As each year passes, my gaming backlog grows larger and larger. I’m not making any grand proclamations of destroying that backlog as a New Year’s resolution, but I do plan on trying to make something of a dent. But when you have as large of a backlog as I do of games, where do you start?
I thought it made sense to at first start with the more recent titles that I either passed on or stopped playing with the intention of getting back to them at some point. 2014 has a strong handful of these titles, with games like Valiant Hearts, Shadow of Mordor, Alien: Isolation, Shadowgate, Divinity: Original Sin, among others. The first game from that list I thought I would tackle though was Wolfenstein: The New Order.
After hearing our site’s resident lunatic Jeff rave about it back in May of 2014, I picked it up at a solid discount and gave it a go. I wasn’t enthralled. I found the story to be well told but the mechanics to be just OK. But what mostly turned me off was the poor encounter design. I inevitably put it down for more engaging fare and moved on.
But Jeff’s support for the title never wavered and he ultimately placed it at second on his game of the year list. And other seemingly reputable sites placed it high on their lists as well. Seeing this, I felt that maybe I missed something by not completing it. Jeff even said as much during our game of the year deliberations. So I thought, while its slow, let me give it another go.
I finished Wolfenstein: The New Order. I took B.J. Blazkowicz all the way to his tragic end and my opinion remains exactly the same. Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t a bad game, but it’s not a great one either.
The narrative in Wolfenstein is its strongest feature. Let that sink in for a moment. We aren’t talking about The Last of Us or Mass Effect here: we are talking about the latest Wolfenstein game. Wolfenstein isn’t a series that has ever had a particularly strong narrative element.The series built its legacy on entertaining, solid shooting mechanics and smart level design. But the narrative is what stands out here as being its best feature.
Taking place in an alternate timeline where the Nazi army wins World War II and overtakes the world, Wolfenstein: The New Order spins a fantastical tale of vengeance, redemption, and love amongst nearly all the myths and half truths of Nazi science and mysticism. As a fan of both science fiction and alternate histories, the game’s story is a joy to watch unfold.
But games are not movies and rely on other components to make them whole. For a first person shooter such as Wolfenstein, those other components are gameplay mechanics and level design.
The mechanics in Wolfenstein aren’t bad but aren’t great either. In a year that saw games like Titanfall, Destiny, and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare release, the shooting mechanics in Wolfenstein feel old. It’s not a matter of them feeling “old school” either, although that is obviously what they were going for. While it features the same type of control set that other modern shooters have, I felt the game was clunky and personally felt slow playing it. None of the weapons felt particularly great and none, aside from the knife and shotgun, felt satisfying to utilize. In a game where your sole purpose in the gameplay is to destroy the enemy, this doesn’t make for a particularly great experience.
But what brings down Wolfenstein the most is the piss poor level design, or more precisely the encounter design within those levels. From an artistic standpoint, the work Machine Games did on the levels here is actually quite engaging and if their encounter design was even half as good, my opinion of Wolfenstein would have jumped by leaps and bounds. Instead though, their decision to populate areas with bullet sponge enemies and make the player as strong as paper mache hurts the game.
Borrowing from the likes of Halo, many of the encounters dropped me into an arena-like environment with a handful of enemies to take out. Often times these enemies would include a captain or two, who have the power to call on reinforcements if they aren’t taken out quickly. To take them out requires either precision shooting, something the game doesn’t do particularly well, or stealth, something Wolfenstein surprisingly does do actually well. But in the event that you set off a captain and he can make a call for reinforcements the arena becomes a shooting gallery where you are the weakest combatant. This ultimately led me to many frustrating moments where I wanted to toss my controller. It all felt a little unfair.
Some will say that the game is simply hard and that is fine. But if I lower the difficulty to Easy, I expect the game to be easy, not a frustrating excursion of trying to get to the next checkpoint because the designers have decided to make every encounter into an American Gladiator Assault run. And that is what happens in Wolfenstein: The New Order, especially in the back half of the game.
As a fan of achievements, I’ll often glance over a game after I’ve finished it and look to see ones that would be pretty easy to get. Wolfenstein has at least one of these that would take very little effort to achieve. Instead of going for it though, I deleted the game from my hard drive. I didn’t like it when I first played it and that opinion of it remains now that I’ve finished it. However, there are plenty of others out there who will disagree with this take on the game. So my suggestion is that if you enjoy a strong narrative over strong gameplay, maybe give it a go. Otherwise, there are plenty of other games out there to play.