MachineGames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order accomplished something unexpected: it gave a series that was best known for mindless shooting an actual story and cast of characters worth caring about. That it did so while also providing one of the best updates to the classic, fast-paced first-person shooter formula to date is even more impressive. Through great dialogue, beautiful audio-visual design, and a deft marriage of old and new gameplay conventions, The New Order stood out. The game’s new standalone expansion, The Old Blood, has a few too many issues to make quite as much of an impact, though it serves as a welcome addition to last year’s Wolfenstein all the same.
The Old Blood is split into two parts—Rudi Jäger and the Den of Wolves and The Dark Secrets of Helga von Schabbs—which, though they must be played in sequential order, are distinct from one another in tone. Throughout them, the player reprises the role of longtime Wolfenstein protagonist William "BJ" Blazkowicz, a hulking American talented in dealing death and destruction to the Nazi war machine. Whereas The New Order took place in an alternate version of the 1950s and ‘60s in which fascist Germany won the Second World War, The Old Blood is set entirely in 1946, its plot leading directly into the opening mission of the latter game.
It begins with a series of levels that wouldn’t have felt out of place in The New Order. As BJ, the player attempts to infiltrate Castle Wolfenstein, but is quickly discovered and must fight for his life while escaping. Though its slow-paced opening mission features a finicky, forced stealth sequence, Den of Wolves quickly opens up to allow for the same mixture of sneaky enemy takedowns and (once the alarm is inevitably tripped) a louder, more chaotic form of violence. As in the original game, switching between weapons and tactics is encouraged through diverse level layouts and a perk system that “levels up” BJ once he accomplishes specific goals. Rather than allow the player to settle into the comfortable groove of using their favourite weapon to tackle every fight, The Old Blood makes it necessary to experiment with its arsenal (expanded slightly here with a handful of new guns).
Den of Wolves, with its familiar mechanics and objectives, is an enjoyable (if slightly plodding and repetitive) retread of the sort of combat scenarios found in The New Order. It’s the game’s second part, The Dark Secrets of Helga von Schabbs, that serves as the most notable departure from what’s come before. After fighting against human opponents and following a plot whose high-tech Nazis make it only slightly campier than last year’s Wolfenstein, The Dark Secrets neatly segues into decidedly pulpier territory. The introduction of paranormal elements may initially make players roll their eyes—without giving away the twist, a very familiar kind of monster appears to serve as the enemy—but MachineGames does well with the material, using it to force the player yet again to vary their tactics. The pace picks up considerably in The Dark Secrets, varying the level design and providing far more narrative momentum than the duller and slower first part.
Despite the return of solid combat mechanics and level design, though, The Old Blood’s small cast of characters and relatively one-note plot are a marked step down from the original game’s story. The New Order was overflowing with memorable personalities, and it used its cast of partisan fighters and sci-fi Nazis to great effect in telling a (surprisingly effective) story of revenge and military resistance. It’s too bad, then, that The Old Blood’s plot is so thin and utilitarian. The new characters introduced here are excellent—the villainous, dog-loving Rudi Jäger and heroic German saboteur Annette in particular stand out—but the story provides few chances to meaningfully interact with them. Without the between mission “downtime” levels that allowed The New Order’s cast opportunity to discuss their lives, it feels as if the player barely gets a chance to know the interesting personalities driving the plot forward. MachineGames’ knack for dialogue and organic character development enlivens every moment it takes centre stage, but The Old Blood’s diminished emphasis on storytelling makes this far too rare an occurrence to properly appreciate.
Even though a poorly paced opening and the lack of a more compelling story mean it’s not as strong a game as The New Order, The Old Blood’s combat, level design, and new characters still come together to make for a worthwhile experience. Focusing more on these aspects would have made this expansion even better. As it is, MachineGames’ latest take on Wolfenstein is a very good shooter that is only a few missteps away from being, like its predecessor, a truly great one.