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Wolfenstein: The Old Blood Review

After the The New Order, Machine Games decided to continue their work on the Wolfenstein franchise by taking the series back to its roots with a shorter, action-packed prequel set before the Nazi takeover. But does this stand-alone expansion keep pace with it's retro-future predecessor? Or is it a step backwards in more ways than the time period?

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood Review

Introduction

Wolfenstein: The New Order was undoubtedly a resounding success, bringing the ailing Nazi-killing franchise into the modern era with a brand new story and amusingly over-the-top gunplay. The Old Blood builds on that success by returning to the game's roots in the style of a two-fisted tale centering once more around the dread castle that is the source of the series' title: Wolfenstein. Essentially acting as a stand-alone expansion, if not a full-blown prequel, The Old Blood serves almost as a love-letter to the original Wolfenstein games released by id Software way back in the 80s, retelling the tale of B.J. Blaskowicz's daring escape from the Nazi-occupied mountain fortress with a modern polish which ties it to the Reich-ruled dystopian future of The New Order.

Of course, as what amounts to an expansion, there's not an enormous amount of difference between The Old Blood and The New Order gameplay-wise, but it's always important to remember that as an add-on, The Old Blood was destined to be shorter, and subsequently was doomed (pardon the pun) to have less creative space for the developers to work with. With that in mind, the devilish developers at Machine Games have managed to add and change enough to keep the experience fresh, yet familiar. Ultimately, your enjoyment of this game will rely on whether or not you liked the main experience. If you liked The New Order, then you'll probably like The Old Blood. For those of you that fall into that category, it's available on Steam for $19.99. For those of you who don't, hopefully this review can convince you otherwise. Unless you're a Nazi, in which case you should get some help.

Story

The Old Blood picks up a few weeks before the opening of The New Order, with protagonist B. J. Blaskowicz assigned as a partner to special agent Richard Wesley. Their mission is to infiltrate the infamous Castle Wolfenstein, located high in the German Alps, in order to steal a folder containing information critical to location of the evil General Wilhelm Strauss, whose technological genius is on the verge of costing the Allies the war. This pits them at odds with Helga von Schabbs, a Nazi treasure hunter eager to uncover the secrets of the castle's history, and her ruthless enforcer Rudi Jäger, who really, really likes his dogs.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood Review - B.J.'s efforts to find the folder with the Nazi plans go pear-shaped faster than old Adolf can wolf down sauerkraut.
Predictably, the operation spins out of control within the space of about fifteen minutes, just long enough for Blaskowicz to get inside the mountain fortress via tram car, before being discovered and tossed into a cell, deep in the castle dungeons. The plot draws heavily on the original Escape from Castle Wolfenstein, insomuch as that's what you end up trying to do for about six of the game's ten chapters, but it builds on the basic concept enough that it ends up feeling like a classic Indiana Jones adventure, or other, similar tales from the WWII era, which were all about swashbuckling heroes and their daring deeds.

The downside of the game's short length is that none of the characters really have time to get developed, leaving them feeling like hollow set-pieces. As a result, many events like this which might otherwise be heart-breaking are stifled by your inability to properly connect with the participants. One good example is a choice near the end of the game which forces you to pick one of two characters to save. Unfortunately you only get to know them for less than ten minutes beforehand, with most of their background delivered through collectible information around the environment. As such, the decision feels somewhat contrived and worse, meaningless. Criticizing this might seem hypocritical given how The New Order pulled the same stunt right at the start of the game, but in that case, time was given for the effects of the choice you made to play out, and were demonstrated in the characters' behavior after the fact. Here, it just seems like a choice between Path A and Path B.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood Review - Rudi Jäger has the charm of old-school Nazi villains who really come off as almost comically evil.
Ultimately, The Old Blood's plot is, like most of the game, a love letter to the fans. It's an adventure from B. J.'s glory days, and even includes a certain supernatural element, much like many of the prior Wolfenstein titles albeit with an 'ancient technology' subtext that helps keep it from contradicting the decidedly less-spooky narrative aesthetic of The New Order. It's not a superb piece of storytelling, but it does its job in justifying the events that take place well enough that you don't question things in between popping heads.

