"Shooting, stabbing, strangling Nazis," is the response that long time Wolfenstein protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz gives when asked what he's been up to recently. Starting all the way back in the early nineties with Wolfenstein 3D, he’s definitely shown an enthusiasm for his craft, making it seem more of a pastime than a career. In Wolfenstein: The New Order on the PlayStation 4, he once again gets his chance to derail the Nazi's plans, this time in an alternate history 1960, where his old enemy now dominates the world.
The game opens in 1946, well past the point where World War II should have ended. By using advanced technology, produced by mad scientist General Deathshead, the Nazis have pushed the Allies into a desperate position. On the brink of defeat, they launch a last ditch attack on the leader's stronghold, with the hope of cutting off the source of the technology that has turned the tide of the war. During this assault, our extravagantly named protagonist gets caught in an explosion that throws him into the ocean, peppering his noggin with shrapnel in the process. Waking from a vegetative state fourteen years later, B.J. finds himself in a Polish hospital with the Nazis ruling the globe – and his appetite for killing fascists stronger than ever.
This game is a relative rarity in the first-person shooter genre of late. By focusing purely on a story campaign, it forgoes any effort to add in multiplayer, hoping instead that its gunplay, setting, and story will be enough to get players to pick it up. By concentrating in this way, developer MachineGames has crafted a decent tale that slots nicely into its alternate history setting. While it may not be hugely original, it does send you to a wide variety of locales, keeping you interested throughout its ten or so hour campaign.
While the core of the story is the usual clichéd tale, it does actually manage to elevate itself above your initial expectations, with a wonderful roster of characters, and a fascinating world for them to inhabit. At first glance, a lot of the personalities appear to be paper thin stereotypes. Whether it’s B.J.’s mouthy Scottish friend Fergus, or Anya, his love interest, it would have been very easy for these characters to become throw away parts of the story, acting only as disembodied voices at the end of your radio.
Instead, however, you’re given a chance to build a deeper appreciation of their history and motivations, which is rare to see in a shooter of this type. This comes to the fore during a series of sections that let you explore the resistance headquarters. Spending time during these interludes, talking to your allies and carrying out tasks for them, provides an opportunity for some interesting character beats, helping you to develop an attachment to this rag tag crew, while also giving you a breather from the frantic action.
While the efforts to develop and ground B.J.’s relationships with his comrades are quite successful, the rest of the proceedings are enjoyably over the top. Blazkowicz is a one-man wrecking machine, who’ll go on any mission as long as he gets to kill Nazis. Taking on not only soldiers, but also a variety of twisted inventions – including robot dogs and drones – he has a knack for facing huge odds and coming out with barely a scratch. The story missions reflect this well, putting the hero in increasingly crazy scenarios, even going as far as having him infiltrate a concentration camp, in order to track down a particular inmate. As you’d expect, the game is also rather bloody, pushing beyond the usual exploding heads and bodies, and into some rather disturbing situations. It doesn’t shy away from exposing the player to some quite dark imagery, which really drives home the brutality of the Nazi regime, showing not only the effect of your adversaries' violence, but also that of the hero.
The one-man army approach that B.J. Blazkowicz adopts comes to the fore during the gameplay, allowing you to take quite a bit of punishment should you decide to stand toe-to-toe with your enemies. Using a hybrid system that mixes a small amount of recharging health with protective armour, you’re able to ‘overcharge’ your vitality above its maximum level for a short period using medical pickups. This lets you make some downright satisfying suicidal charges that would only lead to a swift death in other games.
In addition to absorbing quite a lot of damage, you can also deal a fair amount as well. Most of the weapons at your disposal will be familiar to anyone who's played a shooter in the last couple of decades, with the usual ladder of firearms ranging from a knife to a sniper rifle, all of which have alternate fire modes. Only the ‘LaserKraftWerk’, a powerful laser gun – which can also cut through fences – stands out from the crowd.
While the gunplay works much as you’d expect from a competent first-person shooter, what really makes it fun is your ability to mow down wave after wave of Nazis. This is amplified by the ability to dual wield most of the weapons in the game, effectively doubling the amount of lead that you're throwing at your enemies. Should you decide to push the difficulty above the normal level, this fun does diminish, though, as you have to play much more conservatively, spending longer sat behind cover, since fighting out in the open becomes more and more risky.
There are also a number of perks to unlock that provide various buffs. These range from gaining the ability to throw knives to increasing your sprint speed while dual wielding, and how they are earned is quite inspired. To activate each perk, you'll need to satisfy certain criteria by performing in-game actions. The genius of this is that after a while, you’ll start to switch up how you play in certain situations as you spot opportunities to make progress towards unlocking yet another perk.
For a game that revels in the mayhem of its gun battles, it’s surprising to find that not only is stealth an option, but that it’s also enjoyable as well. Sneaking up behind enemies lets you brutally stab your target to death, and there are sections where you’ll be able to clear out entire areas without ever alerting the patrolling guards. In addition, there are Commanders that crop up from time to time that you'll need to take out quietly, as triggering an alert will cause these officers to continuously radio for reinforcements. This makes them priority targets, whether you’re in open combat or sneaking around, as once they start calling in more soldiers, battles can become increasingly challenging.
While this is a linear shooter in every sense of the term, there are forking paths and offshoots throughout that give you the chance to do a bit of exploration. If you want to hunt down the numerous collectibles that litter each level, then you’ll need to scour every part of the stages, even hunting down entrances to numerous secret rooms that can prove quite tricky to locate. These branching pathways also feed into the stealth gameplay, as some routes will give you more options to eliminate guards stealthily, while others will lead you straight into a head-on confrontation.
Whichever option you adopt, the game looks really great on the PS4, and you’ll initially be impressed by the crisp graphics running at 1080p and 60 frames-per-second. The problem comes when you get too close to certain surfaces, and find that some textures seem to be quite low resolution and blurry. This would be less apparent if you were barrelling through the environments skimming over the detail, but since you’ll likely be spending time hunting for collectibles, the problem becomes more and more apparent, eventually tarnishing the otherwise shiny next-gen graphics on display.
Ultimately, though, the best thing about the experience is the world that’s been created for you to explore. Seeing how the Nazis have operated unchecked, employing a single minded determination to the advancement of the Third Reich, is fascinating. It also shows how the use of human experimentation has accelerated their scientific advancement, allowing them to put a Nazi on the Moon, while also bringing about the advent of desktop computers and robotics ahead of their time. It’s definitely thought provoking, and will make you wonder how different things could have been if the Allies had been defeated.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a surprisingly strong shooter that aspires to be more than its premise should allow. While it can only do so much with its cliché magnet of a story, and its graphics don’t hold up to close inspection at times, it’s easy to overlook these shortcomings in the face of everything else that it does well. As a result, the inspired but disturbing world, excellent roster of characters, and exhilarating action make it very easy to recommend this over-the-top rampage.