Wolfenstein: A New Order's story is a serpentine, meandering epic that endlessly twists and turns. Sometimes surprisingly, and at other times with the kind of predictability you can hear coming a mile away.
Hanging on for dear life is a game desperately trying to keep up. Sometimes it does so with absolutely spectacular results, and sometimes it falls flat as a pancake. It challenges you with tasks that range from pulse-poundingly thrilling to teeth-grindingly tedious, and mixes gameplay moments of sheer genius with ones of excruciating mundanity. In many respects, Wolfenstein is too ambitious for its own good: it writes several checks it can’t quite cash. Yet those checks are so big, and it comes so damn close to cashing them, it really does deserve a cigar. That’s ultimately my judgment on the game - but it’s why it deserves that cigar that is the interesting bit, and the reason why I decided to start this review with its conclusion.
First and foremost, the game is an FPS whose action sequences are connected by a comprehensive series of narrative scenes that spin its epic yarn. The action is not all shooting, however. There are quieter moments of “hidden object” location, and some occasional, usually fairly simple lateral thinking problems to solve.
The action starts, as you’d expect, with a narrative piece that’s interspersed with tasks that essentially teach you the basics of the game. It's all very intense, and sets the pace perfectly for the segue into the real action, where you’re launched into a pitched World War II battle, running the gauntlet of a hail of gunfire, Nazis and retro-mechanical mid-40’s robots. The action continues to unfold through an assault on a Nazi stronghold, and onto to the first plotline revelation, which ends in an important two-way decision whose outcome affects the rest of the game.
This first long level is in fact the game’s prologue. Wolfenstein: A New Order proper begins some 14 years later in an alternative reality where Nazi Germany’s western expansion was never stymied by Britain, and whose Eastern Front was not stalled in the Winter of 1941-42. MachineGames’ realization of this Nazi-dominated world is without doubt Wolfenstein's high point. The scope, the sheer attention to detail, and the imagination that has been put into everything from its architecture, clothing and engineering to its ambient styling is outstanding. It can be fully appreciated by anyone who knows nothing about the subject matter that inspired it, but if you do know your history, you’ll recognize and geek out over all sorts of buildings, items and machines that the Nazis had planned to build when they'd conquered Europe, but for obvious reasons never did.
Further enhancing this world is a history that’s articulated through the many newspaper clippings that adorn the walls of the game’s myriad locations. As a WWII history buff, I found them absolutely fascinating – and sometimes horrifying. It really helps create a richness to Wolfenstein’s world that makes it very believable.
What’s clear, though, is that despite this world being quite the spectacle, it’s also one seriously miserable place – at least, unless you’re one of the German elite – and something needs to be done by someone to change it. That someone, of course, is you – Captain BJ Blazkowicz – and that something is an audacious mission that spans continents and indeed the heavens. I want to lavish praise on the many inventive and interesting locations that comprise the game’s storyline, but in doing so, I’d be giving up much of what makes the journey so exciting. All I can tell you is that there are many things to see and appreciate, and plenty of moments where you’ll want to stop and take in the view.
Which, of course, is not always possible, because your sightseeing tour is less about enjoying the view, and more about watching it down the barrel of a gun. Wolfenstein's arsenal of available weapons is impressive, as indeed are the amount of things the game give you to shoot them with. Whether you’re facing off against giant mechanical robots, squads of Nazi grunts, or super-armored Waffen-SS toting BFGs, every page in the Evil Nazi Tactical Playbook has been scoured to ensure that you’re constantly kept on your toes. From open environments where you need to keep moving, to tight quarters where progression is made through inch-by-inch attrition, the game challenges you in every way imaginable. Sometimes the odds seem almost impossible, but fortunately the difficulty can be tuned on the fly if you run into a challenge that’s too much for you.
I loved the way the game made me think creatively about how to prevail in certain situations. In many cases, there are multiple ways to effectively neutralize the enemy ahead. While certain events are scripted, the AI doesn’t necessarily follow a predictable pattern, and instead attempts to react to what you’re doing. This makes most encounters dynamic and fun, but I did earn one or two victories by exploiting line of slight, and tricking the AI into doing something it really shouldn’t. I didn’t mind it too much – all’s fair in love and war, after all. But it definitely showed a few cracks in the way the game has been designed.
