My experience with the Wolfenstein franchise didn't begin with id Software's 3D first person shooter but, instead, with Silas Warner and Muse Software's Castle Wolfenstein. I didn't get to play it until I was about five years old but I was immediately captivated by it. We had an old Apple II still in good working order in the house that my Father no longer made use of. It turned into one of my first links to the hobby I hold so dear. John Carmack and company, for all their innovation in helping father the 3D first person shooter genre, owe much of their success to Muse Software and their top-down stealth-action game. It took me a while to get down the idea that ammunition was scarce and that I had to be as careful as possible in navigating the corridors of said castle. It featured real lines of digitized speech (talk about rare from a game from 1981) along with destructible environments, 60 different areas to explore and tension galore. It wasn't until I was much older and I got to re-experience it after diving head-first into the 3D golden age of shooters that I realized just how revolutionary Muse Software's game was.
1992 was a watershed year in gaming as id Software blew the industry wide-open with publisher Apogee's shareware model (it allowed millions of people to get their hands on it, free of charge for the first level) and cutting-edge graphics married with fantastic artistic direction. BJ Blazkowicz, the blonde haired hero gunning down Nazis, brought gamers a bloody adventure full of weapons, health power-ups and Mecha-Hitler! Doom and Quake soon followed after but Wolfenstein 3D started it all. There have been various attempts to reinvigorate the franchise but 2009's uninspired occult-tinged rehash left a bad taste in most mouths. It felt like the days of running, gunning and killing an ungodly amount of Nazis was behind us.
Machinegames, composed of former Starbreeze developers (the guys who made the ridiculously good Riddick and The Darkness) approached one of the oldest stalwarts of PC gaming with not only reverence but a mind to drag it forward into the new era of narrative-minded titles and new mechanics. The marriage is decidedly odd but works so well that I couldn't put it down once I got started.
The setting is an alternate-history that has the Nazis winning the "War to End All Wars" and leaves the world in ruins. The crushing totalitarian might of the Reich is absolute yet there are those who still offer resistance to the juggernaut of death and destruction. BJ Blazkowicz, the same hero from earlier adventures into enemy territory, pick up the fight against those damned Nazis along with one of the most memorable cast of characters I've ever had the pleasure to witness in a video game.
It is a title of mixed design philosophy as the days of first person yore are revisited with aplomb. There are wide-open levels and narrow corridors that offer little to take cover behind. Oh no. You will stand and lay waste to your enemies, soldier. We don't take cover in 'Murica, son. Health, armor and ammunition are scattered about and require you to actually pick it up. There is no regenerative health mechanic (not one like we're used to in other games like your Call of Duty or Battlefield) and ol' BJ is a walking armory with infinite pocket space. You can carry a knife all the way up to dual AR-marksman rifles and shotguns. All of these definitely aged concepts are touched with a bit of the new, though. A perk system and an actual narrative weaved throughout the game help elevate it past the droves of other faceless games in the already crowded market.
Gunplay is brisk with each weapon feeling chunky and giving plenty of feedback. The usual array of weaponry is here from knives and pistols to shotguns along with Nazi future-tech like laser guns and modified assault rifles. You never hit a level of ridiculous like Doom or Serious Sam with waves of enemies but there are plenty of Nazis to mow down. A nice addition to the gameplay are Commanders. They act as alarms if they notice you. The waves of reinforcements they call can, potentially, be endless if you don't silence them. This shoehorns in another component of gameplay I didn't really expect: stealth. There is something truly satisfying about sneaking up behind an armed guard and sticking him directly in the throat and vital organs. There are entire sections that can be done stealthily if you so choose. I found myself approaching each new area in stealth first to see how far I could get with only a knife or silenced pistol. Once my cover was blown though it was time to light it up.
BJ Blazkowicz is, for all intents and purposes, a dinosaur in comparison to the other multi-faceted heroes of the genre. He is a man out of time and that is what makes him so compelling. He is drawn, in more realistic strokes, far better than he ever has been and I found it easy to become invested in his struggle. He's no poet laureate or anything but he is more than just a mindless killing machine. The years spent in the asylum, while convenient to the plot, also served as a means to round out the character. The things he says throughout feel like a person who only knows how to view the world through the lens of the mission. He is brash, speaks in short bursts yet has a lot of regret and sadness pent up in there too. Good thing there are plenty of Nazi robots, armored dogs and soldiers to take it out on.
The rest of the cast, all expertly voice-acted I must add, is top notch. Caroline Becker, a wheel-chair bound member of the Kreisau Circle (based on its real-life counterpart), serves as the leader of the resistance within Berlin. Her along with Fergus Reid or Private Wyatt (depending on a pivotal choice early in the game -- which adds definite replay value), Klaus, Max Hass, Set Roth, Bobby Bram, J, Bombate and, of course, Tekla. It is rare to have each and every character leave a lasting impression yet New Order accomplishes that. I can't emphasize enough just how vital a component the expanded roster of resistance fighters is. The other side of the coin is just as good with the villainous General Deathshead along with Frau Engel and her despicable sidekick, Bubi. Each is deplorable in their own ways but Deathshead takes the cake. He is parts Mengele and Goebbels and is as evil as they come. The scientist shtick is a bit overdone, sure, but the deathly visage and superlative voice-work by Dwight Schultz really elevate the character.
The increased emphasis on story with realized characters along with the more classic elements of gameplay make for a volatile mixture of mayhem that was tough to resist. It resulted in the most fun I've had with a first person shooter in what feels like years. There are few things to complain about really other than the dual-wield system and some of the downright cheesy moments in the earlier portions of the game. It is a welcome return to form for one of PC gaming's oldest institutions. So, when do we get the sequel?