“You put a Nazi on the moon. Fuck you moon.”
History is a fickle thing. Looking back at the colossal events that have shaped the modern world, it is interesting to hypothesize about what could have been. How would the world look today if England had won America’s war for independence? What if the dissolution of the Soviet Union had never happened? These what-if scenarios have been a favourite playground for fiction in the last century and none have been as popular a setting as the Second World War. What if Germany developed the atom bomb first? What if they won? What would that world look like? Wolfenstein: The New Order is the answer to those questions.
Wolfenstein is a name many game enthusiasts my age will recognize. It, along with Doom were the beginning of a genre that would become synonymous with the way we play games in the 21st century. They were the first truly successful shooters to allow the player to explore a three dimensional environment from the first person perspective and also gave us the opportunity to blast monsters and Nazis with outrageous weapons while doing so. At the time they seemed graphic, over the top, and delightfully silly. Looking back, we see them as the immature childish toys they were; groundbreaking and important but childish toys nonetheless. Over the last two decades these franchises have had sequels and reboots that have experienced moderate success and mixed reception. They are a product of a different time and trying to make them relevant today is a daunting task, a task developer MachineGames has somehow been able to accomplish despite the odds.
In Wolfenstein: The New Order, BJ Blazkowicz is a member of the US Special Forces at the end of the Second World War. Through superior technological advances the Nazi war machine has been able to beat back the Allied forces and the conflict has lasted well into 1946. In a last ditch assault on General Wilhem Strasse’s secret weapons laboratory, the allied special forces hope to put a stop to the terrible weapons that have been giving the Nazis the upper hand. BJ and his team come closer than they ever have to capturing Strasse, also known as “Deathshead”, before they are ambushed and taken prisoner. Barely escaping with his life, BJ is left with a severe head injury that puts him in a coma for fourteen years. After BJ wakes up in a mental hospital Wolfenstein: The New Order truly finds its footing and starts to unveil a world both terrifying and captivating.
The war is over and the Nazis have won. After dropping the atom bomb on Manhattan, the United States surrendered to the Third Reich and, one by one, the Allied forces were defeated. In the ensuing years there were resistance groups and insurgencies but eventually the Nazi victory was absolute. One of the more poignant points a resistance fighter makes in a journal entry stuck with me well after finishing the game, “How do you go on fighting when everyone is a Nazi?” It’s an incredibly unnerving idea that an ideology so horrible and so hated could become the status quo. Historically, this is exactly what happened within Germany leading up to and during the war. It is frightening to imagine that ideology on a global scale.
Mechanically, the game is a throwback to those early days of first person shooters. As opposed to the more modern approach of regenerative health and limiting the number of weapons BJ can carry at any given time, the game relies on health packs and armour pickups and gives you access to the breadth of his arsenal. It tries to blend these older mechanics with a newer presentation, but I found it rather distracting. These older ideas, like having to press a button to pick up every item in the game, can be quite annoying. Eventually I found I was used to it, but combing every room for ammunition and health seemed to kill the flow of the game. Yes, it encouraged exploration, but I would have rather been learning more about this world while doing so, instead of fretting about how many shotgun shells I have.
With that being said, the world of Wolfenstein: The New Order is incredibly fleshed out. The alternate history it presents is interesting, in a morbid sort of way. Throughout the game you’ll encounter pieces of architecture, art, and multiple media sources that add to the sense of scale and how vastly different this alternate reality is. News clippings document the fall of the allied powers and the stomping out of insurgencies - the majority of which are through the lens of the victors propaganda. Finding Die Kafer (The Beatles) famous album “Mond, Mond, Ja, Ja” and the announcement of their latest tour, “Das blaue U-boot”, are small quirky details that make this feel like a living and breathing world.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is very difficult, even on the normal setting. For shooter fans, I think they will see this as a challenge to tackle and something they could find very enjoyable. Personally, I felt it distracted from the story and the deeply realized world I was manoeuvering through. There were a number of encounters I stumbled into completely unprepared. Sometimes I would be low on health or ammunition or both and then be faced with a challenging boss fight or a staggering number of enemies to overcome. The issue is that after reaching certain checkpoints, I wasn’t able to backtrack and restock on supplies to be better prepared. This left me to choose between restarting the level entirely or dying repeatedly until I somehow squeaked through the encounter. Even with these knocks against the gameplay, I really admired the stealth mechanics implemented throughout. Having the option to either sneak past enemies, or perform gruesome takedowns to silently progress through a level was immensely gratifying, and far more rewarding than the “guns blazing” approach. As good as some of these mechanics are, the actual “game” is the weakest part of Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s the quiet moments in between all of the shooting that pull you into this world and make you care.
The game struggles with balancing the story it wants to tell and the core mechanics of the game. Blowing limbs off of enemies in blood soaked corridors one moment and then discovering a letter written by a dead comrade highlighting the loss and trauma of war is such a jarring change of gears. The story it tells and the characters it presents are downright incredible. These individuals and their interactions are tremendously well written. There are little character ticks, flaws, and dialogue which make each encounter memorable and evoke a sense of empathy from me without it feeling forced. The story Wolfenstein: The New Order tells is dark, mature, twisted, campy, disturbing, grotesque, and over the top. It brilliantly weaves through the insanity of the world it takes place in to tell a human story of how people survive amongst the madness and chaos of the world. At first glance, BJ is a macho action hero who comes across as a stale cliché, but this installment in the Wolfenstein franchise gives him a depth of character he sorely lacked. Being able to not only relate to him but to identify with his humanity and trauma, he becomes the vessel you experience this insane world through.
There is an interesting subtlety to the silliness behind Wolfenstein: The New Order. Yes, there are robot dogs, genetically modified super soldiers, and giant mechanical war machines, but how do we know what this alternate reality would look like? It is well documented that the Nazis conducted horrific experiments and research throughout their regime to advance their goals, with no qualms about how this research was conducted or the gruesome cost to human life it required. Who is to say if they hadn’t been given more time and resources that they wouldn’t shape the world in this way? The Third Reich had downright crazy aspirations and goals, creating super soldiers and having a base on the moon are some of the less insane ones.
Wolfenstein: The New Order also doesn’t shirk away from showing the absolute horrors the Nazis were (and could be) capable of. There were instances of torture and executions that were uncomfortable and unsettling but didn’t come across as something that was included for its shock value. There is a fine line the game walks in building this world, and even if at times it feels like it might be teetering over the edge into exploitation or torture porn, it quickly rights itself, and as a result has an impact most other games lack. What I found more disturbing than the overt displays of atrocity were the subtle details that could speak volumes. The ash hanging in the air near giant incinerators left me more unnerved and uncomfortable than anything else in my time with the game.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is an absurd game. At its core, it is a game about shooting Nazis in the face with large guns - a hyper violent romp through a world in which they won the Second World War. It sounds dumb. It is dumb. What shocked me was that underneath the cheesy one liners and robotic attack dogs there is an incredibly well built and fully realized world with some of the most fleshed out characters I’ve seen in a video game this year.
Wolfenstein: The New Order was recently released, so if you love action games and character driven stories, don’t even put this game on the shelf. Just play it.
(Wolfenstein: The New Order can be quite challenging and even frustrating at times. Unless you’re an old school shooter enthusiast, and as I feel the “game” is the weakest part of the overall package, my recommendation is to set the game to the easiest difficulty. That will make experiencing the story and the world much more enjoyable.)
Time on the Shelf - 3 Months. Played on PC for approximately 14 hours. Screenshots