Wolfenstein: The New Order went under the radar when it hit shelves in mid-2014. The advertising portrayed it as a reboot that appeared over-the-top and generic. You shoot Nazis, and I've done that countless times already. What creativity could MachineGames jam into this rusty chamber of a tired premise that would reinvigorate it? I didn't expect much, but it tore through my expectations with a bang. Phenomenal art direction and gunplay are some things, but for this game to have real characters that we cared for, intelligent writing, cleverly open level design that invited multiple approaches, and more? Since the credits rolled, I still consider it one of the greatest games of its genre that I've played in years.
It's no wonder then that I rejoiced when the Swedish developer announced that it would be releasing a standalone campaign earlier this year, which I jumped on as soon as possible. Proclaimed to be a "love letter" to the earlier days of the franchise, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood was intended as a call back to Return to Castle Wolfenstein with supernatural elements in its narrative and visuals, and while I had never played it, I was excited about the general, early-2000 first-person shooter vibes emanating from it.
Many reviewers considered this direction a step back from The New Order since it lacks the original heart and wit of the other's story, contains less stellar level design and enemy encounters, and feels too similar. These complaints are valid, but I think they ignore how substantial The Old Blood truly is as an expansion, especially coming out slightly less than a year after its predecessor. While it may not be as ground-breaking, the game's a lovingly tailored romp with self-indulgent, first-person shooter tropes that will often leave a big, stupid grin on your face if you're a longtime fan of the genre.
Shrouded in secrecy, B.J. Blazkowicz is on a covert mission set before The New Order's introduction that shows the assault on Deathshead's Compound, and his objective is to find the location of that very complex in the iconic Castle Wolfenstein. However, things go horribly wrong as you and your comrade are captured and imprisoned. After you escape from your cell, you go after your friend and the leaders who run this twisted division of Nazis. Along the way, you'll realise that there are even bigger things to worry about since the Krauts are tampering with ancient forces that they don't understand, which you'll have to put an end to before they destroy themselves and the world.
The Old Blood is more tongue-in-cheek than its predecessor, even exceeding its preposterous plot points while managing to strikingly take them in stride by employing meaningful character interaction and development. This is seen again with B.J.'s introspective monologues that reveal complex emotions and a nuanced wisdom underneath his veneer of stoicism and "kill-all-Nazis" mentality, which is unheard of for meathead protagonists like him.
While narrative aspects like these aren't as plentiful or impactful as they are in The New Order, it's not a major weakness since this is remedied with the intentionally more pulpy, unrealistic moments in this adventure. For example, at one point you'll mow down Nazi zombies on fire as they fall from the sky and command a walking mech to punch and stomp on them. So yes, MachineGames is self-aware of its intense "pulpiness" and embraces that, but still grounds the characters and dialogue so well. Like we said, it's not of the same calibre as the team's previous work, but the intended direction of sheer absurdity for The Old Blood makes up for this since it's so much fun.
The gameplay is identical to The New Order, but with snappy controls mixed in with old-school and modern mechanics, why change anything? Leaning, fast-paced movement, sliding, health packs, and armour – these are old and new elements that jive wonderfully together with this rebooted franchise. To keep things fresh, though, new weapons like the pipe, long-range rifle Bombenschuss, and grenade pistol Kampfpistol are appreciated to slightly distinguish this arsenal from what's in The New Order. For example, the pipe is actually an integral item that helps you to scale walls, open doors, and melee enemies with grotesque finishers. It can sometimes change the way you navigate areas, too, so it's no minor addition to brush aside. The point is that to simply play more Wolfenstein was good enough for me since the developer has already outdone itself in this category.
With this being a smaller game, it's evident that level layouts are smaller and more linear this time, which is a letdown compared to the greater options of traversal offered to you by larger areas in the previous title. Despite this, I believe that this works as a strength for The Old Blood since there's an increased sense of claustrophobia with tight corridors and rooms, which may be generic of first-person shooters in general, but considering what this game is trying to emulate, it's a nice contrast to The New Order without compromising the balance of stealth and combat, opportunities to approach areas differently, and so on that have already been established.
What it also does brilliantly is subtlety split the story into two arcs, with the first being a sprawling rescue mission throughout the medieval, retro-futuristic Castle Wolfenstein, and the second being a full-on assault through a quaint German village where things go horribly wrong. It makes for great pacing not only with the stark changes in scenery, but also how you fight. The first hours are more traditional with human enemies and bosses, but later on it feels like you've entered a prolonged, tougher, and crazier Nazi Zombies match from Call of Duty. You not only do you have to deal with the usual foot soldiers, but also the undead, including soldiers you kill that will reanimate instantly at random. This varied opposition can be frustrating at times to deal with, but it puts you on edge as a good, unexpected challenge.
There's a Wolfenstein 3D feel to this game's section since you have to focus more on firing from the hip and moving around constantly, compared to the slower, cover-hugging levels early on. It's a well-struck balance, and everything leading up to the closing moments – minus the lacklustre final boss – is a tour de force and perfect primer leading straight into The New Order. It's surprisingly six to eight hours long as well, not to mention the additional challenge and Nightmare maps that respectively test your skills and send you into B.J.'s pixelated past.
MachineGames shows how to do add-ons right. Whereas titles such as Star Wars: Battlefront and Call of Duty among many others struggle to justify their price tags to me with add-on content, The Old Blood stands among the rare likes of The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone and BioShock: Burial at Sea as a complete, well-structured package that's a no-brainer to buy. It may fall shy of the status of its predecessor, but it's wunderbar that it even reaches that level – that's more of a compliment than a complaint in my eyes.
Is Wolfenstein: The Old Blood a shell of what Joey Thurmond makes it out to be, or do you think that this downloadable content is a V for Victory that's worth mentioning as a highlight from this year? Rip your shirt off and go akimbo in the comments to voice your opinions.