So last year I played Machine Game’s latest alt-history entry in the venerable Wolfenstein franchise, The New Order. When I wrote that review I expressed surprise at how much I liked it, and since then my opinion of the game has only increased. In retrospect it’s a strong contender for the best thing I played last year.
The New Blood is the latest in a pleasing trend of substantial post-release DLC for high-budget games, more similar to the expansion packs of yore than the nickel-and-diming we’ve come to expect from big publishers. For $20 you get a meaty 6+ hour prequel campaign that features all of the same gameplay mechanics form the base game, plus some pretty wildly new gameplay and an intriguing setting. How does it hold up?
I mentioned in my review that The New Order technically continues the story of the 2009 Wolfenstein reboot; The Old Blood serves as something of a bridge between the two, depicting the beginning of the Nazi’s technological dominance and tying off the magical occult elements that dominated the earlier game. You’re once again cast as walking meat-slab BJ Blaskowicz, sent on a mission to try and snatch a desperate victory for the allies from the jaws of defeat. The location of Nazi head-honcho and super-science expert General Deathshead is being kept somewhere inside the titular Castle Wolfenstein, and you’ve got to find it- but trouble is brewing in the form of an archaeology-obsessed Nazi general and the dark secret she’s about to uncover beneath an abandoned church.
The Old Blood toes the line between absurd nonsense and actual serious storytelling a lot better than its big brother, partially because nothing in the game feels as jarringly out of place as the ancient Jewish robot temple from The New Order and partially because BJ’s ridiculous monologues have been almost completely excised this time around, rendering him a mostly-silent protagonist who comes out with an occasional quip or line of dialogue at appropriate times. It’s a smart move: The New Order surprised me with how genuinely compelling a lot of its story was, but its cartoonish action hero growling about the futility of war was a step too far. The side characters BJ encounters are also fleshed out a lot better, to the point that I found myself getting invested in what happened to them and where their side-stories were going to go, in contrast to TNO’s much choppier treatment of its larger cast.
The move back to World War II thankfully hasn’t seen a jettisoning of The New Order’s alt-history aesthetics or world-building, as the game presents a 1946 that’s already starting to diverge noticeable from reality. Castle Wolfenstein is cast here as a looming stone monolith outfitted with retro sci-fi generators and cable cars, and BJ runs across crude precursors of the cyborg enemies that cause so much grief in the main game. But at the same time, The Old Blood isn’t a slave to what came before, as the second half moves into an old-fashioned village that seems to have hardly advanced since the middle ages. The art direction in this latter half in particular is absolutely top-notch, with a deft handling of colour and lighting creating a truly beautiful arena to headshot Nazis in.
In terms of gameplay, not everything that The Old Blood tries entirely works out. After a brief prologue the game opens with a tedious forced stealth section, and the second half introduces zombies that aren’t all that fun to fight compared to the regular enemies. One bit has you piloting a giant bipedal robot and smashing zombies with it, which sounds fun but is actually just fiddly and kind of tedious.
The ending also kind of sucks, both in terms of story and gameplay, which is a bit of a let down given that The New Order ended brilliantly. Apart from these blips, it’s just business as usual- if you liked The New Order’s gameplay, this is more of that.
It might be strange to say this given that I spent quite a lot of my New Order review complaining, but I’m finding myself genuinely fond of this franchise and the world its conjured. I don’t know if there are plans for a sequel (probably, since it ended on a giant cliffhanger) but if not I hope Machine Games gets to keep working on big-budget games. They’re damn good at it.