There’s something inherently likable about Wolfenstein the New Order, it’s a game with notable flaws but it’s just so oddly endearing that it will make you like it. You may rebel against it for a while, but its appeal is somewhat undeniable, at some point you will throw it in and admit, ‘you know what, I really like this game!’
I have to admit, Wolfenstein took a good while to work its charms on me. Part of this is due to a weak opening (more on that later), but a lot of it is due to the fact that its flaws are more instantly apparent than its successes. A lot of what it gets so right takes a while to truly surface, but some foibles are in your face from the beginning. These are things like the visuals, there’s some interesting art design later on but on the whole (and specifically at the beginning), Wolfenstein just isn’t a good looking game. It’s very grey, it’s full of mediocre to poor textures, and outside of cutscenes (where they start to animate properly) a lot of the faces and character models look kind of weird.
There are other things which put you off straight away, a recurrent issue being the awkward transitions between cutscene and gameplay. We live in a world where games like Max Payne 3 and the Uncharted series have used seamless transitions to effortlessly work gameplay into their narratives. I’m one who is quick to criticise certain games which end up as little gameplay segments between separated movies, and these titles did an amazing job of melding it all together. Wolfenstein doesn’t really achieve this, purely due to abrupt transitions. In the New Order you will be walking around gun in hand, see a prompt to talk to somebody and then be suddenly transported to a shorter world with better animation and lighting (and one that is a bit compressed). Cutscenes are letterboxed and, though in engine, they look noticeable better than gameplay due to previously mentioned factors. The content of them is often really good, but they are always jarring when they appear. You are being constantly taken out of the moment and it creates the feeling of playing a game in between little films rather than taking in one seamless experience.
Another issue I had with Wolfenstein was that it was never quite clear how you should play it. It’s a game which goes for the idea of, play it in whatever style suits you, but only really accommodates for one. It also somewhat contradicts itself. There is a perk tree that unlocks due to completing specific challenges (this makes for a fun process but a lot of the unlocks aren’t very meaningful) and loading screens say you can unlock perks to match your specific style of play. This isn’t completely true, as perks are quite generic and not very specific to a certain approach. Some benefit certain ways of playing, but never to the extent that they are only of use to certain players or really push you down a certain path. This means that each perk has a wide appeal, but it does make the experience somewhat confusing. There is a certain illusion of choice and I didn’t feel the game did the best job of teaching me how to play it.
Wolfenstein seems like it should be an all-out crazy shooter. After all, you can pretty much dual wield anything: pistols, machine guns, shotguns and even knives. I’m not exactly sure what the benefit of dual wielding knives is, but it certainly looks cool. One thing is for sure though, nothing says lack of restraint like dual wielding massive shotguns that take up a large amount of your screen. However, the game itself doesn’t really fit this mould. Dual wielding carries a substantial accuracy penalty and you are actually very fragile. This latter point is actually really weird, there’s a huge disconnect between your character in the narrative, as opposed to your character in gameplay. The story makes constant reference to the fact you are un-killable and can take an inhuman amount of damage, whereas in gameplay you feel rather vulnerable and weak. You still take far more punishment than a person should, but compared to other shooters you do feel fragile - a strange thing to be true when the game makes a point of you being abnormally resilient.
It turns out the real way to play Wolfenstein is with restraint. You should utilise the cover system and carry your guns one at a time; in fact for a lot of the game the best way to play is stealthily. There are numerous scenarios where you come upon a group of enemies hitherto unaware of your presence, some of these enemies have radios though and will continually call for reinforcements if you don’t take them out. If they spot you, prepare for a hell of a fight that will probably kill you - you are quite weak after all. The idea is to play stealthy, to sneak up on them and take them out without anybody noticing. This allows you to either take the enemies down one by one – very sneakily – or to just have a more balanced and enjoyable firefight without respawning enemies. This whole process is extremely enjoyable; stealth is rewarding and genuinely fun. It’s very simple stealth, but it works in the context of the game, creating a much more deliberate and somewhat thoughtful shooter.
When fighting does break out, shooting is good. The novelty of dual wielding wears off when you realise it’s not as effective as an assault rifle with some sights you can look down, but your arsenal still packs a punch. It’s a shooter that does require precision, due to it throwing a lot of enemies at you and because many of these foes have distinct weak points. Once again, this seems at odds with some of the design decisions and how the game appears to be, but once you get over this mostly mental hurdle you are treated with a really fun shooter. A lot of elements give the impression of it being pure run and gun, but when you realise taking cover is the best option the game genuinely shines. The first person cover system is automated in a way that actually works, making it easy to use and very natural (as well as immersive). The way it automatically sticks you to walls means that levels can be designed in a way that isn’t just obvious cover points, making for less contrived and obvious battlegrounds.
