When Wolfenstein: The New Order hit last spring, just about everyone outside of its developer, Machine games, was surprised. I loved it and recommended it wholeheartedly at the time and my affection for it has only grown since.
It impressed me with some of the best art direction I’ve seen in a shooter in a long time, surprisingly nuanced, well-written characters that helped establish a very convincing world, and some very solid shooting mechanics that made exploring the art and story a pleasure.
Just over a year later, we have Wolfenstein: The Old Blood in hand. It was originally going to be add-on content for The New Order, but at some point Machine Games and publisher Bethesda Softworks decided to put the two parts together and make the game a standalone piece of software.
The Old Blood is a direct prequel to the events that kick off The New Order. The New Order brought us into its world with a failed attack on Deathshead’s Compound, finally tipping the scales fully in Nazi Germany’s favor. The Old Blood has series protagonist William J. Blazkowicz infiltrating the titular Castle Wolfenstein in search of the coordinates of the compound and encountering some of the Third Reich’s more occult research in the process.
Machine Games has proven over the years that it knows how to make a solid single-player first-person shooter. A good portion of the team behind Wolfenstein came from Starbreeze Studios where it worked on games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay on PC and Xbox and The Darkness for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The lineage shows through with The Old Blood in many of the same ways that it did with The New Order.
The Old Blood is a mechanically satisfying but decidedly old school shooter. Just like its predecessor, it combines new and old mechanics to make something that’s just plain fun to play.
Like The New Order, it relies heavily on twitch shooting as well as armor and health pickups. If we could pull out to a third-person view of BJ, we’d see a man with body armor tied around his legs and as a helmet, helmets dangling off his chest and back, and random pieces of metal everywhere else. And he’d be pouring dog food down his throat.
It’s a funny image, but it makes for a fun gameplay loop that doesn’t get old. I played through on the default difficulty and found that the game stayed challenging without ever getting too difficult.
When you’re not twitch shooting, you’ll be spending plenty of time sneaking around. Like the aforementioned Riddick title, Wolfenstein does a solid job with letting you hide much of the time. It’s not as nuanced as Riddick but it still works well enough to be a major part of the game. I spent at least as much time in stealth as in full combat and, while the game made suggestions of when I should use quieter options, I never felt forced into one or the other.
But there aren’t many surprises
The Old Blood is more of an oddity because of what it isn’t than what it is, though. In a way, it’s exactly what we had all expected of Wolfenstein: The New Order before it was out in the wild and shattering expectations.
It’s a mechanically solid shooter, but that’s it. That’s really it.
It looks great from a technical standpoint. Some really great textures and lighting effects help make the game a pleasure to play through. But the art direction is strictly that of a generic World War II shooter with some science fiction thrown in.
The New Order‘s 1960s setting gave the monolithic style of the Third Reich time to evolve, and Machine Games did a great job imagining where that might go, showing us some truly awesome, in the actual awe-inspired sense, structures. The sections of that game that took place off-planet were some of my favorite moments of gaming in 2014.
With The Old Blood we spent most of our time exploring a castle, a town, and some crypts. They all look better than they ever have, but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before. The 1946 setting of the game prevents some of this, obviously, but it makes me wonder if something taking place after The New Order wouldn’t have played to its strengths a bit better.
The other element that made The New Order shine was its narrative. The basic plot was pretty hokey – a ragtag group of rebels plans a big attack to take down the world-dominating Nazi regime – but it was made up of tons of interesting interactions that made it more than the sum of its parts. Different kinds of people, each affected differently by the war, had a chance to speak and contribute, and we ended up with some difficult, touching moments.
The Old Blood is split into two connected story segments. There’s a clear separation between the two, but elements from the first carry over to the second. In the first, BJ and his friend Agent One are trying to recover a dossier. It goes south, and they both end up captured.
Here we meet Rudi Jaeger, the standard cardboard cut-out, torture-obsessed Nazi. He makes for an imposing presence, but he’s a weak character we’ve run into a million times.
In the second segment, we’re still chasing that dossier, but now it’s in the hands of Helga von Schabbs. With Helga, we get some more interesting character interaction, but she still doesn’t offer much new. Her occult-focused obsession with power seems like something that would’ve fit in perfectly into Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
She’s better-developed than Rudi ever was, more believable and more interesting. Any moment with her is more memorable than every moment with Rudi.
Sadly, though, her segment of the game is the lesser of the two otherwise. Her occult dabblings result in a preponderance of Nazi zombies. As overplayed as Nazis are in general, at least as human characters they can do things other than shamble mindlessly.
The second half of the game eschews a many of the first’s great stealth moments in favor of zombie hordes.
In both segments, we get bits and pieces of BJ talking about how worn out he is from fighting for so long. In The New Order it fit well and accentuated the mood. Here it just feels out of place with the stereotypical sadistic villain and the power-hungry occult one, not to mention the cornball tone of the movie posters and the game’s advertising.
Both segments add up to something that doesn’t quite work. Machine Games’ ability to create solid, great-looking shooters is put to good use, but their strong narratives and writing, exhibited over and over in Riddick, The Darkness, and 2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are left to rot.
If you’re craving a great shooter and you’ve already played Wolfenstein: The New Order, then Wolfenstein: The Old Blood might scratch your itch. If you’re looking for the story and characters that made the former stand out, though, you’ll find yourself wanting for something more.
Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo received a copy of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood for the PlayStation 4 from the publisher. We completed the campaign and played some of the challenges before writing this review.