"Call of Duty," "Halo" and "Doom" all owe a debt to "Wolfenstein 3D." The classic PC game essentially invented the first-person shooter. The frenetic pacing and quick-twitch gunplay all started with American spy B.J. Blazkowicz's escape from a Nazi prison.
Despite its place in history, the series has had an uneven legacy. The reboot and sequel to "Wolfenstein 3D" have varied in quality, with each follow-up falling short of the last.
The latest entry to the franchise reverses that trend.
"Wolfenstein: The New Order" flips Blazkowicz's story on its head by imagining an alternate timeline in which the Nazis win World War II. The protagonist and his allies fail to defeat Gen. Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse in 1946, and a last, desperate raid on his Nazi compound leaves Blazkowicz in a catatonic state. After 14 years, he snaps out of it and has to gather what remains of the resistance to defeat the Third Reich.
It's a smart concept that gives the developer, MachineGames, license to be more creative with the world -- there are giant mechanized dogs -- while still staying true to the game's roots. Shifting the project to the 1960s allows the team to add a fascinating mythology that squares with each of the 16 chapters. Each stage, from the London Fortress to the labor camps, feels steeped in this alternate history. It's a universe that's just as compelling as anything this side of "BioShock."
Coinciding with the narrative twist, the developer also freshened up the gameplay. MachineGames came up with an elegant solution to a first-person cover system. By holding a shoulder button, players can lean out in any direction while in cover and blast Nazis. It's a vital move in firefights in confined areas and adds some cat-and-mouse mind games. Along with that, Blazkowicz has the ability to both wield guns and cut open weak fencing to unlock new areas.
Surprisingly, there's a stealth element that's serviceable. It's nowhere as advanced as "Metal Gear Solid," but it offers a rewarding change of pace. Even if sneaking isn't your thing, "The New Order's" layered level design supports other ways to play. Buttressing all of this is a perk system that augments five playstyles, so that people who like to fight with guns ablazing can have as much success as those who sneak behind enemy lines.
The new "Wolfenstein" already is better than its predecessors, but what ultimately makes it stand out is the characters and story. Yes, there are a few silly errors and some overwrought melodrama, but "The New Order" has some honestly poignant moments. It brings together a disparate cast of characters and makes players care for them as they struggle together against the Third Reich. Those scenes are what separate the new "Wolfenstein" from just another shooter.
The New Order'
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Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC