Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is a standalone expansion and prequel to last year’s alterna-history shooter Wolfenstein: The New Order. It came out earlier this week.
You almost never see BJ Blazkowicz’s eyes this time. Those tired, sad eyes gave last year’s Wolfenstein: The New Order soul. Not a lot of soul in the grand scheme of things, but by the standards of games which are primarily concerned with gunning down hordes of baddies, The New Order was a big old bleeding heart. Standalone expansion/prequel The Old Blood is a perfectly decent man-shooter that’s in all other senses a step back into tradition. Maybe that’s why we don’t really see his eyes this time. They’d be too bright and cheerful. He’d be a maniac rather than a wounded soldier.
Accusing Wolfenstein games of being traditional is an absurd thing to do. It’s like complaining that houses have doors or cheese smells a bit funny. Wolfenstein is the cheerfully unreconstructed grandaddy of shooters: have guns, kill mens. Yet The New Order, despite retaining the intrinsic meatheaded appeal and freewheeling silliness of the ur-first-person-shooter, injected unexpected nuance into a protagonist who’d been a heroically murderous lunkhead for decades. Sure, BJ Blazkowicz’s journey of love, loss and regret was set against a backdrop of steampunk Nazi absurdity, but maybe that’s what stopped it from feeling inappropriately earnest.
The Old Blood hamstrings itself right off the bat by being a prequel, set decades before The New Order’s alternate future – BJ’s ‘just’ a near-superhuman US special operative at this point, yet to suffer the defeats documented in The New Order. Back in The Old Blood’s 1940-something setting, he’s Arnie-as-Moore-era-James-Bond.
Given we have cablecar gunfights, storming castles and assaults on picturesque mountainside villages, I’m fairly confident that it’s willingly descending into 80s blockbuster tropes rather than that someone’s simply forgotten to add-in the downtime and character beats. That said, there is an odd cramming of attempted character work towards the end of the game, but it’s not given room to breathe – you even get a room filled with half a dozen collectible letters which hastily provides an optional overload of backstory to otherwise one-dimensional supporting characters. Still, preferable to more cutscenes as far as I’m concerned, but I wouldn’t have minded another trip somewhere wild. There is a mid-game shake-up of sorts involving a new enemy type, which I’ll avoid spoiling, but it isn’t going to surprise anyone who’s played a first-person shooter any time in the last decade.
For a relatively straight-down-the-line and mostly spectacular-looking shooter, there’s not much to argue with here. It’s overly reliant on chucking waves of enemies at you instead of coming up with setpieces, the secrets are perfunctory, there’s a needless and annoying wall-climbing mini-game which keeps cropping up and there’s some lousy signposting of level exits at times, but, y’know: guns, Nazis, robo-Nazis, cablecar gunfights, option for stealth, not too heavy on the cutscenes. It’s a Full English if tasty junk is what you’re after.
It’s not a cursory affair either, having gone to the trouble of creating a huge new Castle Wolfenstein, towering through the clouds, filled with dark technology and darker magic, and mustering a campaign which for me landed around the eight hour mark. Others have reported that it sped by far more quickly, but it depends hugely on playstyle – I tried to stealth wherever I could, and my packrat tendencies forbade me from simply blasting through to the exit too. It’s substantial enough I’d say, especially at half the price of The New Order.
At the same time, it’s hard to make a case for buying this if you’ve played The New Order lately. It’s more of the same but slightly lesser, repeating parts of the experience without throwing in anything like enough ohmigosh moments to justify a seperate existence. If the long length, character-led cutscenes and sci-fi/fantasy deviations of The New Order sounded from afar like they were too far off Wolfenstein piste to you, then I guess there’s an argument to be made that this is closer to the formula laid down by Return To Castle Wolfenstein. Big Gothic castle, (mostly) period weapons, no trips to the moon, some occultism, go do your retro thing.
If you just want an excuse to fire thousands and thousands of bullets at things, it’s almost impossible to make a case against The Old Blood. Inheriting the meaty and surprisingly flexible gunplay of The New Order, plus bullet-sponge enemies designed to offer a robust challenge and with it a satisfying sense of victory against tall odds, plus the good-looking graphics tech of the Rage engine, and none of the death-by-cutscene hooray Henryism of recent CODs and Battlefields, this is probably the best singleplayer shooter since, well, The New Order.
There are some pacing issues, tedious boss fights and a sporadic sense of repetition, but The Old Blood is reliably decent. It also brings one welcome addition, in the form of Batman Arkham-style challenge rooms, which let you experiment more freely with its action/stealth systems in the pursuit of personal bests. Given how satisfying that side of New Order/Old Blood is, it just makes sense to have it available on tap, uncoupled from story and filler.
Even so, this just feels so hot on the heels of The New Order without taking it anywhere new. Again, it’s bizarre to ask that of Wolfenstein game, but given the New Order won the series’ battle for relevancy, it’s disappointing to see it give up the fight to go to new places so soon.
Still, fifteen quid, lots of bullets, lots of steampunk Nazis and some monsters too. If that’s (still) your poison, you can’t go far wrong with this. As far as Wolfenstein as a whole goes, The New Order is two steps forwards and The Old Blood one step back, and that’s enough to leave me excited about whatever Machine Games have planned next. I hope they take a couple of years over it though, because I really need a break from trying to spell ‘Blazkowicz’ right.
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is out now.