If there’s any one thing to be said to the fortunate, virgin player who hasn’t sat with Wolfenstein: The New Order, but finds him- or herself intrigued by Wolfenstein: The Old Blood’s promises of returning to the legendary titular castle, it’s that they’ve come to the right place. The Old Blood comes first chronologically, and if given the option, it’s 100% the game to start with. This way, it comes off as a fine and fond farewell to the series’s past to embrace its confident, matured future. Those are the players to envy, really, because there’s no way for anyone who played The New Order first to see The Old Blood as anything but a step back.
It’s the danger with any prequel, really, but The Old Blood seems almost nervous about the fact that The New Order escalated the series’s pedigree to the extent that it did, and reverts back to the comforts of mindless castle-hopping, Nazi-slaughtering, and mustache-twirling villainy with an overcompensating aplomb that’s almost jarring.
This is, of course, intentional. Throwback is the name of the game here, but even there, the game seems unsure. The Old Blood sold itself through its trailers as a B-movie romp, with our brave hero gunning down Hitler’s minions and zombies ad nauseam, while the gameplay is hell-bent on being the modern Wolfenstein 3D update that conventional logic says we should’ve gotten the first time. The reality is a bit of both, with a Tarantino-style split separating two acts of the same story. In act one, square-jawed, tight-lipped hero B.J. Blaskowicz and a British operative named Wesley attempt to sneak their way into Castle Wolfenstein at the height of alternate-reality World War II to retrieve vital information that could end the war, but get caught, with Wesley being carted off to be tortured for information by a burly, dog-loving psychopath named Rudi Jager, and B.J. deciding to shoot and stab his way out. In act two, B.J. finds himself in the nearby village of Wulfburg, following an occult- and wine-obsessed high-ranking officer named Helga Von Schlabbs who managed to sneak the crucial info out of the castle, when suddenly her biggest pet project pays off and a mysterious gas spews out of the Earth turning dead people and animals into spontaneously combusting zombies.
The Old Blood was originally meant to be two DLC packs, which have been spliced together to make a complete whole. As an act of artistic integrity, it’s a welcome, appreciated move, one that essentially makes The Old Blood into a full-fledged seven-to-10-hour game instead of just a New Order expansion. It also makes for a tonally schizophrenic game that starts as a vicious but well-crafted and imaginative Wolfenstein 3D remake, and wants so badly to embrace the inherent silliness of Nazi zombies on fire, but has done just too good of a job transcending its roots for the fall back to not come off as awkward.
There’s trace elements of The New Order’s thoughtfulness here, with snippets of character and history coming across from the letters scattered throughout the game, effective scripted sequences giving looks at both heroes and villains as people with lives and responsibilities long before B.J. came around, and though his lines lean a little heavier on the badass one-liners, B.J. himself is still portrayed here as a soldier with a still-beating, empathetic heart. This stuff is painfully and clumsily at war with a game that feels most of the time like a video-game prequel to the Nazis-on-the-moon laugh riot Iron Sky.
But does that make it a bad game? Thankfully, the answer is no. The game still holds back from making its predecessors’ mistakes, copy-pasting The New Order’s big, brutal, and bloody gameplay, even with a few welcome additions like making assault rifles feel far more comfortable, and a new multitasking melee weapon. On a base level, shooting Nazis and their lightning-infused robot minions still feels damn good. Even the zombie material, which is still painfully boring and overdone conceptually, manages a few surprises, like a throwaway moment where the flaming Nazi dead fall from the sky minutes before the zeppelin they rode on crashes and burns into Wulfburg.
Seen as a sequel to one of the failed last-gen attempts at reviving Wolfenstein, The Old Blood is a wonderful palate cleanser, something to undo long-standing wrongs before diving in to a much deeper, gratifying installment. The conundrum is that the people who already know what MachineGames is capable of with this series have seen the future, and The Old Blood doesn’t provide all that compelling a reason to return to the past.