Gameplay

There's not an enormous amount that separates The Old Blood from The New Order. There's no truly new enemy types, and while the Laserkraftwerk is no longer present, much of the base game's armory is still available, just with a new polish to fit the setting. The alternative fire-modes of most weapons have been removed, but it's of little consequence overall, as they still kill Nazis with excellent efficiency. Naturally this means that there are a few replacements and switch-ups, such as the removal of the under-barrel rocket launcher for the assault rifle being balanced out by the inclusion of a single-shot rocket pistol. Rather than detracting from the fun however, this simplification of B.J.'s collection of guns just makes everything feel more streamlined somehow. The end result is a system where every gun has it's place, and which requires less fiddling around with keeping track of which boomstick does what. 
Knife-throwing makes a comeback, and is accompanied by the new pipe melee, which can also be used in certain areas to scale walls to locate alternative paths. The combat perks system has also been heavily simplified, retaining its mechanic of unlocking new abilities over time, but with fewer total abilities to acquire, which is fine given the game's reduced length. Overall, all the changes made just make everything feel more old-fashioned, but fast, like an old-school id Software game, which is pretty much the ultimate goal, given how the expansion seeks to recapture the series' roots while retaining the best parts of its new direction.

The Old Blood still lacks a multiplayer component, which will no doubt disappoint some, but for a game that stands so well on its basic mechanics, it's not an enormous problem. Nevertheless, to help flesh out the game's lifespan, Machine Games thoughtfully included a Bulletstorm-style challenge mode which places you in some of the campaign's best arena zones to fight against swarms of Nazis in a race to see how quickly, how stylishly and how efficiently you can kill them. It's quite good for those looking to blow off some steam after a hard day by scoring points for gibbing fascists, although like any such add-on, it does wear thin after a while. Still, it's a clever way to eke more fun out what would otherwise be just an ordinary stand-alone expansion.  

Sound and Design

Very little changes in terms of sound between The New Order and The Old Blood. At the end of the day, many shooters sound like one another to the casual player. The chief difference is the unique soundtrack, written and scored specifically for the expansion by Mick Gordon, mastermind behind the music of The New Order. While it's far from his most significant work, it does do the job of keeping the player engaged. The new music substitutes the heavy electro-metal of the base game with more frantic orchestral fight themes that would be right at home in an action movie and which are more suitable to the altered atmosphere of Castle Wolfenstein and its surrounding environs.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood Review - Whatever you might think of the game's graphics, even with smaller sets, it still manages to instill awe.
Really, the largest difference between The Old Blood's campaign and the base game is the level design. There's a much greater focus on arena-style combat, with waves of enemies flooding into areas that need to be eliminated before you can progress. While this might initially prompt a more defensive style of fighting, higher difficulties increase enemy aggression, promoting quick movement from cover to cover and skilled control of armor, ammo and health supplies to stay alive. In between these segments there's plenty of spots to practice either a stealth or guns-blazing approach, though generally you'll find yourself resorting to the latter after picking off a few juicy targets from the shadows simply because it's more fun that way.

Also of importance is the improved performance. The Old Blood seems to experience less severe graphical issues than The New Order, which many will attest to as having extremely troubling frame-rate drops and other visual bugs, particularly on ATI graphics cards. This may be do to the compressed nature of the levels, which tend to feature fewer colossal skyboxes and gigantic set pieces than The New Order. There's still enough hiccups to warrant asking why Bethesda hasn't put the time and effort into fixing the problem outright, but whatever the reason, at least you're less likely to experience the pain of watching textures pop into existence all around you as you try to get a bead on the krauts shooting at you, and that's always a good thing.

Final Verdict

So, is The Old Blood worth your time? Well, if you enjoyed The New Order and want more, then the answer is probably yes. It's a good game, with decent pacing and an okay story layered on a solid foundation of action, adventure and the wanton slaughter of that most universal of bad guys: Nazis. Sure there are some flaws, and a few lingering technical issues (looking at you, Bethesda Softworks. You know what you did.), but overall, if you like single-player shooters, then this is definitely one game you shouldn't miss out on. It the very least it should tide you over while the sequel finishes cooking.

PROS
CONS
+ Decent writing and narrative urgency.– Short plot means under-developed characters.
+ Solid atmosphere and looks.– Purely single-player experience.
+ Fun and enthralling Nazi-killing gameplay.– Still some graphical issues for ATI-card users.
8.5
Great

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