Wolfenstein: The New Order is a fun game not because it takes place in a well-worn, fictional Nazi-controlled future, but because it does something fresh with the subject matter. Its barrage of Swastikas, Iron Crosses, and Sig Runes is the stuff of many like-minded first-person shooters; its content is something entirely different, even if its core gameplay isn't.
In The New Order, Nazi Germany didn't only win World War II; it completely dominates the globe. By 1960, the Nazis are everywhere, laying waste to their remaining opponents while cleansing the impure from society. Cut scenes are especially riddled with little touches that made them more believable -- the twirling of a character's thumbs as he speaks, the subtle ashing of a cigarette, the nuance of rolled eyes -- and there are relatable heroes to pull for and devilish villains to wish the worst upon alike.
The Wolfenstein series' longtime hero -- BJ Blazcowicz -- returns, though he's deeper, better written, and more fleshed-out than he's ever been. You catch a glimpse of him 14 years before the events of the main campaign in a shockingly weak intro sequence that takes forever to put an actual gun in your hand, and at that point, he's more unrelenting meathead than poet laureate. But when you fast-forward to 1960, Blazcowicz is older and smarter, hardened by his experiences in the post-war, Nazi-controlled world. You get to see an interesting side to him that makes it easy to become invested in his journey, and he's not the only character who's worth noting, either. Virtually everyone around him -- from the fiendish General Deathshead to the brave Caroline Becker -- also command attention. Wolfenstein's bloody brutality, especially when it comes to those Blazcowicz loves, only makes it easier to be sympathetic.
The New Order plays and runs well, though you'll encounter occasional texture pop-in and some poor audio mixing that frustratingly drowns out some well-acted voices. It's pretty, too, both in-game and during cut scenes, especially when you get a chance to marvel at some of its open vistas and cityscapes. Neo-Berlin is frighteningly beautiful in its order and grandeur, yet quainter, picturesque moments can also be found out in the wilderness, for instance when Blazcowicz escapes from a hospital in Poland early in the campaign and gets his first look at the blue sky in 14 years.
Then again, when it comes to mechanics, The New Order doesn't do much to differentiate itself from the glut of shooters that come out every year. Blazcowicz has a typical array of weapons at his disposal -- a knife, a pistol, a machinegun, a sniper rifle, and so on -- as well as some Nazi future tech, like laser rifles, that give the game the alternate history feel that Wolfenstein has thrived on for 22 years. Gunplay is fun and fluid, though I have to question the inclusion of dual-wielding, which, while cool in theory, is exceptionally cumbersome and entirely inadequate in heated firefights.
Combat is made more dynamic by a heavy emphasis on stealth, which is both a blessing and a curse in The New Order. Slinking around wide-open maps and linear corridors -- knife in hand -- is satisfying, especially when you score a stealthy kill with a slash or toss of your blade or the shot of a silenced pistol. I also enjoyed the inclusion of special enemies with the ability to call endless reinforcements if you're spotted. By finding and killing them in secret, you can mitigate the challenges presented by specific areas while illuminating the locations of secret items on your map (like gold, Enigma codes, and letters). It's just a shame that these stealth mechanics expose some questionable and inconsistent AI that seems designed to make things a bit easier on you if you opt to play with a quiet slant. Sometimes it seems blind, both to you and to the freshly knifed bodies of their compatriots under their feet.
Developer Machine Games did bring some novelty to the experience, however, especially when it comes to The New Order's skill progression system. It isn't based on leveling up or spending skill points; rather, dozens of skills are nestled underneath four separate headers, and they're unlocked by completing tasks in-game, like scoring headshots, killing foes from cover, or eliminating your enemies with potato masher grenades. Better yet, many of these skills must be unlocked in sequence, giving the entire scheme some depth. I really liked this system; it feels genuinely unique next to many of Wolfenstein's shooter contemporaries.
The New Order has a wide array of environments to explore that highlight some what-ifs of a victorious Nazi Germany. In Wolfenstein, the Nazis have a thriving space program, devastating ordnance, and an all-new, gilded version of their capital city, Berlin. Some of these areas seem a little vacant when it comes to foot and car traffic, but it's cool to see Machine Games' vision of this terrible new fascist-dominated world. Unfortunately, scouring these environments can sometimes be a bit of a grind, especially when you're constantly collecting endless amounts of health, armor, and ammunition, each of which requiring the press of a button. Oftentimes, I'd see the on-screen prompt to collect something before I could even see what I'm collecting, taking away from the immersive nature of the world. Why can't I just pick up the ammo by walking over it? This aspect of The New Order made it feel very old.
Where The New Order really shines, however, is in its plot, characters, and presentation. Machine Games should also be commended for artfully working un-sanitized references to real-life Nazi atrocities into its alternate history story without fear of offending anybody. You're given startling glimpses into Nazi's systematic mistreatment of the mentally ill and handicapped, a first-hand look at a forced labor camp, and plenty of allusions to Nazi treatment of non-Aryan people around the world, including in occupied America. All of this, peppered into in-game and pre-rendered cut scenes, makes The New Order feel surprisingly human, and your situation quite desperate.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is the melding of your typical, everyday shooter with quality writing and a cast of believable and relatable characters. Machine Games' more grounded treatment of the often way over-the-top alternate Nazi history is also a nice touch. With an essential early-game choice that makes it worth playing through twice, the story at the center of Wolfenstein: The New Order props up its competent -- but mostly unremarkable -- shooting.