As previously mentioned though, Wolfenstein doesn’t put its best foot forward. The first level is really quite bad, it’s painfully generic and really rather boring. It boasts dull, and limiting, level design and doesn’t fill the player with confidence. The game continues this way for a bit, impressing every now and then but not appearing to be that good overall. However, after a while the real strengths of Wolfenstein become apparent, as niggling issues are rectified and the game comes into its own.
For the first couple of hours though, the game uses Nazis as short hand for evil enemy. It doesn’t utilise them in any interesting ways and just banks on their previously established reputation in a way that didn’t sit well with me. It was taking things for granted and didn’t give its own justifications; you were killing Nazis because they were Nazis. The game didn’t do anything to show why these people were so evil, it just relies on you knowing the Nazis were evil without making these Nazis feel authentic. It seemed like an odd decision, putting a known evil in your game but then not really showing why they were evil - putting in a faction with a lot of connotations, something that a lot of people are all too familiar with, and then doing nothing with them at all.
However, later on it uses its setting and antagonists really well. It fills in a lot of the word (an alternate future under Nazi rule after Germany won World War 2) with neat touches like newspapers, audio logs, diary entries and little snippets of everyday life. Not all of this is handled well (audio logs being kept in menus is a game design sin), but it does help build an interesting world where you get a wide view of how things are. Beyond this, they soon stop shying away from the persecution of the Nazis. It shows you why you should hate these people and why they are worth fighting against - doing this in a number of ways. There’s a terrific level in a concentration camp, which in no way matches the real horrors of Nazi occupation, but does a good enough job to invest you in the plight of your characters. In fact, this is where the game’s key strength resides, in the characters.
It takes a tad too long for this to become apparent, but Wolfenstein has a great cast that allows it to touch on some really great material. It uses its characters to create a lot of compelling, thought provoking and undeniably human moments. Its focus is on showing the kind of life Nazi rule has forced upon people and this is very effective. It also doesn’t shy away from some perhaps controversial issues. There is a fantastic conversation with a character, who is blatantly a famous musician, in which he puts American patriotism under scrutiny and points out that nation’s own persecutions. It’s a bit on the nose at times, but it’s terrific stuff that most game’s don’t deal with. Usually video games don’t even tell us why the Nazis are bad, they just take it as read, so it’s lovely to see a game look even deeper than this. It creates a textured outlook that is really appealing.
On top of all of this, the pacing is actually rather impressive in Wolfenstein. Some levels admittedly drag and some are just poor (there’s a certain sewer mission with a poor controlling vehicle that goes on for ever), but it knows how to balance action and restraint. It’s long for a shooter, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It perhaps lacks some standout moments, but it segues nicely between brutal action and more character focused moments. At times you return to a resistance base and are allowed to talk to your group, these moments provide some of the best narrative moments (including a wonderful side plot that handles sex better than almost any other video game) but house some of the weakest gameplay segments. The developers don’t provide compelling things to do in the base, just drawn out fetch quests, but the atmosphere of these sections, and the characters that populate them, make them a welcome diversion every time.
There are some tonal issues with Wolfenstein though, mostly due to protagonist B J Blaskowicz. He’s surrounded by interesting characters, but he himself is a personality void. The game uses this to its advantage in places, using his stereotypical nature as a catalyst for interesting plot points, but some of this is undermined by having him as narrator. He breaks into monologue at points and so many of these moments cause weird tonal disconnects, or are just bad. In the sewer level he just starts talking about how he swam when he was younger, for no appropriate reason. You can see why it came to mind, and why he may remember this fondly, but you can’t fight the feeling of, ‘I didn’t need to know that’. His mutterings detract from the experience more than they add to it and feel like carry overs from a very different game, lines like ‘wake up… You’re dead’, feel out of place in this grim, self-serious game.
Overall though, Wolfenstein comes highly recommended. Once you realise how you should play it the game becomes a lot of fun and its character moments are often outstanding. Admittedly the game gets ridiculous towards the end, becoming unbalanced in terms of difficulty as it throws enemy after enemy at you. It’s never overbearingly hard, but it becomes a slog. In fact, the game is somewhat more enjoyable on easy as the gameplay carries an inherent appeal and a lot of the challenge comes from repetition. Throughout the game there are always things you can criticise - level design is often uninspired and certain plot points are just a bit silly -however, the game is just loveable. It tries really hard to do something impressive and pulls this off in a variety of ways. It lacks a certain polish and could do with a bit of refinement, but it does some really interesting stuff that makes it stand out from the pack.