This is a series with some serious pedigree. While it may, at times, have disappeared amongst the throng of other first-person shooters out there (and there's plenty of them), Wolfenstein is the father of them all; the prototype laid down before id Software went on to blow us all away with Doom. Of course, id aren't on development duties for Wolfenstein: The New Order, but their imprint, their legacy, can be felt through every facet of the game.
It starts off slow. The opening mission isn't great, and before the climax at the end of the first act, we're a little worried that The New Order is another misstep for the series, an underwhelming entry in an IP that has had more than its fair share of forgettable games. It's not even the second mission, nor the third, that changes our mind, but come the halfway point, we're enjoying ourselves, and by the end, when the last bullet has been fired, we feel the gentle glow of satisfaction descend on us. Machine Games hasn't crafted the perfect shooter, but they've given it a good go and the results are decent.
There's hand-holding in the first levels, perhaps too much. Most of us know what we're doing nowadays, and while basic introduction to the systems bleeds pace out of the opening, they at least do manage to blend in the tutorial convincingly enough. Early on-screen instructions conflict with the action at times, distracting rather than informing, and finicky connections between set-pieces lead to needless deaths and avoidable frustration. We also can't hear some of the dialogue, as the audio balancing felt off at times.
After the slow start, what then comes into focus is the quality of the gunplay, which is, after all, the cornerstone that everything is built around when it comes to the first-person shooter genre. The guns that we're introduced to have a satisfying heft, the bullets that spew forth from fire punch into walls and enemies alike. Concrete splinters, blood and viscera splatters, smoke bellows, the speakers crackle as we scythe through waves of Nazi troopers and panzerhounds.
If you're wondering what panzerhounds are, and when Wolfenstein: The New Order is set, it's a complicated story, but by the end it makes enough sense. The narrative is very silly, but it's very well told silliness. The game kicks off towards the end of World War II, only we're on the losing side, on the receiving end of a severe hiding from the Nazi war machine. Following the conclusion of that first mission we pass through time with hero B.J. Blaskowicz. Years roll by as he sits, incapacitated, in a mental home, bereft of his faculties. Needless to say he doesn't stay that way, and once stirred into life he seeks out the resistance, continuing the war where he left it.
The setting, an alternate 1960s, where the Nazis control most of the planet, has been brilliantly realised. There's newspaper clippings all over the place, offering snippets of history, charting the rise of the new world order, and the fall of democracy. Usually reading chunks of exposition like this leaves us feeling cold, bored, but the richness of the setting, and its proximity to actual events, means we're compelled to discover more about the world around us and follow the fascinating timeline that's been dropped for us like so many breadcrumbs (there's audio files too, but frustratingly you can only listen to this by stepping away from the action, you can't play them in the background as you push forward).
The world around us is experienced through several different missions, visiting locations that've changed significantly from how they ended up in real life. Brutal concrete structures, industrial and hard edged - this version of the future isn't pretty, and it's realised in an entirely plausible way. Moving through the environments we encounter futuristic tech, including a laser device that cuts through thin metal surfaces, opening up alternate routes and doubling as a weapon. At the beginning of the game we're asked to make a particularly difficult decision, the outcome of which defines whether you can pick locks or hack electronics, splitting the collectibles that you'll be able to grab in just one playthrough, meaning at least two passes if you want to earn all the Trophies/Achievements (and there's also some narrative variation too).
While the visuals may be striking, they're not best-in-class. They are, however, part of a well observed aesthetic style. Textures may not dazzle in the same way as they do in other new-gen games (we played on PlayStation 4), and some sections suffer from a slight lack of clarity thanks to various visual effects (smoke and lighting) and textures clashing, but it's a cohesive effort overall, and doesn't try too hard to dabble with realism. Wolfenstein knows exactly what kind of game it is, and doesn't try and dress itself up as something that it isn't.
At its core The New Order is brutally violent, exemplified by the arsenal of weapons you can take into battle, and the effects your bullets have on your enemies. There's different Perks, passive buffs that are earned through pursuing a specific playstyle. If you go in with all guns blazing, dual-wielding shotguns and lobbing grenades, you'll get Perks that aid you further in this direction. If, like us, you go in using stealth to whittle down enemy numbers before pulling out the firearms, you can unlock helpful things such as the ability to throw knives. There's a lean, allowing you to poke your head around a corner and check before taking the plunge, a necessary and useful tool if you're going to approach each new encounter with a degree of caution.
There's a decent arsenal of weapons, from lasers to shotguns via machine guns and pistols, and each weapon has its own place on the battlefield. Nearly all have an alt-fire function that can be unlocked, offering further variation. It's an impressive setup, completely let down by a frustratingly designed weapon select system. Your current weapon and the previously selected weapon can be cycled between on a face button, while a radial menu containing all of your offensive options can be found on the shoulder of the controller. All fine in theory, but in the heat of battle, when your weapons run out of ammo, you're stuck with the two weapons currently selected, and then having to dance through to the radial menu and select new guns while you should be concentrating on the battle at hand. The setup as it is leads to frustrating and needless deaths, and grabbing a new weapon from your collection should be much more straightforward.
The targets that you'll be blasting away at are a mixture of human and mechanical adversaries. The Nazi soldiers vary between normal troops and genetically modified beasts. The latter are bullet sponges that require heavy ordinance for a quick dispatch. More fleshy local commanders are tied to alarms, and killing them halts the flow of reinforcements. Metallic enemies include panzerhounds and giant robots (some more giant than others). Enemy AI is dimwitted and slow across the board, which is shame, as it means the stealth sections are more one-note than perhaps they needed to be. It also means that the enemies are a little predictable and easy to manipulate, and we were hoping for more savvy opponents.
But it is what it is. Dumb-ass enemies and big guns, and Wolfenstein unashamedly embraces those core pillars. The story, which plays out across 16 chapters, centres around a hub-area - the resistance base - that's crammed full of interesting characters and details, and requires exploration if you're to get the most out of the intriguing backstory. There's not actually 16 different missions, as some of the chapters are actually sequences that play out in the hub, but we appreciated the change of pace (and one of the best Easter eggs that we've ever had the pleasure of stumbling across). As you would expect, there are collectibles to unearth across the different levels, including Enigma Codes that, when deciphered, unlock new modes (such as Hardcore).
There's no multiplayer, which you'd almost expect with a game like this. Perhaps it would be too chaotic with everyone running around dual-wielding grenade launching machine guns, but we would've liked to have tried it out, that's for sure.
Without PvP we're left focussing our gaze on the single-player campaign; a bullet-fueled romp full of explosive action and entertaining set pieces. There's nice variety in the different levels, and the story, while a bit on the silly side, had us entertained throughout and was well paced. Overall it's a decent length, you could probably blast through it in about 10-12 hours if you didn't stop to take in the backstory or hunt out the collectibles, but taking your time - and that's something we recommend doing - will draw out the experience by a few hours.
There's plenty here for shooter fans to enjoy. It's not perfect, but despite a slow start, a horrible weapon select setup, and some stupid enemies, we had a really good time with Wolfenstein: The New Order. It's silly beyond compare, but it captures the same essence as the best B-movies and twists that tongue-in-cheek flavour, wrapping it around one of the more intriguing settings that we've come across in a shooter. It's absurdly over-the-top, but in a good way, and if you're looking for an entertaining single-player shooter, this is one of the more enjoyable efforts that we've played in recent months.