Wolfenstein 3D is, for old timers like me, one of the first 3D games we had ever played. It helped create the first person shooter genre, and it pioneered run-and-gun gameplay, hidden rooms, weapon progression, and many more staple features that we see in modern shooters over 22 years later. There have been sequels and prequels along the last two decades, but it was time to give Wolfenstein and B.J. Blazkowicz a fresh coat of paint. With a timeline-altering story, vastly upgraded graphics, and a new team at the helm, could they recapture the magic that made us fall in love with this venerable franchise?
Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by MachineGames, tells the what-if story of William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, an Army Ranger fighting the oppressive Nazi regime during World War II, and their most sadistic leader, General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse. In this timeline, Blazkowicz finds himself and three of his comrades captured after a short battle. The sadistic General forces B.J. to choose between the life of R.A.F. pilot Fergus Reid and US Army Private Probst Wyatt, or in the absence of choice he will kill them both. True to his machiavellian fashion, Strasse kills whomever you choose and leaves the rest to die in an incineration chamber anyway. Narrowly escaping this fate, B.J. is injured as he leaps from the inferno, splashing down in the cold water below. As he is rescued by a local fishing boat, he finds a new hell as he is locked inside his own mind, unable to speak or move in his persistent vegetative state. For 15 years he has waited in this asylum, watching the Nazi war machine grow into their power. Snapped out of his waking coma by tragic events, B.J. escapes to find a world where the Nazis have decisively won the Second World War. The resistance has been dead for over a decade, leaving B.J. all but alone in his impossible struggle to stop the vast and powerful legions of the Third Reich.
Die, Allied schweinehund
The first and most noticeable change with Wolfenstein: The New Order is a marked upgrade graphically. Powered by id Tech 5, the same engine that powered Rage, and will power The Evil Within and the upcoming Doom reboot, Wolfenstein: The New Order looks amazing. Character models across the board are beautifully rendered with more detail than we’ve seen in nearly any other game on new platforms. These models are lifelike and alive, with the story characters receiving the royal treatment. Most of the foes you engage are clones of the same type, but there is a fairly solid array of enemies in the stable. The various soldiers are heavily armored, bearing leather armor mixed with steel plating and adorned with the proper Nazi regalia of their office. Officers wear Wehrmacht visor caps with proper rank pips, grunts wear Hugo Boss-inspired Army uniforms, Schutzstaffel paramilitary soldiers bear their easily-recognized black uniforms and SS lightning bolts, and I think I even spotted a Luftwaffe Unterfeldwebel’s shoulder board on a Medical officer. It’s clear that the team at MachineGames has done their homework, and the results are striking.
The few times I’ve seen Wolfenstein: The New Order the game was only showcasing shooter sections, and very little of the story was revealed. I went into this review expecting a bog-standard four hour romp with Nazi super soldiers. I was very wrong. What unfolds is a rather surprising story unlike any other game in this franchise. From the decision made in the first chapter through the excellent ending more than a dozen hours later, the game handed me surprise after surprise. Well written characters with stories that made them very human, twists and turns that took the story to places I never expected, and even a grounding story for Blazkowicz himself, giving him more personality than he’s ever had, made the game more compelling than any before it. Beyond the rather solid story, the previously mentioned choice has an effect beyond the cosmetic or anything so analog. For example, choose Wyatt and you’ll unlock things with lock picks, but by choosing Reid you’ll spend more time hacking open panels and hotwiring them instead. Some collectable items like health and armor upgrades, records, and gold are simply not available based on your first chapter choice. This opens up different opportunities in gameplay as well. My first run through the game I snuck through tunnels in a particular section, but in the alternate timeline I utilized overhead ziplines for my stealthy approach. There are obvious changes in your exchanges with whomever you’ve chosen to survive as well, but those are yours to discover. For once, a game that boasts that you can play it twice is actually worth that time investment.
