Wolfenstein: The New Order is a brassy and unapologetic shooter – the kind of game that Nazis typically find themselves in. The heroes are damaged and bitter, the enemies endlessly disposable, and the player's portrait gets dressed like a baby if he picks the easy mode. You know what you're getting into, for the most part.
But first you get into the burly mega-neck of William "B. J." Blazkowicz, the blue-eyed Wolfenstein guy that's been kicking Hitler in the teeth since the early 90s. He's the kind of guy who slaps the fear out of whimpering soldiers and gets them to thank him for it, sir.
After his allied assault smashes against the walls of General Deathshead's impregnable castle in 1946, Blazkowicz wakes up in an alternate reality of 1960. Stumbling out of a 14-year stint and stupor in a mental hospital (tremendous muscle mass curiously intact), he learns that the German army has taken over the entire world, its many technological victories documented in scraps of propaganda and newspapers that proclaim the Earth a calmer place under oppressive rule. Worst of all, London has ditched fish and chips for sauerkraut and sausage. THE NAZIS MUST PAY.
Gallery: Wolfenstein: The New Order (5/20/14) | 8 Photos
Blazkowicz joins a scrappy resistance and exacts run-and-gun revenge in a manner that feels old-fashioned and decidedly PC (as in Personal Computer), complete with independent health and armor percentages. Your health will only regenerate to the first multiple of 20, and you can collect health packs in excess of 100 points, although the bonus is temporary. And yes, you can still eat the dog food if you're desperate to recover.
You also scavenge for protection amongst the inevitable corpses, finding use for bullet-resistant vests, the armor plates from vicious robot dogs or plenty of plain ol' helmets. Man, are there a lot of helmets. At some point, you have to imagine a wobbling tower of shiny hats on your head, like an ice cream cone with too many scoops.
This silly imagery seems permissible in a game like this, and Wolfenstein: The New Order is probably at its best when it permits a rampage with a crackling assault rifle in each hand. You can carry two of just about anything, if you're willing to sacrifice speed and iron sights, and it's hard to argue with the pleasures of marching down the halls of a German U-boat, double shotgunning shrapnel around the corners. By the end of Wolfenstein: The New Order, it's second nature to fire both triggers simultaneously, even while using a shoulder button to lean over cover. And oh my god, there's first-person leaning!
Though it's easy to bob your head to the game's nostalgic heartbeat and its thoughtful incorporation of some kick-ass heritage (id Software's first Wolfenstein makes a wonderful cameo if you know where to lay your head down), further scrutiny does reveal some odd problems – and a creeping mediocrity.
Despite a silky frame rate, the rhythm of combat is just off. Taking down Nazi grunts and super-soldiers leads to more goodies, but you have to pick up each and every clip, health pack and bit of armor individually by running over it and pressing a button when the prompt appears. The game's pace feels energetic as you blaze through the sewers of Berlin or a barracks on the moon, but it's dragged down every time you transform into a bullet-sucking Roomba. When would you not want more ammo?
The shooting tends to be funneled and one-note, composed of unimaginative weapons pitted against goose-stepping dimwits, though there are several opportunities for stealth. Certain areas are presided over by German commanders, which must be tactfully disposed of before they can summon reinforcements. This protocol injects more variety for those who prefer a more neck-stabby approach, provided we put aside the fact that it's a device designed to lower the overall Nazi body count.
Either style of play will eventually grant you additional and permanent perks, which can shorten your reload time while dual-wielding, for instance, or give you a set of throwing knives. Knives, by the way, are likely the most powerful items in the world of Wolfenstein – one hit, whether it's to the neck or the knee, means instant death to just about any Nazi. The knife also requires particular aim, which makes for a satisfying spectrum between the perfect toss and the useless bounce off the wall.
While it's constantly trying to slow you down, Wolfenstein: The New Order often mistakes surges of difficulty for introducing tension. Instead, most of the tension comes from the story, which, to be fair, does more than just lean on pulpy sci-fi. Your base of resistance is a beautifully cluttered hub, with rooms stacked to the dirty ceiling with illicit art, music and literature hiding from the world's new rulers. And though the quality of the script fails them, your fellow freedom fighters, like the whip-smart Anya and the obligatory former-Nazi-named-Klaus, seem truly pulled together here by monstrous circumstances and troubled histories. You'll meet them in a (slightly) different arrangement in a second playthrough, provided you steer an early choice differently.
The greatest problem in Wolfenstein: The New Order, then, is a jarring inconsistency of tone and cohesion. The quiet moments in your Berlin hovel feel like they belong in a more contemplative game, yet each new mission dumps you into the next sewer or train with little substance or explanation. It's almost as if there's a tug of war going between the big dumb shooter and the attempt to be subversive, with the result being a game that's not really slick enough to be an action classic, and not dramatic enough to draw you in.
Even Blazkowicz stands somewhere between, sometimes appearing more human than ever in his reminiscence of the old world. Then it's back to whispering obscenities at the moon and saying utterly painful things like "War: the undoing of life itself." He probably whispers so nobody can hear how bad his lines are.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order, provided by Bethesda. This game is single-player only.
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