An old FPS franchise wakes up in an unrecognizable future, yet manages to adapt adroitly all the same.
Wolfenstein: The New Order once again drops its beleaguered action hero Captain B.J. Blazkowicz into the most audacious World War II alternate historical fiction since Inglourious Basterds. It's fair to say that speculative fiction has approached the concept of "what if the Axis forces won World War II?" perhaps more than any other conceit (it even has its own dedicated Wikipedia page), but The New Order has a lot of fun with the idea, adding in the added wrinkle of highly advanced ancient technology that the Nazis discovered and promptly used to win a far more protracted World War that extended until 1949, when at last London and Washington capitulated (the latter due to an atomic bomb hitting Manhattan, in a macabre twist on the Manhattan Project).
Blazkowicz, however, has slept through most of this war and the subsequent ten years of Nazi global domination. After taking on his old foe Deathshead, the demented SS scientist that became a major antagonist in Wolfenstein's prior two modern incarnations Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) and Wolfenstein (2009), he is injured by an explosion and left catatonic in a Polish psychiatric hospital. When he finally awakes from his vegetative state, shortly before the Nazis purge the facility, the world is an unrecognizable 1960 where the Nazis have not only conquered the globe but have even set up a lunar base and are dabbling with terraforming. Minorities and other "untermensch" are forced via slave labor to build this new empire for the Nazis, using the discovery of "super concrete" to quickly set up new fixtures across the world. Though the player only sees a handful of European countries, there's a multitude of newspaper clippings and overheard radio broadcasts that expand on what's been going on elsewhere: Manhattan is currently a radioactive crater that the Nazis are busy attempting to make habitable again; the Great Wall of China has been reinforced and given gun turrets in a subtle nod to the Berlin Wall; both Japan and Italy were betrayed and occupied by Germany, becoming vassal states. Of the cities the player does visit, London (one of the most problematic occupations) has an enormous tower to honor Nazi ingenuity and a colossal anti-riot robot named the London Monitor to quell the constant unrest. It's a handy merging of the absurd and the terrifying, helped in part by a fictional ancient cabal of Jewish scientists whose work the Nazis misappropriated for their campaigns. A minor plot point, but it does help to exonerate the developers' concept for an advanced civilization controlled by Nazi Germany in that the Nazis would not be capable of all these technological wonders (that they stole it from the Jewish people is something of an ironic twist).
While the game only visits a handful of locations, these places are all so well-realized and entirely unlike each other that each almost feels like it belongs to a different game. The initial attack of Deathshead's fortress moves through a disastrous beach landing filled with mechanical terrors, a typical medieval Teutonic castle and the incongruously advanced secret labs underneath where Deathshead performs his deranged experiments merging man and machine. There's the aforementioned grim Nazi-occupied London, the cosy and lived-in resistance base near the Berlin sewers, a brutal Croatian worker camp that not-too-subtly alludes to Auschwitz, an impressively-structured level across a destroyed suspension bridge and, of course, the requisite Nazi lunar base that takes several visual cues from the laser-friendly Moonraker (a movie with a villain obsessed with genetic purity, who was actually a Nazi in the original Fleming novel) and the red-tinted vents of 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, given the movie's 1960s aesthetic, feels entirely germane to the era the game depicts). The game is not lacking in variety with its settings, and each presents a different type of challenge for the player. The worker camp, for example, strips the player of their weapons and forces them to rely more on stealth.
The game takes its time to establish its characters too, including the heretofore silent and square-jawed Blazkowicz. A quiet man haunted by his memories but driven by revenge, the player is privy to many of B.J.'s internal thoughts, often monologuing about his life before and during the war. There's an air of exhausted fatalism about him, that he intends to collapse as soon as the war is over. His love interest Anya, the nurse that cared for him during his catatonia, gets some background in the form of a series of optional audio logs that not-too-ambiguously refers to the Nazi-killing actions of her "cousin" during the German occupation of Poland. Other minor characters that B.J. meets in the resistance are surprisingly well-developed too, giving each of them a personality and a reason to hate the Nazis. Most notable are two characters B.J. meets during that ill-fated attack on Deathshead's compound: one dies early on, while the other becomes an ally that needs breaking out of prison. The player is given the choice of which to save, and the two timeline branches that result are subtly different.