A well-penned story is nothing without the voice talent to execute upon it. MachineGames selected veteran voice actor Brian Bloom to tackle Blazkowicz, and he is joined by Dwight Schultz (you’d know him best as “Howling Mad” Murdock from the A-Team), Polish actress Alicja Bachleda, and Mark Ivanir as the principals for the game. That said, it’s Gideon Emery that hands in the best performance of the bunch as Fergus Reid – the gravel-voiced Scottsman that can guide B.J. on his path, depending on your made choice. The fantastic part is that I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the voice work in a game published by Bethesda. Take that in for a moment.
One thing that Bethesda and her partner companies are singularly incredible at is delivering a fantastic musical score. In this alternate timeline, bands like The Beatles never came to popularity. The Nazi party, as reviled as they are, were not without creativity. As a result, there are several records that you can find in the game that provide an almost tongue-in-cheek representation of this. An example might be the German rendition of the iconic Pet Shop Boys song, “West End Girls”, but there are plenty more to be found. The soundtrack beyond these nods to Western culture is equally up to the task, providing an excellent backdrop through this alt-history.
Ach! Mien leiben!
For a game heavily rooted in the run-and-gun tradition, it’s no surprise that this aspect of Wolfenstein: The New Order was polished to an incredible sheen. Rather than the usual progression of weapons, New Order provides period-specific guns and then progresses in both a fantastic and plausible direction. While you’ll end up dual wielding knives, machineguns, and most shockingly marksman rifles, it’s the “Laserkraftwerk” rifle that does a lot of the heavy lifting. Unlike the other weapons in your arsenal, this laser weapon can be upgraded through mod pickups.
Surprisingly Wolfenstein works fairly well as a shooter and a stealth title. Some of the collectables can only be found along a quieter approach, and silenced pistols and thrown daggers clear the path nicely. To reward and encourage certain types of gameplay, there are four Perk trees that can enhance your arsenal. By silently taking down five soldiers you’ll earn the ability to carry an additional throwing dagger. Dual-wielding a pair of assault rifles and cutting down a number of enemies in a specified time earns you a faster reload. These Perks are entirely optional, but there is something to be said for a reward for killing three people while doing a running slide.
The Enigma Machine was the key to World War II. This rotor cipher machine allowed the Allied forces to crack encrypted German communications. In Wolfenstein you’ll find pieces of Enigma code that you can use to unlock various bonus modes. These codes still elude me, so I still have a few to collect. I’m told they unlock “999, Ironman, Walk in the Park, and Hardcore” modes. It’ll likely take you a full run through both timelines to find them all, but these aren’t the only secrets to be found. Nods to previous games, and what appears to be the entirety of Wolfenstein 3D (albeit with leaning and high-resolution guns to go with your antique graphics) are tucked away for you to find.
You may wield the Spear
There are a few hitches on this Nazi-busting romp. The interactive elements in this game are everywhere, including news clippings, grabbing a hand up from a soldier, and snapping up a helmet to bump up your armor number. Unfortunately, sometimes the game gets very picky on player position. I say sometimes as I’ve been running full tilt, snapping up weapons and ammo without an issue, and other times I have to walk back and forth repeatedly trying to get the icon to pop up.
In a similar pain point, your weapons are chosen via selection wheel on the right bumper. This wheel feels roughly 25% too small as it is very easy to accidentally select the weapon adjacent rather the tool for the job at hand. You can quick-select between your last two chosen weapons with the triangle button, but that’s not a suitable substitute for a properly scaled UI.
Out of the 16 chapters in the game (double that if you count both timelines), the vast majority of them are very well balanced. Nearer the end, MachineGames tried to ramp up the difficulty by adding a glut of supersoldiers, leading to some unbalanced areas that will hand you your death repeatedly. This lead to me using pop-tarting skills like constantly using a mounted machine gun while kiting foes into a hallway chokepoint. When everything up to these moments felt balanced against the weapons in my bag, these unbalanced areas and tactics felt cheap.
While the player and supporting cast get a fantastic coat of paint, there are occasionally downright ugly textures. Some objects seem to be melted into the surface of desks, others just look jagged and untextured when closely inspected. The vast majority of the time you’ll hardly notice these items, but when you do see them occasionally pop up they stick out like a swastika spraypainted on the side of a church.