If Doom means two things, cocking shotguns and shooting demons, it follows that Wolfenstein, the father of the first-person shooter and Doom's own daddy, can be boiled down to two core elements as well: shooting Nazis, and taking their secret Nazi gold. Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn't forget this. In the game's prologue, which runs for just over an hour, you'll gun down Nazis in a grey stone castle, find a secret room behind a portrait on the wall, and plunder Nazi treasure for extra points. Developer MachineGames isn't just making an old-school shooter here; it's making an old-school Wolfenstein game.
Wolfenstein 3D was far more challenging than today's over-the-top shooters. BJ Blazkowicz featured as the barrel-chested hero on the front of the box, shooting a giant gun at the roof (for some reason) and kicking a Nazi in the face. The image misrepresented the actual experience. You were a prisoner of war, escaping from a castle's cell with nothing but a knife, and subsisting on leftover chicken drumsticks and bowls of dog food. If you were very low on health, you could even drink human blood off the floor to feel a bit better. Sure, you eventually found that giant gun from the front of the box, but the sense of tension that persisted as every bright blue door creaked open stemmed from your inherent vulnerability.
Blazkowicz returns as the other end of your gun arm in The New Order, and he still isn't the kind of bullet sponge other modern shooter protagonists feel like. Cover is important; you cannot expect to pop up and absorb some incoming fire as you take down Nazis in a one-man war of attrition. You need to be smart, think about your positioning, and lean as much as possible. Not only does The New Order allow you to automatically peek around or over cover by aiming down the sights, but it lets you manually lean in any direction: sideways, upwards, diagonally, and even down. After a couple of minutes, using this leaning mechanic becomes second nature, and offers enhanced situational awareness and protection without the need for sticky cover.
You'll need to use this lean mechanic often, because Blazkowicz's health regenerates only a small portion, so you'll be relying on health and armour pickups to stay alive. Compared to shooters with completely regenerating health, this fundamentally changes the way you approach combat. Every time you peek around a corner to shoot a Nazi, his helmet falls off, and you can pick up that helmet to restore your own armour. It's a simple, satisfying flow: kill enemies, take their stuff, live longer.
Even the enemy dogs help out here. Remember them from Wolfenstein 3D--the German shepherds that did their best to bite your face off? Those loveable little hounds are back. This time, they're wearing body armour, which you can pick up and wear after you kill them. And if you come across their bowls of dog food in the castle, you can eat the food to restore your health.
Let's recap: BJ Blazkowicz, the protagonist of Wolfenstein: The New Order, runs around killing dogs, wearing dog armour, and eating dog food. If Wolfenstein 3D's Blazkowicz was a bloodsucking cannibal, The New Order paints him as a maniac.
BJ Blazkowicz, the protagonist of Wolfenstein: The New Order, runs around killing dogs, wearing dog armour, and eating dog food.
I don't think we're supposed to look at this stuff too closely. I don't think we're supposed to ask where Blazkowicz keeps all his guns and grenades (probably tucked away in his new, massive neck). It's old-school in the way that early first-person shooters were abstract enough that such questions never felt pertinent. Take the new perks system. The more silent takedowns you perform with a knife, the closer you get to unlocking the ability to throw a knife. The more knives you throw, the more you can carry. There are multiple perk trees that feed multiple play styles, with new abilities earned by simply continuing to play in aggressive or stealthy fashions.
But the plot of The New Order isn't abstract, so I do think we're supposed to go along with it. The whole setup is ridiculous. The castle Blazkowicz is infiltrating is the fortress of a Nazi general named Deathshead, a scenery-chewing cartoon villain, if the name didn't already give that away. The castle's walls are protected by robot dogs and giant mechanical gun platforms. Deep in the castle's bowels, Deathshead performs human experiments in an attempt to create a kind of mechanical supersoldier. This could easily be the plot of a 1990s first-person shooter--and I'm OK with that! I'm down with ridiculous. But I can't tell if The New Order is as comfortable with itself as I would be, because it suffers from a wildly inconsistent tone.
Over-the-top action sequences are followed by grizzled, noir-esque narration--poetic musings from Blazkowicz on the Nazis' cruelty, or memories of a better civilian life. You can throw a grenade to play fetch with a robot dog, after it devours your fellow soldiers in a gory display of gibs. Later in the story, you'll need to interrogate a Nazi officer. Your first instinct will be to pick up the chainsaw on the workbench, which results in a hilarious onscreen prompt that reads "You need splatter protection."
The New Order seems like it's trying to be Inglourious Basterds, mixing dark, absurd humour with even darker ultraviolence. If the prologue is any indication, I'm not sure MachineGames has enough Tarantino in it to pull this off. But the lows of an inconsistent tone didn't detract from the game's first hour of first-person shooting highs.
The lows of an inconsistent tone didn't detract from the game's first hour of first-person shooting highs.
As the prologue concludes and the plot jumps forward to 1960, the Nazis have spread their robotic death machines all over the world. I feel like I know where this is going: a showdown with mecha-Hitler. We asked Bethesda if the robo-Fuhrer would be making an appearance in The New Order, and received a cryptic reply: "Hitler was killed in Wolfenstein 3D and we haven't said anything beyond that about Hitler at this stage." Now, I've heard enough noncommittal PR responses to know how to read between the lines and see the lack of an outright denial. I'm not sure how you could get any more old-school than a showdown with Hitler in a mech suit. MachineGames, bring it on.