Last year Wolfenstein shattered expectations and blew us away with an incredibly fun and somehow gripping experience in The New Order. We were introduced to the new gruff, sombre and yet endearing BJ Blazkowicz and treated to a surprisingly sincere and thrilling story – as sincere as a story involving moon Nazis can get. MachineGames also managed to reignite the fun in shooters by matching outlandish weapons (with dual-wielding for everything!) with tight gameplay that rewards your playstyle, and solid stealth mechanics to boot. It also bucked a few trends prevalent in the AAA market by not including multiplayer and having zero DLC which made the experience feel whole and focused. Thus the stand-alone expansion The Old Blood, released a year after the original, came as a welcome surprise for those in the Nazi killing business. However, where The New Order upended expectations and shone light onto fading franchise, The Old Blood shows us the game we feared the original would be – brown and unimaginative with a weak story.
Set in 1946 just before The New Order kicks off, we join BJ on his way to infiltrate the infamous Castle Wolfenstein with fellow OSA agent Wesley with the aim of finding documents disclosing the headquarters of General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse’s fortress. We learn the Allies are on the verge of defeat thanks to the huge advances in Nazi technology and this information is their last shot at turning the tide – but we all know how that ended up. The story from hereon in doesn’t expand greatly, but instead focuses on two bizarre Nazi characters: dog obsessed Rudi Jager and Wolfenstein commander and archaeologist Helga Von Schabbs. Unlike The New Order BJ has little impact on the story (aside from all the killing of course) and rarely has more to say than the odd one-liner or morose comment to himself that adds nothing to the story. His gruff yet somber presence is still absolutely welcomed, it’s just a shame his character has little chance to develop. The shorter game time (about 8 hours) has obviously had an impact on The Old Blood’s story-telling ability, lacking the depth and meaningfulness of the original game. This time around Wolfenstein explores the Nazis’ fascination with the occult, as if pay homage to previous games in the series. As I played through it made me feel extremely grateful to the team at MachineGames for steering clear of this in The New Order as it honestly feels stale and worn out.
Pretty much everything we loved about The New Order’s gameplay has returned and little time is wasted throwing you into firefights with ample weaponry. However, stealth becomes a major part of the early game as BJ sneaks his way around the bowels of Castle Wolfenstein armed only with two pieces of lead pipe. The pipe becomes a trusty side-kick for the entire game as it allows BJ to climb certain walls, knock down walls and kill Nazis in rather grisly fashions. It’s just as easy to creep around with a knife (that can also be thrown for an insta-kill against most enemies), so the pipe doesn’t make a huge impact on the game as a whole. The forced stealth sections become a little tedious after a while as each room ends up being an exercise in memorising supersoldier patrols. Eventually commanders who call in waves of reinforcements start to appear, which then adds another level of much-needed strategy to the encounters. Dual-wielding makes a triumphant return, but weapons lack the exotic modifications that appeared in The New Order. As a result the same old combos become a bit tiresome as the game wears on. Firefights are still fun and frantic, it’s just the lack of variety in weapons that will limit ongoing enjoyment of the encounters.
Things are simplified this time around with more emphasis on dingy, claustrophobic corridors while still having different options available to take on each area as you see fit. Encounters are less bombastic in terms of a lack of huge arenas or giant enemies to battle, but plenty more fodder is sent BJ’s way to make up for it. Aside from that not much at all has really changed, except the tone is a little less dark (which is still pretty dark). Stealth is simple and effective, but players aren’t penalised for breaking cover so long as they can withstand the ensuing onslaught. The throwing knife is once again hilariously overpowered and enemies are oblivious to all but being tapped on the shoulder, so at least it’s not frustrating. In combat enemies are challenging and tend to stick to cover or flush you out with grenades, while heavily armed soldiers will bear down on you regardless of how many bullets are sent their way. The perk system is back, but in a stripped down manner that doesn’t reward any particular playstyle like The New Order did. It’s still a nice addition but doesn’t add anything to the original formula. Replayability comes in the form of finding missed collectables in the campaign and a challenge mode that allows you to take on the bigger set-piece battles for high scores.
The Old Blood is presented as a schlocky pulp movie and comes in two chapters: “Rudi Jager and the Den of Wolves” and “The Dark Secrets of Helga von Schabbs,” originally intended to be separate DLC but mashed together into a tidy package. The pulp feel is more a veneer than an all-pervasive them which is a bit of a shame. Brown makes an unwelcome return as most of your time is spent in a dank old castle, and gone is the sense of space The New Order managed so well. While the environments aren’t exactly inspiring the character models are still incredibly detailed, especially the two villain – they have a slightly unhinged look to them and their voice-acting is spot on. The big non-secret of The Old Blood is the introduction of Nazi zombies – a call-back to the series’ occult roots. They add an interesting element to firefights as enemies who aren’t killed from headshots are instantly returned as a zombie. They’re not particularly interesting to fight though and it’s not that exciting simply gunning down the hordes.
The Old Blood is an exercise in “nothing lost, nothing gained.” Very little has managed to top the high standards of The New Order and even managed to take a step backwards in terms of dredging up some FPS clichés best left forgotten. It’s a shame the pulp theme wasn’t integrated further into the game, or new enemies or gameplay mechanics for that matter. Despite these negatives The Old Blood still stands up as a solid shooter, mostly due to the shooting being so damn solid. Being able to switch from silent assassin to bloodthirsty barbarian allows for truly fluid encounters, and the odd pang of regret when you realise there’s no one left to shoot.
EDITOR NOTE: this game was supplied to us via the publisher, and reviewed on PC across 8 hours of gameplay.