly between all-out action and quieter moments, but it never stops letting you do interesting, often awesome things. One minute I was mowing down Nazis with a turret, then detaching said turret and going to town with it on a hulking robot. The next, I was shooting the hinges off an elevator to get the counterweight (and me) bolting upward, or figuring out how to get an awfully BFG-looking armament out of its enclosed testing area.
Of course, gunplay is the beating heart of any shooter, which is why I’m happy to report that Machine Games have nailed it here. Weapons feel powerful in your hands, hammering away at Nazis with satisfying efficiency. Almost all of them can be dual-wielded as well, and I don’t think I need to explain to you the appeal of carrying two belt-fed shotguns. A handy weapon selection menu lets you easily switch between a single weapon and akimbo. Most of the weapons were admittedly not that different from your standard shotgun and machine gun variants, though the insta-gub pulse cannon and detachable turret stood out as exceptions. I’m willing to bet we’ll see more outrageous guns during the rest of the campaign.
The most thoroughly impressive aspect about The New Order is how it brings exploration back to the linear FPS. You actually have health and armor meters in this game. What a concept! This means you’re actually encouraged to explore the environments to find health packs and armor vests. Combined with the plentitude of soldiers, armored soldiers and flying drones thrown at you, this new Wolfy is particularly challenging and frantic. That doesn’t mean it’s unfair, though. I particularly liked the fact that the majority of foes drop small health and armor pickups when they die, meaning I never felt like I was in a hopeless tight spot. This might just be one of the most fair, frustration-free old-school FPSs I’ve ever played.
The retro vibe doesn’t stop there, however. The entire game feels like a homage to overblown 80’s/90’s action films. Our hero B.J. delivers one-liners in a subdued, gravelly voice, and set-pieces like climbing up an elevator wire while shooting Nazis and flying drones overhead feel wonderfully over-the-top. Environments are nicely varied too, ranging from underground caverns to laboratories to kitchens to an observatory modeled after the Nazis’ moon landing.
So yes, The New Order is all kinds of old-school craziness. However, it also pushes its premise and aesthetic so confidently that I couldn’t help but get emotionally invested in it. The very beginning of the demo has your driver intensely cursing the Nazis and the ways they’ve changed the city’s architecture. After he dropped me off at a repurposed building called the London Nautica, he then suicide-bombs the entrance with his vehicle, allowing me to enter more easily. A tragic end, and one that I was actually affected by when looking back on it. Because he had that little angry speech while we were driving, the character felt very justified in his actions. It’s a nice little touch that bring some humanity to the setting.
Another narrative device that caught me off guard was the use of splitscreen storytelling. The screen would divide in cutscenes, showing me the various support characters that were aiding B.J. I loved this, as it brought me closer to my allies. Seeing their faces and reactions was many times more engaging than just hearing their voice in my ear. Combined with the suicide bombing from the beginning of the demo, I see some huge potential for drama in The New Order. That might seem like the game’s trying to have its cake and eat it, considering a lot of the one-liners are meant to elicit laughs, but if this new Wolfy can pull both humor and drama off well, I’ll be all the more impressed.
I say ‘all the more’ because I was already floored by the visuals. At times, I looked at my controller and was startled to see that I was playing on an Xbox 360. There’s a commendable amount of detail and smoothness in the game’s textures, and the framerate never skips a beat. But really, it’s the animation that steals the show. When I first glanced at the driver’s face in the car, I was awe-struck at how realistic his face looked when he talked or shifted his glance towards me. If this is what the current-gen version looks like, then I can’t even imagine what the PS4 and Xbox One iterations will be able to provide.
I should mention some of the flaws in The New Order, for there are a few. Checkpoints can feel a bit spaced out at times, which was especially noticeable in the final segment. I was pitted against two robots, a relentless wave of Nazis troops and a more powerful boss robot, all in a helicopter bay without much cover. Several retries were required, and each time I had to take it from the top. Load times weren’t exactly short either.
Objectives were sometimes vague as well. After reaching the top of the observatory, I was told to access a ‘maintenance bay’ without any clue where the thing was. After a few minutes of wandering, I finally found a hidden balcony I had to sprint-jump to. A bit odd, really. Also, I really wish the weapon selection screen paused or at least slowed down the game, since it can take some getting used to. Having to press a button to pick up ammo, health and armor from enemies can be a bit tedious, and it’s especially awkward during the heat of combat. Finally, the robots, as imposing as they look and sound, are really just bullet sponges with above-average weaponry. Even the boss robot went down eventually from a combo of turrets and conventional bullets. I’m hoping some enemies will require some more thoughtful tactics to bring down.
Wolfenstein is back, baby. Thanks to cleverly integrated old-school mechanics, frantic gunplay, an imaginative and confident sci-fi world, and excellently varied pacing, The New Order has caught me by surprise. It’s easily the most impressive shooter I saw at E3, and in an expo featuring the likes of Destiny and TitanFall, that’s saying something. If you’ve been jonesing for a truly great old-school shooter this generation that isn’t Resistance 3, I’m certain The New Order will rock your socks off.