The Nazis won. Now what?
What's old is indeed new again in "Wolfenstein: The New Order," a 12-hour first-person shooter campaign against the Reich that feels much fresher than such a game has any right to feel in 2014. That's because developer MachineGames trades rote multiplayer for actual moods and fail-safe health regeneration for actual defense, resulting in a fun, story-driven and vaguely old-school Nazi rampage.
As always, you're B.J. Blazkowicz, that same blonde jarhead from 1992's "Wolfenstein 3D," now with way more polygons. After a failed assault on Deathshead, a Nazi general whose human experiments would make Mengele squirm, Blazkowicz gets some shrapnel in his dome and goes night-night for 14 years.
He wakes up in a Polish asylum in 1960, S.S. and blood everywhere. Blazkowicz escapes with his nurse — whom he promptly sleeps with, because video games — and together they join the Kreisau Circle, a band of rebels tucked into Berlin's concrete underbelly.
Their cramped base is the setting for a few of "The New Order's" 16 chapters. Mostly you just listen to Blazkowicz's much smarter comrades prattle about Jewish mysticism and human consciousness, maybe fetch them some papers. The interludes tie together the Nazi bloodshed rather well, though.
Walking the bent path through rubble and boxy machinery, around a candlelit pillar wallpapered with pictures of the deceased, I felt in that Berlin bunker the same besiegement and gloom evoked by 4A's "Metro" games. Leader Caroline's praise built a motherly bond there — finding toys for Max, a Kreisau ward with TBI, a brotherly one. Unlike most shooters, I didn't entirely hate everything surrounding me.
Well, I did when Blazkowicz went above ground — but in a good way, it being Nazi Germany and all.
Among the most distinguishing aspects of "The New Order's" shooting are the use of a somewhat standard health bar. It mildly regenerates, but overall, it discourages the kind of reckless "shoot 'til you see red" mentality of "Call of Duty" and so on.
Even down-sights aiming is de-emphasized, partly because most guns don't have scopes and partly because they can all be dual-wielded. Once you've cleared a room of Nazi troops with the thunderous volley of two shotguns, you'll never want to switch strategies again.
You may not have to on normal mode, where, among the game's lone detriments, the Nazis are more brainless than the captives they lobotomize. In the many levels where stealth is an option, Blazkowicz can walk undetected 10 feet in front of foes. Once they turn their backs, they crumple dead from a thrown knife to the calf.
The AI isn't so egregious in combat. Robots and heavily armored troops with turrets relentlessly push wars of attrition, which sometimes source more drama from Blazkowicz's most regular weapon: The Laserkraftwerk. It only recharges at stations, so wielding it often requires knowing where those are — and keeping enemies out of the way, lest they leave Blazkowicz with an empty weapon.
The Laserkraftwerk's secondary mode is a steel cutter that can open grates for Blazkowicz to sneak through, if you feel like bypassing a confrontation or two. It's a cool bit of analog environmental interaction, similar to "Half-Life 2" or "Singularity," but it doesn't maximize its potential as much as either of those games did.
Another letdown is the few boss battles of "The New Order." Though grand in scope, they're decided too easily by gimmickry. The kind of grit and white-knuckle grace under pressure that decides battles with the game's heavy hitters isn't demanded. If you know what you have to do, you can keep calm and carry on.
"Wolfenstein: The New Order" is nonetheless a small triumph. Rightly confident enough that a full-bodied story suffices, it doesn't need multiplayer or co-op forced into the package. However hammy that story, however unchallenged its strategy, it's a welcome sort of return to the war games of yesteryear.