Yesterday, Bethesda announced a two-chapter standalone prequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order called Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, thus continuing one of the biggest surprise twists of the new console generation. Wolfenstein, which gave us a revolutionary stealth action title in the early '80s and a landmark first-person shooter a decade later, has become one of the biggest franchises to watch for in the HD era.
In fact, I would happily go on record to call The New Order the best FPS of 2014 (Alien: Isolation being a stealth/horror game with a few unfortunate incursions into shooting). Sure, the FPS space isn't as lively or crowded as it once was, but last year was a big year for the genre. Bungie's Destiny had one of the biggest budgets and ad campaigns of all time, Far Cry 4 continued to integrate the Ubisoft formula into a first-person style, and even Grand Theft Auto went FPS. But Wolfenstein outclassed them all, despite lacking the polish and visual finesse of its competitors.
The New Order worked so well in large part because it managed to tell a good story in an interesting way, but it never let that narrative get in the way of the action. Despite its somber tone and heavy emphasis on the protagonist's relationships and inner monologue, The New Order never came off as being apologetic for the fact that it was a video game.
B.J. Blazkowicz struggled with obsolescence in a world gone horribly wrong, overcame personal demons, and even fell in love, but in the field of combat he toted an improbable arsenal of weapons just like in the old days of the FPS. He could not only carry but permanently dual-wield half a dozen different kinds of rifles and pistols, along with a handful of sci-fi tools on top of that. He could shoot armor plating off a giant robot and wear it himself. He could heal mortal wounds by devouring dog food.
Other, less confident shooters would try and reconcile these play mechanics with something more palatable to the conventions of reality (or at least of suspension of disbelief), limiting the number of weapons Blazkowicz could carry or foregoing ridiculous health pick-ups in favor of some less intrusive gimmick, like auto-recharging shields or medical stations. Not Wolfenstein. It simply used old-school game conventions without making some half-hearted joke about them or even mentioning them; that's simply how the game was. If Wolfenstein had flinched, even once, it likely would have fallen apart. But instead, it kept a safe distance between the workings of the plot and the mechanisms of the shooting, compartmentalizing its design.
It's a philosophy that runs completely counter to contemporary game design, especially in the FPS. After all, a first-person game is meant to be immersive. Ever since Half-Life and its memorable tram ride through Black Mesa, shooters have aspired to create a sense of consistency between their "story" parts and their "game" parts. When it works, the results can be intoxicating; but MachineGames deliberately took a different path, choosing not to let the need for narrative consistency trump the question of "what makes a fun video game?" It's fun to dart out into a battlefield to grab armor rather than hide behind a wall while your health slowly regenerates. It's fun to have an entire arsenal of guns at your disposal rather than making do with the weapons fallen foes leave laying around. Which isn't to criticize games that use those other conventions, but rather to make note of the fact that there's room for both approaches in games. MachineGames had the perspicacity to realize it and follow through with a major game release rather than playing it safe and riding the latest trends, and the results paid off in spades.
And yet, despite the fact that The New Order used big, dumb, action games of the past as the foundation for its combat mechanics, it didn't shy away from playing up its narrative. Entire chapters of the game involved putting away your dual-wielded assault rifles in order to soak in the setting and interact with your weary allies in the fight against the Nazi order. Much of the story advanced through the protagonist's voiceover narrative, which laid it on a bit thick at times — Jaz referred to it as B.J.'s "inner moronologue" in his review — but nevertheless it struck a perfect tone for the story, bleak but resolute in the face of overwhelming odds. Blazkowicz's comrades were largely cut from predictable Hollywood cloth, sure, but much as with the goofy weapon mechanics MachineGames sold it by playing it straight. No smirking irony, no embarrassed attempts at half-hearted justification, just a game that aimed directly for B-level storytelling and went all in.
The New Order nailed its aspirations, but the tightrope it walked was a tricky one. The challenge MachineGames faces with The Old Blood is to achieve a similar effect with a new cast. As a prequel to The New Order, The Old Blood will take place before Blazkowicz found himself trapped, catatonic, in a small hospital for a decade and a half. While it likely will include some familiar faces, the framing device of the aged, worn Blazkowicz's weary mental commentary (and his surprisingly frank relationship with Anya) will be absent.
At the same time, The New Blood also offers potential for improvement. Last year's Wolfenstein wasn't without its issues, and quite a few of the game's more awkward elements could stand refinement. The obligatory stealth sequence in particular was laughably terrible, as enemy guards would track Blazkowicz's position even while he was in cover, staring straight at you as they patrolled... and yet, so long as you remained crouched next to cover, they wouldn't "see" you. The New Order may have broken from some of the design conventions of contemporary shooters, but it still felt like a smorgasbord of shooter clichés at times. The New Blood would do well to strive for greater originality, to make its mix of scenario concepts as distinctive as its refusal to apologize for incorporating old-school action mechanics into a current-day FPS.
At this point, it's MachineGames' race to lose. They did the improbable by turning a relic like Wolfenstein into a surprising and viable modern-day shooter, and with this prequel running strictly on current-gen systems and no longer shackled to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, they have the potential to take last year's sleeper even further.