Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn’t make a great first impression. In its opening level, which takes place during an assault on Castle Wolfenstein in 1946, The New Order feels sluggish, looks underwhelming, and seems overly linear and generic. It also seems to fall into the tired loop of set-piece, gameplay, set-piece that colors so many modern day shooters. At that point, I wasn’t feeling hopeful for the rest of The New Order, but fortunately this opening was an anomaly; the invasion attempt fails, and the series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz is sent into a 14 year long coma. He awakes to a world where the Nazis have won World War II, and now control much of the planet. It’s at this point that MachineGames reveal their desire to make The New Order heavy on both pulpy thrills and sobering World War II-era realities.
That sounds like a difficult combination to fully serve, but The New Order manages to make it work much more often than not; a surprising turn of events considering the track record of most AAA first person shooters. It does this by couching quieter, more introspective moments in a plot not dissimilar in structure to a heist movie; the player will be sent out on a mission to build the resistance against the Nazi regime, kill a bunch of Nazis in pursuit of that goal, and then return to the resistance headquarters where the narrative slows down so BJ can converse with his fellow freedom fighters. And to The New Order‘s credit, these members are often critical of BJ and the country he used to represent; one individual brings up America’s long history of racial prejudice, and it’s nice to see BJ unable to defend against the accusation. It lets The New Order have its big action without devolving into another pro-American nationalistic shooter.
Elements like this extend to the game’s environments, which all tend to feel fully formed. MachineGames clearly put some care into their vision of alternate history 1960, and while not all areas of the game take advantage of the unique setting, the ones that do feel simultaneously fantastical and true-to-life. Take for example a level that has BJ infiltrating a concentration camp in order to free one of its prisoners: the setting’s mechanically-bent nature makes it look distinct and foreign, but it still overwhelmingly resembles real life concentration camps in both structure and atmosphere. At worst, The New Order can oscillate a little too quickly from its heist-theatrics (cutscenes explaining mission objectives are oftentimes joined by funky background guitars) to its more sobering material, but it ultimately holds itself together rather well, especially for a game whose protagonist is named “BJ Blaskowicz”.
Similarly to how its narrative combines seemingly at-odds qualities, The New Order‘s mechanics blend together elements of both 90’s and modern shooters together to create something unique. Working well with its pulpy, revenge-oriented plot, the gunplay of The New Order is often bloody and extremely cathartic. It’s also reasonably adaptive; several areas in the game let BJ perform stealth kill maneuvers if the player prefers, and the areas are set up to facilitate either a run-and-gun structure, or a more stop-and-pop style of play. And running and gunning is actually quite viable: The New Order‘s health system gives BJ 100 hit points he can refill by gathering health packs, but they also regenerate to every 20 point interval. Additionally, health packs that are picked up will still add to BJ’s health as an “overcharge” that slowly resets back to 100, and armor can also be picked up that helps resist damage taken. The result? BJ can muscle through a handful of Nazi troops without too much trouble, and the dim AI means they don’t put up too much of a fight.
Things get a little more difficult in large-scale fights however; the Nazis of 1960 have quite a few mechanical horrors to throw at BJ, including augmented-dogs and large rocket-firing robots. MachineGames fortunately makes the act of fighting a largely enjoyable one with a number of smart design decisions. For one, there’s a weapon wheel, and while there aren’t an overwhelming amount of weapons, they each serve a unique role and also receive several upgrades over the course of The New Order. With a single exception, all of these weapons can be dual-wielded, a well-implemented feature that does wonders. Dual-wielding is a blast, but it primarily works so well because there are tangible benefits and drawbacks; dual-wielding can help reduce squads of enemies more quickly, but you also sacrifice the ability to ADS and run the risk of expelling too much ammo. Deciding whether or not to generally dual-wield feeds heavily into how The New Order‘s perk system works: it’s split up into four trees that each focus on a certain style of play (namely stealth, tactical, assault, and demolition). Earning a perk is as simple as fulfilling its requirement, and they’ll give you some bonuses that’ll make other perks on its tree easier to obtain. This means that The New Order continually rewards players for their own playstyle, which is a nice touch. Also worth highlighting: The New Order has a dedicated lean button, which is so nicely implemented that I see no reason why it shouldn’t be added to every FPS going forward.
It’s been a while since I’ve simply enjoyed the act of playing a FPS as much as I have with The New Order, and it’s largely because the game isn’t afraid to experiment more than its contemporaries. It’s smart enough to realize that the strength of its mechanics and environments are good enough without bombarding players with constant setpiece moments (although the handful that do exist are rather enjoyable). Quite simply, its paced well, and the while the narrative fizzles out on an altogether too-serious note at the end, it’s a well-crafted ride up until that point. Wolfenstein: The New Order understands that a FPS can have its cake and eat it too.