I came to The Old Blood, a new standalone prequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order, with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. The shadow cast over The Old Blood is a long one. Last year, The New Order won me over with stellar shooting mechanics and a diverse cast of characters, all wounded and at their breaking point, fighting against a cruel, monstrous regime in an alternate future where the Nazis won World War 2. The New Order not only tells a grand story, it is also—with the exception of Far Cry 2 perhaps—the best first-person shooter in the last decade.
There is little here to distract from the run-and-gun. No special powers, no vending machines stocked with weapons, no massive wasteland in which to explore and kill inhabitants. The New Order is instead tightly focused, a series of tunnels and canals down which you proceed to reach your objective after mowing down every enemy. In lieu of side missions and an open world, the game has finely tuned weapons that are fun to use and distinguishable from one another. There’s only one machine gun and only one shotgun, instead of the military shooter standard of 50 varieties for the same gun. Wolfenstein expects you to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each weapon, to discover that what you need to take down the enemy with the gas tank on his back is the shotgun with the ricochet shells and that you need to quickly calculate the trajectory those rounds must travel to hit their target. In what’s seemingly becoming a rare occurrence, enemies also show somewhat realistic body damage when shot, thus strengthening the illusion that the violence you cause has tangible consequences. This is, in a way, less disturbing than a game that treats violence as a bloodless affair, pretending that bullets and bombs and knives don’t do awful, horrendous things to the human body.
The Old Blood, which sacrifices The New Order’s ambitious, emotionally-charged story for pure pulp, serves as a testament to just how strong the gunplay of The New Order is when divorced from great writing. That’s not to say that The Old Blood is poorly written so much as it has a purposely schlocky grindhouse mentality to it, returning to the series’ roots. In this prologue, American soldier BJ Blazkowicz is infiltrating a Nazi compound to find documents that reveal the location of an enemy base. Things take a turn for the worst when BJ is captured and, upon escaping, has to take on all sorts of horrors to retrieve said documents. There is occult magic, the consequences of people reaching beyond their grasp, Nazi zombies and other nasty creatures lurking within these snowy mountains of Germany. It’s a wild ride, but I did yearn for the familiar faces of The New Order and the pains they carried with them, pains that grounded me in their world. As a prologue, there isn’t much here that depends on you having played The New Order for you to understand the story, though there are definitely a few nods to what lies ahead for BJ that made me both smile and sigh sadly.
The most interesting change for returning Wolfenstein players will be the noticeable difference in level layout. I mentioned earlier that The New Order, even in its most seemingly open segments, is essentially a series of tunnels. The Old Blood does that as well, but it also has a number of oval, arena-like spaces where you engage your opponents, which gives you ample opportunity to use an arsenal of new weapons, including a sniper rifle, a miniature grenade launcher and, um, a drain pipe. Yes, a pipe, one that is surprisingly deadly. When you’re not using it to stealthily bludgeon enemies, you can break it in two and use it to scale buildings or even knock down walls hiding secret areas. Unfortunately, the pipe, just like laser wielder in The New Order, serves as a weird pace-killer rather than a useful traversal device. Often I would finish a battle, have all my guns ready to go for the next fight, and step inside a room only to find that I had to climb out of it with the pipe to reach the next set of enemies. The tutorial for the pipe, a 30-minute long forced stealth section at the game’s start, is also quite irksome, because if you screw up, you immediately become engaged in a battle that’s nearly impossible to win. Since enemies can apparently see you through objects, this segment becomes an aggravating, repetitious task until you finally get lucky enough to complete it.
Niggles aside, there’s a surprising amount of fun things to do in The Old Blood. My play-through of the story clocked in at just over six hours, and there’s also a challenge mode that lets you fight waves of Nazis in various levels from the story for points. You earn more points by killing groups of enemies quickly. Earn enough points and you nab a trophy/achievement. Sure, this mode is ultimately a side dish, but it’s one that’s surprisingly filling.
For those who have played The New Order, The Old Blood is best characterized as “more Wolfenstein.” For those who haven’t, The Old Blood is a great introduction to the best first person shooter in recent memory. I would have liked a more thorough exploration of Blazkowicz’s mind before the beginning of The New Order, one that would give us more insight into the tired, weary killing machine that he is in that game, but The Old Blood is bursting at the seams with so much fun and wackiness that it seems like holding “not a nuanced character study” against would be silly. Ultimately, it’s probably best to accept The Old Blood for what it is: a fun, kooky adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously (unlike its older sibling), and knows how to make the first-person shooter feel refreshing and fun again. That alone is worthy of praise.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.