I’ve played video games on and off for most of my life, but recent games have left me feeling cold. Many of the Triple-A titles in the past few years have felt superficial and increasingly inclined toward contrived competitive sports, which are of very little interest to a single-player gamer like myself; or else pseudo-interactive CG movies with little room for player choice beyond walking down an ornate hallway. There seems to be a dearth of high-quality single player games that recall the best of the 1990s, and there are few genres that have decayed more in this respect than first-person shooters.
That is why I’m pleased to announce the arrival of a great game: Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s an outstanding old-school shooter that recalls the best elements of classic PC shooters, with a surprisingly engaging story and cast of characters to supplement its atmospheric and immersive world. TNO defies the conventions of latter-day first-person shooters: your health hardly regenerates at all, you can carry an entire arsenal of weaponry at once, and levels are large, sprawling playgrounds that offer multiple ways to achieve your objectives, with plenty of secrets to discover.
The game lets you choose five levels of difficulty, which is a rarity among modern action games. And it doesn’t coddle you: on my first playthrough, I came perilously close to completely exhausting all the ammo on a few levels, which would’ve forced me to completely restart the mission.
On its surface, TNO appears to be a cartoonish, throwback shooter that maybe takes itself too seriously. But in fact, it’s a game that’s just plain fun beneath its serious and grim facade. Just look at the player character: William “BJ” Blazkowicz is a hulking meat-statue, lantern-jawed, eyes filled with cold, implacable rage. This is a guy who’s so badass that his muscles and reflexes don’t atrophy during fourteen years in a comatose, vegetative state: the split second he awakens to his senses, he slashes open the throat of a gun-wielding Nazi, and proceeds to blow away an entire Nazi army in a Polish hospital while still wearing a strait jacket. And this is one of the less-insane things you’ll witness in this game. Within an hour or two of playing you get to dual-wield double-barrel automatic shotguns.
What’s surprising is the level of pathos beneath this unbridled testosterone ride. Unusual for a game of this type, TNO presents an enjoyable and engaging cast of characters: a gleefully wicked pair of villains are opposed by cranky parapalegic resistance leader Caroline Becker, an eccentric superscientist, and most memorably, hilariously dour Scotsman Fergus. They’re all a joy to hang around: and you’ll spend a good amount of time with them, in between larger missions, as you take care of small tasks in your subterranean Berlin base. BJ himself is given surprising depth, and it’s not uncommon that he’ll start reminiscing about his past in the game’s quieter moments. He’s almost certainly the most pensive dual-shotgun-wielding badass ever portrayed in a game.
The game’s story is one of the most enjoyable and compelling I’ve seen in some time, easily rivaling big dumb Hollywood spectacles of blood and explosions. The alternate history “What if the Nazis won World War II?” is not an original concept but Machinegames gives it a greater deal of veracity than any other attempt I’ve seen, thanks to a clever plot element that justifies the Nazi ‘s supertechnology. The secret to what makes TNO work, however, is that the game isn’t nonstop carnage: like the best classic action movies, it knows when to slow down by offering some exploration and side missions. The spectacle and impressive set pieces are reminiscent of last-gen classic Uncharted 2, but with much more enjoyable shooting; and the set pieces are not so frequent as to become mundane. The worlds of TNO feel large and genuinely interactive, and the game is the rare first person shooter which not only has a map, but one which usually works well.
One of TNO’s strongest points is one that most mainstream game reviewers are unlikely to mention. Wolfenstein is the rare gritty action game that doesn’t paint its world in shades of gray: the heroes have their problems, but BJ and his allies are unquestionably heroic, and the bad guys (while not universally mustache-twirling villains) are really bad. Despite the fact that he single-handedly reduces whole Nazi battalions to bloody chunks, the player never feels that BJ is anything less than a Real American Hero who’s doing the right thing. In the bleak world of Nazi-controlled 1960, heroic acts shine bright.
TNO isn’t very politically correct: the only female character who fires many bullets is a complete psychopath and a major antagonist. There are a few women on your team, but they’re in plausible supporting roles, and it never feels like the game has made concessions to social justice wankers. Surprisingly, you never even get lectured about how The Holocaust Was Very Very Evil, and your chief Jewish ally doesn’t give morality lectures. It’s great to play a game that never feels like it’s preaching at you.
Unlike other shooters of the past decade (I’m looking at you, Bioshock) the action in TNO plays lightning-fast and doesn’t force you to hide behind cover all the time. You’re actually given a lot of freedom toward how you want to complete your goals, whether by outright fighting or (surprisingly enjoyable) stealth. The lineup of weapons gives you plenty to work with as well, although the dual-wielding is rarely that useful. You’ll stick with using the basic machine gun or shotgun most of the game, but the most interesting weapon in your arsenal is the Laserkraftwerk – a battery-powered energy weapon that is frequently subjected to Metroid-like upgrades, evolving from a simple chain-cutting tool to a frightening gun that blows Nazis to pieces.
Graphically, TNO is competent, if not outstanding. Character models look great, and the game’s art direction and sense of atmosphere is executed perfectly. But low-quality textures occasionally detract from the experience. The music is fairly indistinct but the voice acting is outstanding – with Scottish ally Fergus and eccentric scientist Set Roth being some of the most entertaining characters. And again, the levels are well designed and feel large without being overwhelming, and I never felt that I was being forced down a purely linear gameplay path. It’s certainly no sandbox game, but the level of freedom the player experiences is a great asset to its overall quality.
Even playing on medium, TNO is quite challenging. Its avoidance of the usual tired tropes of latter-day FPSs is downright refreshing, and it brings back the best elements of old-school shooters while seamlessly incorporating the positives of recent games. If you’re looking for a good single-player, story-driven action game that’s unabashedly manly, Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of 2014’s best.
Gameplay—Fast-paced and engaging, The New Order feels like a classic 1990s shooter with refined mechanics and a fresh coat of paint. Great level design, atmospheric environments, satisfying stealth action, and a lengthy campaign wouldn’t mean much if the shooting wasn’t fun—fortunately, it’s a whole lot of fun. Dual-wielding is cool but impractical, and having to press E to manually pick up powerups can be a little annoying. 40/45
Controls—TNO plays much like any PC FPS, but Machinegames has put together a very fast-paced and satisfying shooter. The stealth and knife-based combat, in particular, controls very well. The weapon wheel is the only poorly-implemented part of the interface and is a clunky way to change weapons. 20/25
Graphics—Great character models and immersive environments. However, the game suffers from poor textures in some areas and doesn’t take full advantage of current-gen capabilities. 10/15
Sound—Sound effects and music are good but rarely stand out. Where TNO’s sound really shines is the voice acting – it’s very well done. 7/10
Story—Much better than any Wolfenstein game needs to be, TNO has an enjoyable story that’s one of the game’s highlights. 5/5
You are an implacable muscle-bound American badass who single-handedly reduces elite Nazi moon base armies to bloody chunks, topples fifty-foot tall death machines, and steals experimental helicopters and submarines. The New Order is probably one of the most masculine games ever made, and there’s not a hint of satire or irony.
Total Masculine Value: Five out of Five Bloody Knives
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