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Just What The Doctor "Order"ed (Updated)
on May 20, 2014
First-person shooters today are generally lame experiences. Unpopular opinion though it may be, it's still one that I stand by. Let's face it, ever since the first "Modern Warfare" hit the market, every big company has been trying to compete with Activision's juggernaut, which means tacking on multiplayer onto everything imaginable and cobbling together a story campaign in order to make the game a more complete package or vice versa. Unless, y'know, you count "Titanfall," which just said "screw it" to the idea of a campaign and decided to charge full retail price for a multiplayer-only experience. It's very rare to see a developer actually care enough about a shooter to cut out multiplayer and focus on building a strong single-player mode with a compelling plot, interesting sets, and villains that go beyond "people who aren't white" or "Russian people." Yet that's exactly Machine Games has given us in "Wolfenstein: The New Order." Yeah, it's kind of sad that Nazis are a fresh idea in today's gaming landscape, but hey, I'll take what I can get.
"The New Order" imagines a world in which the Nazis nuked the United States and effectively won World War II, allowing their war machine to take over the globe under the watchful eye of the sinister General Deathshead. Every major location in the world has been overtaken by the Nazis, making everything into a concrete-and-metal jungle. But one man won't go down without a fight. Cue one BJ Blazkowicz, longtime "Wolfenstein" protagonist and rugged soldier with a penchant for reflective inner monologues. In a coma for 16 years after a failed assault on Deathshead's base, he's out for blood, attempting to find a resistance against the Nazis and aid them in their efforts. With the aid of old friends, along with new partners such as his nurse of sixteen years and returning soldier from the middling 2009 entry, Caroline Becker, he'll take on cyborg dogs, giant robots, and an army of black-suited Nazis in order to get to his arch-nemesis and return order to the world.
Say what you will about yet another game where a rugged white guy saves the world, but I found the premise and execution of "The New Order" to be quite spot-on. Blazkowicz is a really compelling protagonist, no longer the bland meathead he's been in past entries. He has a serious case of survivor's guilt, is a ticking emotional time bomb, and has some really clever and insightful things to say in his narration.. Not only that, but he's a funny and likable protagonist on top of that, with some of his quips and mannerisms aiding him in breaking the mold in terms of FPS protagonist. Sure, he's no Nathan Drake or Joel, but he fits the bill quite nicely.
The rest of the narrative does, too. Surprisingly, the cast is pretty interesting, and the female characters avoid simply being sexy partners to ogle. They're pretty well-written and resourceful, which is a saving grace in a modern shooter, where it's usually a remarkable feat having any female characters to begin with. On top of this, the story is very, very compelling and executed with a cinematic flare that rivals most things trotted out by Hollywood these days. In my opinion, too many shooters today lazily rely on first-person cutscenes and in-between animations that consist of maps or codec screens, and seeing professional, well-executed cutscenes to drive the narrative forward is quite exciting. Conceptually, too, this game is interesting, taking a concept woefully squandered by "Turning Point: Fall of Liberty," then doing something unique with it. Truly, the idea of a world in which the Nazis have overtaken everything and purged "impure" people out of society is horrifying, and to execute it with such panache and flare deserves serious commendation.
It's very interesting, though, that I'm more taken by the narrative than I am the gameplay, which by and large is nothing to write home about. Granted, it's miles ahead of modern military shooters which have two weapon slots and an abundance of quick-time events, and that alone makes it worth recommending. At the same time, the actual shooting mechanics and weapon selection are a tad boring. Yes, blasting off Nazi limbs and decapitating troops while dual-wielding assault rifles is really satisfying, but I wish there were more diverse weaponry to utilize. Most weapons are things you've seen before, and while all of them have a degree of nice kick and control to them, I feel like a game with a premise of a world overtaken by Nazi technology would have more compelling tools of destruction to utilize. So while shooting things is fun and all at times, I just wish the gunplay and guns to kill with were a bit more creative.
Yet at the same time, I can't help but to applaud the decision to have gameplay here so varied and open-ended. Many studios try and fail to provide a playground in which players can be set loose to approach situations with stealth, tactical warfare, or all out assault, but "The New Order" is one of the rare ones that I feel hits that beautiful sweet spot. The game never tells you what to do, or guides you in a specific direction, with the exception of some corridor segments. Instead, players are set down somewhere and told to do a certain thing, but not how to do it. Maybe you'll commandeer some turrets and blast apart a base, along with any reinforcements that pop up. Or maybe you'll dual-wield knives and crawl through that base, silently dispatching everyone and then going about your merry way. Will you sneak onto a watchtower and snipe enemies, or will you run in with a machine gun with the intent of turning them into Nazi Swiss cheese? The choice is yours, and depending on your actions, you'll get perks in certain skill trees. Yes, this is one of the rare games that rewards you based on your in-game actions, and tailors itself to your playstyle. It's a nice touch that prevents things from getting stale, unlike the useless upgrade function in the last entry.
"The New Order" is a game that hearkens back to mid-90's shooters with stiff challenges and big maps, yet reminds me of modern games in the vein of "Deus Ex: Human Revolution" in the sense of its progression and sets of choices put in front of the player. Honestly, while it lacks polish in some areas such as weapon variety or some pretty questionable texturing at times, it's one of the better shooters I've played in a long while. The lighting effects are simply gorgeous, especially on current-gen systems, and the environments are fun to mess around in. Nazi AI is generally pretty dumb, but it's dumb in that way that makes the game really humorous and fun at times. Whatever glitches here are minimal, and the rare ones I've bumped into don't harm the game and actually add to a more fun, entertaining atmosphere. There's a certain satisfaction to playing a modern, pretty-looking game where hunting for medkits and running out ammo are common occurances. Very few games manage to mix old-school and modern sensibilities and pull it off, but that's exactly what Machine Games has done here.
"Wolfenstein: The New Order" is not a perfect game, and indeed, there are some departments it could use some serious improvement in. Yet overall, it's a complete package that I would heartily recommend to most people. There's plenty of replay incentive, and a constant series of memorable set pieces that are a blast to, erm, blast through. From stealth missions to assaults, stabbing to exploding, this is the game people who are bored to death of modern shooter conventions have been waiting for. If you're not a fan of first-person shooters, then there's not much this game will do to win you over, but if you've been starved for something fresh since the adrenaline-shot of creativity that was "Bulletstorm," then this'll fit the ticket quite nicely.
And to think, they didn't even need to add on multiplayer. Your move, Activision and EA. Your move.
UPDATE (5/28/14): Having finally gone through the entirety of the campaign, I've elected to write a little bit more. The last few sets of levels are fantastic, and coupled with some narrative decisions that came out of left field and genuinely shocked me. The ending left me almost as breathless and shocked as that of "The Last of Us," which is some of the highest praise I can heap onto a game. While I still have issues with the weapon selection and the basic shooting mechanics, I can safely say that this game is well worth your time, especially if you're looking for a plot that defies all expectations, and will certainly change the course of this venerable franchise forever.