Count to four. Inhale. You're going to need that breath, for Wolfenstein: The New Order is a grizzly ride on the insane-go-round. The premise of the title has always been teetering on the absurd: Nazis with futuristic technologies have won the Second World War and taken over the world. Mechanised droids and robodogs in 1946? You got it.
It's this bonkers sort-of-near-reality premise, which is an extension and essentially homage to 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D, that makes playing resistive force B.J. Blazkowicz so much fun in this first person shooter.
But there are those three words again: first, person and shooter. The genre is ten a penny these days so to really stand out Wolfenstein: The New Order needed to twist the premise. Under the creation of MachineGames and published by Bethesda, it's not just big guns being thrown around, but a big publisher too.
Can Wolfenstein connect in all the right places and make a lasting impression? We've been shooting our way through stacks of Nazis to reveal all. Count to four. Exhale.
Just another shooter?
To some degree there's no escaping that The New Order is a frantic shoot 'em up. But that's respectful to its Wolfenstein roots and, frankly, the kind of game that it should be.
What Bethesda somehow manages to do with its hands around the Wolfenstein scruff is to release at different points and let it breathe. Those in-between moments of character building and storytelling take on a grander scale than straightforward pow pow pow. Brotherly love, loss, revenge and even a touch of romance entwined into the tale would tick the box of most Hollywood blockbuster movies.
Sometimes Wolfenstein could be described as the thinking person's shooter. Although we wouldn't describe sections of the game as "puzzles" as such, there are moments where chains need to be cut, steps triggered in a timely manner, water levels raised or buttons pressed in the right order to break something and proceed.
The game also dips its toe into occasional mini-role-player elements: retrieve a letter, a wedding ring, collect golden trinkets and logs throughout the pre-defined level routes. Such things don't drive the plot, though, and just because it's Bethesda absolutely does not mean this is Fallout with Nazis. Far from it.
Fly me to the moon
Levels vary from gun-toting madness to stealthy knife flinging, all performed with controls that quickly fall into place. You'll fight on land, in the sky, under water - Blazkowicz can apparently hold his breath for longer than that scene in Alien Resurrection - and command a few vehicles along the way too. Sounds familiar? Even Call of Duty: Ghosts ticks pretty much every single one of those boxes. But that's the case in point: first person shooters can only tread so much original ground.
The path Blazkowicz treads throughout these levels feels a little less "on rails" than some shooters we've played. Sometimes to the point that it's easy to get briefly lost in the interior levels, resorting to the map to see where to go next when that ladder or staircase somehow alludes.
Wolfenstein: The New Order does have its own positive little trinkets in play though. There's an interesting train wreck scene you'll be travelling downwards through carriages dangling off a bridge in addition to the usual forward-march progression.
Unlike the earlier titles' gonzo approach, The New Order also delves in to explaining the history of the Nazi's source of power. We won't go into detail, but we will say this: Valar morghulis. Or, no, we mean Da'at Yachid. It'll all fall into place when you play, as we don't want to give every secret away.
This thread of a story gives purpose to the game’s various settings. Metallic panels and stacks of concrete build the base of the Wolfenstein landscape, predominantly set in the 1960s of this apparently parallel universe. The outdoor levels vary from a reimagined London town to robot-patrolled concentration camps and beyond. And we mean far beyond: as the teaser trailer more than hints at, not everything takes place on planet Earth. We'll say no more than that.
As storylines go it’s not exactly an Oscar winner, but it’s entertaining. Some elements clunk into place - a moment of character uproar seems to come from nowhere, and the bouncing between London and Berlin made us wonder if there was a teleporter somewhere we didn’t know about - while other cutscenes succeed in being brutal, terrifying and even fun.
Why won't you die?
At the right difficulty setting The New Order is a tough game to master. Shoot-outs require plenty of ducking and diving, while swapping between primary and secondary weapons is good but when both run out of ammo you'll be frantically flicking through the weapon select wheel in real-time while being shot trying to find a reserve shooter. Some armoured enemies will also need to take on debilitating electro grenade hits before a flurry of powerful weapon strikes will take them down.
It's all in a day's work for Blazkowicz. Just like his inhuman breath-holding ability, he does also exhibit moments of apparent invincibility. Shrapnel in the skull sees him in a loony bin for 14 years because his brain is "scrambled eggs", he survives a car crash and a plane crash, and is stabbed, cut-open, and shot more times throughout the game than we can recall. All without so much as seeing a real doctor. It did make us wonder if we were playing a Terminator spinoff game.
Violence is poured in by the bucket load too. In many shooters it's become almost easy to be nonchalant about the amount of blood spilled, but Wolfenstein steps up to the plate by throwing in a toilet bowl drowning scene, in addition to some gory brain-drilling that, if you're anything like us, is enough to turn away from. Another nasty cutscene sees a smattering of bloody saliva land on the viewer's point of view following a gristly jaw-crushing moment in the game.
Somehow Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to deliver much of this with a pinch of salt. Or maybe a whole spoon of it given the occasional (and purposeful) bad taste. This is a game with a twisted black heart and dark, dark sense of humour. You might need to dig deep to see it, but some of the one-liners, the character Bubi, and general eccentric nature of it all has a different feeling to other shooters. And not to point out the obvious: but the main protagonist is called BJ for heck’s sake.
One man army
Bucking the trend of most modern shooters is Wolfenstein's distinct absence of a multiplayer mode. It's very much a one man army; a game where you play through in your spare time cutting through levels until you reach the climactic finale.
Runtime is ample for a first person shooter: it took us somewhere between 14-15 hours to take down the story mode. There's more to be had beyond that as there's a critical decision you take early on in the game when tasked with saving one or other of your comrades. That choice will introduce an alternate path through the game should you go back and start again. As a result it throws in different elements such as lock-picking rather than re-wiring, but the rough idea is the same throughout. We've not had enough time to put another 15-hours into the game just yet.
As with any shooter we could accuse the game of being repetitious because it’s all shooting, but in fairness it's one of the least repetitive first person titles we've played for a while. Dynamics such as rechargeable weapons, vehicles, platform navigation and even boss sections smoothly integrated into play make for a rich experience. It’s not got the complexity of Dishonored, perhaps, but succeeds in delivering its own brand of mayhem.
It's not without the odd glitch though: we've had hanging load screens crash, have seen objects vanish, the transition from play to cutscenes can be all too abrupt, there were some lighting issues when underwater (it's like the land above has vanished), and the map failed to update when it seemingly should have. Oh, and there's this irksome draw-distance when indoors that plunges rooms into eye-straining softness.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a dark, distinctive and often brilliant first person shooter. It's not exactly reinvented the wheel but it does bring just enough refreshing twists to a genre that in 2014 could otherwise be considered stale.
By not treading down the same path as yet another multiplayer game The New Order is taking a gamble. By being bold this ultra violent title stands apart from the pack because it has many of the right ingredients and varied enough gameplay to captivate. It's the thinking person's FPS with a dash of wit thrown in for good measure, and although it doesn't quite achieve the lofty heights of Dishonored it could certainly be where BioShock fans head for FPS filler.
The game doesn't ignore its original roots either, and as much as nostalgia can skew the vision of reality - seriously, don't play 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D in 2014 - if one thing's not changed it's that mowing down Nazis, robodogs and giant mechanised droids is just as fun as it ever was. If not more so now than ever.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is out now, available for PlayStation 4 (as tested), Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.