Gameplay-wise, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a sterling example of how to merge old-school FPS design with the contemporary and not end up with a schizophrenic and tone-deaf mess like Duke Nukem Forever. The game uses a hybrid health system similar to something like the early Resistance games, in that the player's health regenerates but only to an extent. Health is parcelled out in blocks of 20, so if the player drops to 81 they can hide around a corner until it quickly goes back up to 100. If it drops to 80 instead, however, it will remain that way until the player finds a medkit or some other curative. This system finds a great balance between using caution and stealth in areas with a lot of enemies, and running in guns blazing when the situation calls for it. Blazkowicz is not lacking in firepower, due to his impressive strength and all the advanced ordnance the Nazis have left lying around, and almost any gun in the game can be dual-wielded. This includes: the Marksman sniper rifles, which eventually double as Eraser-style laser railguns late in the game; assault rifles with rocket attachments; shotguns with an alternate firing mode that sends shrapnel everywhere; and the game's versatile weapon/tool the "Laserkraftwerk", which is able to cut holes in certain types of metal and also doubles as a powerful anti-materiel laser weapon capable of taking down the game's many mechanical foes. Stealth is usually an option too, of course, and the player is able to use knives in close and mid-range as well as a silenced handgun (or two). It's paramount to use stealth in areas with Nazi commanders, as they tend to run at the first sight of the player while raising an alarm that summons a near endless amount of goons. Far better to shank them while they're still oblivious to your presence.
As if to emphasize the different approaches a player might take, the game has a hearty but not overly excessive perks system where accomplishing certain goals unlocks new passive abilities. Each of these perks are tied to four "paths": Assault, for the player who wants to run around and quickly destroy enemies with overwhelming force like the good old days; Tactical, for the player who wants to employ cover and use caution like in many modern shooters; Stealth, for those who want to stick to the shadows as frequently as possible, which becomes all the more pressing on harder difficulties; and Demolition, for those who want to take full advantage of the game's grenades, rockets and destructible environments. The player can pick their path and become more proficient at it as more perks are unlocked, or they can balance out their approach from area to area for a decent spread from every perk tree. Best of all is that the game never stops saving your progress with any of these milestone goals, so the player can take down a group of enemies with a grenade, then die and resume from the nearest checkpoint and still have those grenade kills count. It's a small boon but a highly appreciated one all the same, and is one of a plethora of smaller design choices in Wolfenstein that you can't help but wish were more commonly applied in other games from the genre.
For as knowingly self-serious as the narrative gets (the writing can get very noir-ish at times) there's many incidental pleasures to be found as well, such as misjudging the arc of a thrown knife and taking out more than one guard with a dagger to the gluteus maximus, or how you can cut suggestive shapes into the sides of crates if you really are committed to playing the game like a twelve year old. At one point, I threw a knife at a guard looking at me in an airport (well, spaceport) lounge and he staggered two steps back and fell into a seat. It wasn't scripted either, as he eventually ragdoll wiggled his way out of the chair and onto the floor, but that initial moment looked amazing (well, as awesome as a dude getting stuck with a thrown knife can be, and if Predator has taught us anything it can still be pretty awesome). Shooting a live grenade out of an enemy soldier's hand before they have a chance to throw it, using a vent to come up behind a group of unaware enemies with a turret right in front of you, silently clearing a room without a single soul knowing you were there: these are all instances that have appeared in prior FPS games, but that doesn't make them any less satisfying here.
Overall, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a very competently made FPS game that finds many interesting ways to combine its bizarre alternate history with typical but solid genre gameplay its relatively ancient ancestor helped to establish, and is never lacking for ideas, charm or enthusiasm. It's all too easy to dismiss a new game from an IP that has perhaps grown a bit long in the tooth, but there's no denying the level of care and craft that went into The New Order and in creating a believable world filled with unbelievable things. It's a fantastic adventure, and comes highly recommended.