When I first saw gameplay footage of the newest iteration of the grandfather of FPSs, I was slightly underwhelmed. The footage was taken from E3 2013, an event so overshadowed by the next-gen console scrap that many of the actual games themselves didn’t really shine, or maybe just weren’t that impressive.
With the war of words over and the big releases coming and going, I’d like to reflect on Wolfenstein: The New Order, a game that actually turned out to be deceptively important. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that FPSs are currently in a bit of a rut. ‘Really? Doesn’t Call of Duty sell like hotcakes?’ You might ask (although you probably wouldn’t say hotcakes). While I can’t argue with sales figures, I do think that FPS games have lost touch with some fundamental principles which Wolfenstein: The New Order addresses, to a degree.
The reason Wolfenstein: The New Order is important is because it breaks new ground by returning to old ground. The game remembers and aspires to recapture what was great about older FPSs like the Quake series, Duke Nukem and Doom – guns and level design. You might accuse me of wistful nostalgia, how can Quake or Duke Nukem stand up to Far Cry 3 or the Call of Duty franchise? The truth is, playing those games now, as dated as they might appear, in many ways they are far more complex than what we have now. The level design is phenomenal, each level is a maze that actually requires thought as well as reflexes. Call of Duty can create a fantastic visage of hectic warfare but we’re looking at it from the window of a corridor, the vast background expanse is an illusion and we are forced to run to the next point in the corridor where an NPC will do something for you. What started as spectacular soon becomes mundane and each year Call of Duty has got more and more ridiculous in its scripted events because, to a large degree, that’s all they’ve got.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is also linear and scripted but its chaos is real and its level design is fantastic. While there is always a checkpoint that the player needs to go to, the levels are packed with detail. There are hidden secrets that are actually challenging to uncover and force the player to explore the level. Call of Duty would have an NPC constantly shouting at you to move forward but in Wolfenstein: The New Order you’re presented with doors you can’t open from where you are, forcing you to explore. You can easily just run to the next point, but the health and armour system means that it’s actually worth exploring and finding things that will make your next big battle more manageable. When these battles do arrive, they are often in a miniature arena setting, allowing you to flank enemies, get above or below them or just run straight through them. The ‘London Nautica’ level for instance begins in a wide lobby, moves into narrow corridors and then opens up into a large hangar that serves as a huge arena.
By using an old fashioned armour and health system, Wolfenstein: The New Order is able to create tension and drama without the need to throw interactive cutscenes at us constantly. When you’ve powered up with 200 health (overcharged and quickly draining back to your default maximum) and 100 armour, you can run through tens of Nazis, dual wielding shotguns (all but one of the weapons are dual wieldable) and cause overpowered mayhem and run-and-gun like the old days. However, once you’ve taken a beating your health only partially regenerates, going up to 40. With 40 health and no armour, suddenly you’re in danger and the super aggressive AI wants your blood. At one point I was pinned down by a group of Nazis and robots with 40 health and not much ammo for my assault rifle. If this was Call of Duty I could hide until my health restored, thin out the crowd from cover and get more ammo. Instead, with almost no health I had to run from one side of the room to the other, dodging bullets as the destructive environments and cover came apart, to a solitary health pack. It was exhilarating.
Another of Wolfenstein: The New Order’s strengths are its excellent weapons. Most modern games have tons of weapons, but by and large they feel the same, and basically have the same use. In Far Cry 3 the difference between an AK47 and an STG-90 is minor, their applications are basically identical. The best FPSs of the past had you using every gun at your disposal for different tasks, Wolfenstein: The New Order continues this tradition. There aren’t actually very many guns, but I’d rather have one really great assault rifle (with a rocket launcher built-in) than six that are mediocre. All the guns have weight, feedback and are immensely satisfying to use. The genius of the weapon design is in the rock-paper-scissor nature of the enemies. Huge robots will absorb assault rifle fire but use the laser rifle or hit them point blank with duel automatic shotguns and it’s a different story; the crazy, weird Nazi science allows the game to have a great deal of variety in its enemies.
I’ve played many FPSs in my time and I do enjoy popular modern games. I had a blast with Far Cry 3 and despite my qualms I’ve played through most of the Call of Duty games. However, Wolfenstein: The New Order was the most fun I’ve had with an FPS in a long time. A triple-A FPS with run-and-gun gameplay is something to be admired and savoured, and while Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t without its flaws, it manages to feel fresh and unique in a genre where single-player campaigns have gone stale. The game is well worth your time and while you’re at it, check out Quake 2, Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior (the original) for a lesson in great design, one that I think needs relearning.