Any fan of first-person shooters should be at least a little intrigued by Wolfenstein: The New Order. Forget, for a moment, the creaky IP on which it is based, and disregard the commercially suspect notion that the market can support a straight-up shooter with no multiplayer elements of any kind. Instead, just look at the talent behind Machine Games, the studio founded by a renegade group of Starbreeze developers who were vital creative forces on both The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness - among the most striking and inventive first-person games of their respective generations.
And yet this pedigree cannot allay the doubt. Machine Games was founded in 2009 with, one would imagine, loftier ambitions than a Wolfenstein sequel. What was the studio working on prior to its acquisition by ZeniMax Media in late 2010? Hopefully we'll find out one day, but that may depend on the performance of Wolfenstein: The New Order. And if the scale of a game's marketing push is representative of its publisher's commercial hopes, Machine Games has been set a very high bar indeed.
"Wolfenstein is a game that's proud of its heritage"
According to The Escapist - and, full disclosure, the majority of critics - Machine Games meets the basic requirements of both the franchise and the genre admirably. Make no mistake, you will shoot things, and those things will be emblazoned with Nazi iconography. At its core, The Escapist argues, The New Order feels like a throwback: "A game that's proud of its heritage, quite satisfied with placing you in long corridors full of walking meat targets. Targets that are, for the most part, quite fun to annihilate."
However, Machine Games does make some "concessions" to "modern shooter sensibilities," most obviously in its accommodation of different styles of play. In addition to the traditional rocket-in-the-face approach The New Order's levels are designed with both tactical and stealth play in mind, even if the player is never pushed in any particular direction.
"What I like most about Wolfenstein's gameplay is how it doesn't shove anything down your throat - ironic for a game that skimps on subtlety in almost every other way. Yes, there is stealth, and yes there is cover, but you don't have to utilise any of these features if you don't want to. Unlike games such as Splinter Cell: Blacklist, The New Order doesn't toot its own horn with regards to mechanics, allowing players to discover the choice of play-styles on their own, without grabbing their hands and making them view battles as blandly categorical, either/or situations. Any single battle could flow from stealth, to assault, to tactical methods, or it could be completed from beginning to end with a pair of assault rifles and an armful of grenades."
"All the scripted events mean that this is mostly a game on rails"
The Escapist, which awards the game 7 out of 10, does note the repetition that sets in by the game's end - a common problem in the shooter genre. For Eurogamer, which gives it a 6, it's another frequent issue with FPS games that ultimately punctures the excitement and tension for which Machine Games is reaching.
"It's all very prescriptive, and although you soon have a gun in your hand and the freedom to run around shooting people, Wolfenstein: The New Order does like its set-pieces and cut-scenes.
"All these scripted events mean that this is mostly a game on rails, taking you from point to point with the minimum of distractions, secrets or alternate routes. Though a few examples of these do exist, they won't keep you off the the path laid before you for very long. Later in the game, a rather obvious Easter egg makes it possible to play some of the original Wolfenstein 3D and the contrast between the two is remarkable. Its ancestor serves as a reminder of just how sprawling first-person shooters used to be, along with how much of their expanse was entirely superfluous, existing only to be explored. In comparison, Wolfenstein: The New Order, like many of its peers, is rigid and claustrophobic."
In a sense, this is almost a philosophical problem; less a matter of good or bad design, and more about personal preference when it comes to the FPS. Clearly, "on-rails" can be applied to any number of games that lack creative verve, but freedom and openness are not necessarily qualities to which all shooters must aspire. And, taking the tone of the entire sweep of reviews currently out there, Machine Games does an admirable job of elevating this oldest of genre IP with a distinctive style and sense of place.
"The New Order focuses more on the civilian cost of war, of Nazism, than any game I've ever played"
Ars Technica, for example, acknowledges the disconnect between The New Order's serious or self-referential moments and its trigger-happy template. The occasional jarring moment is to be expected from any shooter with a desire to transcend the genre, it argues, so it's a case of giving credit where it's due.
"What mostly made Blazcowicz [the protagonist] interesting for me was the fact that The New Order seems completely aware of how absurd he is as a character, throughout the entire Wolfenstein franchise. There are frequent references to Blazcowicz being homicidal, or a maniac, or an otherwise almost-unhinged killer of Nazis. Even General Deathshead rants at Blazcowicz towards the end of the game about how many people B.J. has slaughtered, ironic considering the source of the comment.
"None of this is a strike against The New Order, though the Sly Stallone-esque moments often felt odd when juxtaposed against the more mature risks MachineGames took with the story. The Nazis in The New Order aren't just cartoon cut-outs to be shot down because they happen to be there. There are constant references to the systemic racial purging and genocide you're fighting against. The first time you see any persons of color in the game is in a forced labor camp in Croatia, in a level that sees you tortured awoken inside a person-cooking oven, with a trio of emaciated corpses surrounding you."
In that respect, Polygon finished The New Order almost entirely won over by Machine Games' take on Wolfenstein, awarding it a rare 9 out of 10. The heady atmosphere and memorable scenes of drama and tension that elevated The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick are also evident in The New Order's "wonderfully realised" alternate history. Where some critics saw a jarring inconsistency in tone, Polygon celebrates a willingness to explore both the horror and absurdity inherent to game's premise.
"The Nazis in The New Order aren't just cartoon cut-outs to be shot down because they happen to be there"
"Everything is nudged or yanked in a different direction by the Reich's world domination. Occasionally it's mined for laughs, like western pop music of the 60s gone in a fascist direction. But more often it paints a darker picture, depicting a world in which the final solution is a matter of course, its machinery grinding to its inevitable conclusion across the world, not just Europe. And in this, once again, Machine Games surprises - The New Order focuses more on the civilian cost of war, of Nazism, than any game I've ever played.
"There's a wide spectrum of human life and suffering on display, beyond the often - and often overly - excessive violence. From doctors weeping at their own complicity as they're forced to sign away "subhuman" patients, to German missionaries horrified at the eradication of indigenous peoples around the world; the Polish grandmother who sobs as she tears at the uniform of a Nazi captain, and the African resistance fighter trapped in a Croatian work camp. Machine Games seems invested in shoving human collateral damage right in front of the now almost quaint Nazi-shoot-em-up that Wolfenstein began as.
"The New Order's got all the workings of a classic shooter. But in their trip back to the well, Machine Games has brought all of its talents to bear. The New Order is held together, even rocketed beyond the basic sum of its smart levels and effective mechanics by its characters. That humanity takes what would be a good shooter and makes it something truly memorable."