Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn’t offer moral choice or use the medium to bring a social cause to bear, but it does make for an engrossing and impressive experience built upon a foundation that influenced an entire generation of video games.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Developed by Machine Games
Published by Bethesda Softworks
Platform: PlayStation 4
Wolfenstein doesn’t need much of a preamble. Well, Wolfenstein 3D, that is. As it is often said, id’s first foray into first person shooters became an overnight sensation and a revelation of game design. It paved the way for DOOM, Quake and the legion of first person shooters we enjoy/tolerate today. Gameplay trumped storytelling at the time, with scoring points and blasting everything in sight acting as the raison d’etre. There were goals, such as escaping from Castle Wolfenstein, but let’s face it: these games were nothing more than casual, hyperviolent gun fests and that was more than enough to satiate the player’s need for fun. But gaming in 2014 is much different than it was in 1992. The profound rise of gaming as a story telling medium created a new expectations including, but not limited to, maturity of narrative, moral choices, and the dismantling of gender stereotypes. Criteria such as these makes resurrecting old franchises a bit of a challenge. A developer has to balance modern sensibilities while at the same time stay true to the spirit of the source material. Duke Nukem Forever failed because there is little tolerance these days for shooters made up of lame jokes and objectified women.
Wolfenstein: The New Order succeeds because it offers a “high adrenaline” action wrapped around a rich, pulpy narrative layer made up with a surprising amount of depth and emotion. The game is the culmination of the ongoing battle between William “B.J.” Blazkowicz and his arch nemesis Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, the crazed Nazi scientist and engineer from Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Raven’s Wolfenstein. Presented through a dark “what if?” story structure, The New Order presents a world where the Nazis have taken over the world and reshaped modern civilization into a National Socialist paradise. As a matter of tone, The New Order separates itself from typical “America, Fuck Yeah” shooters where the Allies always emerge victorious. I enjoyed the sobering feeling of helplessness knowing that the great B.J. Blazkowicz, great American hero, is responsible for failing the world’s last ditched effort to stop the Nazis regime.
Hope is not completely lost, as B.J. and a surviving squad mate escape Deathshead’s compound. An errant piece of shrapnel slices into his skull and puts him into a twenty year coma. Cared for at a Polish asylum, he is forced to watch as the world undergoes change. The Nazis have won and a new order has been established. America has been nuked from existence and the entire European nation has been torn down and replaced by towering concrete Nazi architecture. In 1960, B.J. comes out of his vegetative state just in time to avoid a Nazi purge of the mental hospital. Proving that he has no time for atrophied muscles, B.J. kills all of the Nazis in the hospital and rescues Anna, the young nurse who kept firm watch over him. Together, they embark on a journey to seek out the Resistance and bring a sprawling Empire to its knees.
Wolfenstein: The New Order functions exactly how a first person shooter should, in that you are given guns to point and shoot at people. The classic library of weaponry introduced in 1992 have returned along with a few new toys. Throughout his globe trotting quest, B.J. will encounter new weapons and enemies created as a result of twenty years of uninterrupted research and development. Robots of varying size are a very real thing in this alternate 1960 as are energy based weapons. The Laserkraftwerk serves as an essential tool that will cut through metal fences, chains and lightly armored crates. Later upgrades will turn the tool into a formidable weapon but its primary use is for cutting through light metals. It’s most certainly a gimmick but the cutting aspect of the device is used just enough without being annoying or shoehorned.
Shooting Nazis can be both a fun and trying practice. The New Order is designed to accommodate two playstyles, stealth and heavy action. This approach is well designed as there are no penalties for favoring one over the other. There are moments, however, where stealth is greatly encouraged. Each level can be easily described as a series of hallways connected to large, open arenas. More often than not, these arenas are home to one or two Nazi captains who will sound an alarm when they see you, summoning waves of enemies in your direction. Kill them undetected and there will be fewer people to fight. While this may sound like the originator of the “balls to the wall action shooter” favors the stealth approach, how you play is entirely your choice. There is just enough ammunition lying around to fuel a desire for carnage. A Perk system keeps track of the type of kills you perform and unlocks appropriate upgrades after certain milestones have been reached. Again, if you prefer the stealth approach, completing various kill conditions will make sneaking around a much easier and deadlier prospect.
