Tried and trusted gameplay is boosted with a generous, if slightly monotonous, serving of genuinely fresh content in this budget prequel.
It's ironic that one of the first publishers to earn gamers' ire for ropey DLC is now one of the few publishers to be doing expansions properly. Bethesda was rightly notorious for its decorative horse armour, sold separately for players of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, but it's now making amends with add-ons that are not only substantial, but robust and distinctive.
The two narrative spin-offs for The Evil Within offered new environments and new enemies, and that's also true of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, a two-act expansion so sizable - eight chapters that take around seven hours to complete - that it's being released as a standalone budget game rather than plain old DLC.
It's a prequel to last year's surprise hit, The New Order, picking up the story of B.J. Blazkowicz in 1946. In this alternate timeline, the Second World War is not only still going, but the Nazis are winning thanks to supernatural advantages unearthed by Helga von Schabbs. Your mission is to infiltrate the infamous Castle Wolfenstein and remove that advantage, giving the Allies a slim chance to regroup.
It's a return to the classic Wolfenstein setting, then, but don't get too excited about exploring those dank passages and dungeons once again. While the castle forms the mid-section of the first act, Rudi Jager and the Den of Wolves, you don't really spend that much time there. After only a few hours of linear progression, you emerge from the other side of the castle and are off into a series of caves and then an occupied village for the final chapter, The Dark Secrets of Helga von Schabbs.
The Old Blood, much like The Evil Within's DLC, is defined by impressive highs and a couple of minor but nonetheless disappointing lows. There's a lot in here, certainly more than we've come to expect from blockbuster bonus content, and it all feels compellingly new. There are not only entirely new environments and some new enemies, but a few new gameplay ideas too.
B.J's dual-wielded pipes, for instance, are a fun addition. With one in each hand, they not only allow for some spectacularly nasty stealth executions, with blood gushing out of one end as the other is buried in some hapless soldier's skull or throat, but they open up traversal opportunities, allowing you to use them to scale walls or - by combining them into a single crowbar-style configuration - prise open doors and grates.
It's just a shame there aren't more reasons to roam. Some areas widen out to offer a larger area in which to skulk and flank enemies, but the way ahead is always rigidly enforced, and though there are secret areas, your reward for finding them is collectable gold bars and maybe some letters or documents. The best reason to wander off is to find the bonus Wolfenstein 3D levels - one per area now - though even these lose their allure after a while.
You certainly won't need to look high and low for ammo and armour. Those are in such plentiful supply, scattered as they are across every available surface and in every corner, that they make a mockery of the Nazis' reputation for ruthless efficiency - at least as far as tidying up is concerned.
Also similar to The Evil Within's Assignment and Consequence expansions, the reliance on stealth is a little problematic. Enemy AI is erratic, and their field of vision frustratingly unclear. Sometimes you'll be spotted by a patrolling guard you had no idea was there from across the map, particularly in the more open areas where it's impossible to keep an eye on every angle, leading to an immediate hail of suspiciously accurate bullets. Yet at other times you're able to crouch in what feels like plain sight, mere feet away, and take your time lining up a headshot from your silenced pistol. Enemies are also hilariously unconcerned about their comrades - paying little attention to dead bodies, and sometimes even failing to react should you snipe someone standing right next to them.
This wouldn't be so irritating if stealth was more optional. As in the main game, enemy commanders are still used to heavily nudge you towards the clunkier sneaky play over guns-blazing action, with their ability to endlessly summon reinforcements if alerted. There's also a new kind of Super Soldier to contend with, heavily armoured but tethered to electrical rails in the ceiling. Finding a way to shut off that power, and then take them down with an execution, is far preferable to using up most of your ammo chipping through their shell.
The game quickly slips into a familiar routine of stealth, followed by a forced firefight, followed by stealth, followed by more inescapable shoot-outs. At least, that is, until a second-act twist - if the presence of Nazi zombies can be considered a twist in this series. There's even a scene that riffs on the train interrogation from The New Order, and a few dialogue scenes, but by and large The Old Blood has very little of the story material or characters that made its parent game such a delightful surprise, and their absence is definitely felt.
Also missing is the upgrade system, which has been stripped back to a much simpler selection of perks, unlocked for performing certain actions. Get a certain number of kills with a weapon, and you'll get an extended ammo supply for that gun. Overcharge your health and you get a permanent boost to your hit points. That sort of thing. It's not a bad system, but it is another area where The Old Blood feels a bit more limited than The New Order.
The very fact that this budget spin-off even attracts comparisons to its larger, blockbuster-funded parent title says a lot for the effort that Machine Games has put in, however. There's clearly a lot of love and attention poured into this release, with loads of id Software and Bethesda Easter eggs and references to savour. And while it lacks the character and narrative drive of the larger game, it hasn't skimped on cinematic moments. Your first glimpse of Castle Wolfenstein is a jaw-dropper, as is your exit. There are moments inside where you're able to look back at the vast environment you've battled through, multiple floors and balconies dropping away below you, offering a sense of scale few full-price games manage to evoke.
If all that is expected of an expansion or spin-off is to deliver more of the same, then The Old Blood goes above and beyond its obligations. The decision to downplay the story elements does sometimes leave it feeling a bit overwhelming and stodgy - the textures and rhythms that made its predecessor such a sleeper hit simply aren't here - but as a lovingly crafted continuation of a game that was already pretty bloody great, there's little here worth complaining about.