Wolfenstein: The New Order showed you could take an old style of game and make it feel new. Its new expansion, The Old Blood, simply feels old.
I loved last year's The New Order. A lot of people did. It was a seemingly old-fashioned type of shooter that ended up being one of the surprise hits of 2014 thanks to a few neat tricks, a commitment to the first-person perspective, and a strong focus on character.
It's hard to believe, then, that this new standalone prequel/expansion came from the same developers and is set in the same universe, because few of those strengths are on display here.
Where New Order spanned decades and took us on a trip around the Nazi empire, Old Blood starts and ends in 1946 and takes us to only a handful of dreary locations. Where New Order was a game that often felt larger than life, Old Blood feels cramped and tired. Where New Order...look, if you're already sick of me comparing the two, you may not want to read on, because there's a lot more to come. It's unavoidable when this is a prequel, sharing the same main character, same engine and same basic systems.
One of New Order's real strengths was the number of "arenas", sections of a level where the action opened up and players were free to sneak around, dispatching enemies via stealth and trying to avoid alerting commanding officers, who would sound an alarm and call for reinforcements.
Old Blood has those as well, but they're nowhere near as well-designed (they're incredibly linear), and are often almost impossible to complete through stealth. It's more a matter of how long you can last before going in all guns blazing, instead of avoiding blazing guns altogether.
Not that the loud, violent option is always the worst one. One of New Order's most under-appreciated systems — looting the dead — is still a lot of fun in Old Blood. While the game is happy to leave health and ammo lying around levels, you'll end up getting most of it from the bodies of the soldiers you kill. The way you have to dance over your kills, scooping up ammo in the midst of a firefight to make more kills, was probably the most enjoyable thing you did in New Order. It really helped to make that old 90s style of FPS design (which this game wears proudly on its sleeve) feel fresh, so it's nice to see it remain an integral part of the design here (indeed, it probably feels even more useful later in the game after the story turns).
Probably the most enduring thing about New Order was that, out of nowhere, it was a Wolfenstein game with heart! It had a memorable cast with some truly unforgettable scenes, and was also smart enough to give you plenty of downtime with those characters, so you could get to know them and their stories.
Old Blood has a few allies and friends you find along the way, but they're never around long enough to get to know them. You're never really sitting still for long, either. That doesn't just rob you of the time to enjoy your tea and biscuits, but also affects the game's pacing; all you're ever really doing is shooting.
There really are tea and biscuits...
Which is a problem! The levels here aren't as pretty, unique or as interesting as they were in New Order — you're mostly fighting inside a castle or just outside one, which all gets real samey real fast. With repetitive action and monotonous scenery, the whole thing gets a bit tiresome after a while. Old Blood is split into two chapters, and I actually groaned when I finished the first and learned I had to play through a whole other section.
And that's a pity, because Machine Games still has their distinct ability to make the most of the first-person perspective, especially with transition movements and kill animations. All that stuff is still in full effect here. Your pipe — and it really is the game's signature tool — is always coming in and out of shot, you're always sliding in and out of doors, the whole camera shifts when you unlock a gate, etc. I wish more studios could learn from these guys, and their legacy from their time at Starbreeze working on games like Riddick.
This large, dramatic combat area is one of the game's few, ahem, bright spots.
Look, I get it. This isn't a full-blooded sequel, and Machine Games clearly didn't have the budget or time to make something on the scale of New Order. And it's obvious from the level design to the tone of this game that it's an intentional throwback to older Wolfenstein games, especially Return to Castle Wolfenstein. New Order was a reboot, so Old Blood is circling that reboot back around to reacquaint it with older games in the series.
But the scale isn't an excuse for the grind, and the change in tone isn't a welcome one. Wolfenstein was rebooted for a reason — the series had gotten so stale, so lost in supernatural Nazi nonsense and boring FPS design that it needed a good boot in the arse. To see it return to those lost years, and be less of a game for doing so, is a disappointment.