The game’s shooting mechanic is fun but not without without complaint. For as much as the game encourages blasting through hallways with a gun in each hand, the tactic can get rather unwieldy with the machine gun. Aiming with both guns is difficult to do because the recoil shifts the firing action upwards. I found it to be much easier and accurate to aim down the sight and save the dual wielding mechanic for handguns and shotguns (which is certifiably enjoyable). having to recharge the Laserkraftwerk mid-battle is dicey and often frustrating because of reloading animation. Additional ammo for most weapons can be acquired in the field but I hated having to press a button to pick it up. This ended up being a severe inconvenience during heavy action sequences and I would often die as a result of a lucky shot fired while I stumbled around, trying to position B.J. in such a way that the game would register the ammo or health pack as being in reaching distance.
My own issues aside, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a comfortable and competent shooter but there isn’t enough to the gameplay to truly differentiate it from any other game on the market. What gives the game its legs are the characters, the pulp-style story and its artistic vision. I really liked the characterization of B.J. Blazkowicz, even though his short, deliberate internal monologue can get more than a little silly. The gruffness of his voice and manner of speech makes him sound an awful lot like Jackie Earl Haley’s performance as Rorschach in the Watchmen film. He proves himself time and again to be more than than just a hulking killer that delights in spilling blood. The softer side of a soldier displaced in time is explored during the interactions with his fellow freedom fighters and with Anna. Depending on who you choose to save at the beginning of the game, two different characters will appear in the rest of the game. In my first playthrough, the “Fergus Timeline,” I had the delight of meeting Tekla, a fast talking techie with a very low opinion of B.J. As the game progresses, she reveals herself to be a highly intelligent, if socially awkward. The exchanges between her and B.J. are one of the story’s many highlights.
The tone of The New Order is akin to Quentin Taratino’s Inglorious Basterds, as B.J. and his cohorts are united by their singular desire to kill as many Nazis as possible. Like the film, the killing isn’t done out of some psychopathic urge for murder but rather a sense of social justice. The Nazis have taken over the world and rule with with a iron fascist grip and the only way to dismantle it is through violence. This call to violence is built upon a terrifically venomous depiction of the Nazi Empire as a collective of soulless monsters who delight in human suffering. To get this message across, The New Order paints its villains in fine, deliberate strokes. There is little doubt that Deathshead is a vile creature and his antics are almost too much to bear. However, the breakout star of this Nazi nightmare is Frau Engel. I feel incredibly guilty praising Machine Games for creating one of the greatest video game villains ever because she represents the worst of the Nazi ideology. However, her presence and performance carries a great deal of weight that cannot be ignored. The near comic book styling of the antagonists often conflict with the game’s darker moments, the most severe being the player’s infiltration of Engel’s concentration camp in Annexed Croatia. This darkness is counterbalanced by the respite found within the resistance headquarters in between missions. Before moving onto the next object, the player has the opportunity to interact with his comrades through a series of (admittedly vapid) fetch quests are primarily designed to explore the back stories of each character and the world they live in.
Solid gameplay supported by a finely crafted pulp story are what make Wolfenstein: The New Order a fantastic game. The game plays beautifully on the PlayStation 4, as high resolution texture work (as long as you don’t look at things too closely) and an excellent framerate come together to paint a beautiful, if morbidly dark, picture. There are numerous reasons to replay Wolfenstein with lots of hidden treasures to collect, Enigma Codes to uncover and a different timeline to play through. Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn’t offer moral choice or use the medium to bring a social cause to bear, but it does make for an engrossing and impressive experience built upon a foundation that influenced an entire generation of video games.