Those cracks extend to the controls. In some situations they can be fiddly or fussy. Sometimes you have to be in just the right place to be able to pick something up, which can be a real annoyance in the heat of battle. The same issue can also cause you to overlook an object because you didn’t quite highlight it in the right way. This is nit-picky stuff, but actually, that’s Wolfenstein’s biggest problem – it has quite a few nits.
My biggest complaint is the cheap deaths. There aren’t that many of them, but they are always incredibly frustrating, especially when they happen at the end of a long level. I don’t mind going up against considerable odds, but to be eliminated without warning is poor design.
I also wasn't keen on some of the "puzzle" type situations and fetch quests where you need to find or do something specific. Some make sense and are logical, but others seem to be more about trial and error, rather than skill. Reaction to these will no doubt vary from player to player, but I did find some of these situations more frustrating than fun. Especially when you’ve just worked your way through a really intense and exciting battle, and then have to wander around – seemingly arbitrarily – looking for something utterly mundane before moving onto the next.
On the positive side, these moments add some downtime and light relief between the often long and challenging action sequences – but on the negative side, it feels like padding, which I don’t think the game needs at all.
That’s because it's plenty big enough already. Both the game and its story are grand in scale, and feature an impressive cast of characters. While the characterizations are occasionally a little trite and the dialog is sometimes uneven, Wolfenstein delivers one seriously ripping yarn. However, while the story is solid, the cut scenes that convey it vary in quality. Not in terms of the voice acting – that’s superb throughout. It’s the visuals that are sometimes problematic. In some scenes, the characters are exceptionally realistic, but in others, they head into uncanny valley territory. The issue seems to be the lighting, too much of which causes a character’s skin to shine unnaturally. Most indoor scenes with indirect lighting don't suffer this problem, and look top-notch because of it.
The only aspect of the voice acting I wasn’t particularly enamored with is Blazkowicz’ inner monolog – or should that be moronolog. It’s basically an exercise in commenting on the painfully obvious. It occasionally provides a little help, but mostly it does nothing but convey the feeling that Captain B is a bit of a chump. Which I don’t think he really is, judging by how he comes across in other scenes.
The highlight for me, though, are the bad guys. The evil Germans are played beautifully, and steal every scene they’re in. I looked forward to my every meeting with them, and I was never disappointed.
Another thing that wasn't a disappointment is Wolfenstein’s gore. Ho-lee crap. Coming into the game, I was hoping that it was going to go there, and it does – all the way, and then some. Wolfenstein is not a game for the fainthearted. Heads pop, arms fly, and guts spill in spectacular fashion. You can stab people six ways from Sunday. You’ll see the horrors of medical experiments and prison camps, and even worse things that’ll make you stop and shudder. Oh, and there are also moments that’ll make you jump out of your seat.
The language is adult too, and there’s even a little bit of “adult” action between characters. This game wears its rating with pride and delivers everything it says on the packet – without pulling a punch. I really liked that it didn't.
Ultimately, Wolfenstein sets out to go big, and it certainly does. Perhaps too big, as its flaws all seem to stem from the game simply needing a little more time to finesse – and perhaps it being too much for the team to fully do so. But, in the end these flaws don’t overly tarnish what is otherwise a bloody good shooter. While it’ll occasionally make you groan, and might sometimes make you want to hurl your controller across the room, in the (rather anticlimactic) end, Wolfenstein’s enduring memory is one of glorious guts and gore, magnificent vistas and maleficent villains, spectacular set pieces and a storyline that’s epic in every sense of the word.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: The cut scenes are inconsistent, but when they work, they're excellent. In-game graphics are top-notch, and convey an incredibly convincing Nazi-controlled alternate reality. Blood soaked and swimming in entrails though it may be.
- Music: Like the cut scenes, the music is a little uneven. Sometimes it suits the action perfectly, while at other times it's repetitive and generic.
- Interface: Generally good. A few minor control issues, but overall the game flows well and is intuitively presented.
- Lasting Appeal: Surprisingly solid. Despite no multiplayer mode, there are two timelines to play through, and a host of Easter eggs and items to find and unlock.
A sprawling epic that sometimes doesn't quite hit the ridiculously high bar it sets for itself, but nevertheless delivers an absolutely spectacular, supremely gory, utterly compelling experience.