Also On: PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Twenty-two years ago, Wolfenstein 3D kicked off its historic campaign with those two words. Unlike its decade-prior predecessor, Wolfenstein 3D had lasting influence in that it established the rules of what a first person shooter was to be. Indeed, the foundations of the genre were built into a winding series of tunnels and bunkers owned by history’s greatest villain. A climactic fight against Adolf Hitler to cap the game proved memorable–as anyone who finished the three episodes can remember the Fuhrer melting into a pile of viscera.
So why, with a title so seminal and crucial to the modern state of games, has Wolfenstein been such a mixed bag? Outside of 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein and its expansion Enemy Territory being fondly remembered for their well-balanced online play, none of the other entries in the franchise have seen the same success. Expansions to Wolfenstein 3D are largely forgotten, the more modern effort by well-regarded FPS studio Raven Software was aggressively mediocre. It seemed as if the world was unable to capitalize on the lucrative and safe Killing Nazis genre.
Then came MachineGames' Wolfenstein: The New Order. From the very beginning, the game had a big hill to climb. The New Order was meant as a follow-up to Raven’s Wolfenstein (2009), relied on the not-so-profitable alternate history story mechanic, and featured a lack of multiplayer modes. Reaction was muted, if not skeptical.
As soon as the game loads, those two words flash upon the screen. B.J. Blazkowicz is again the hulking blonde brute from Wolfenstein 3D, eschewing the more subdued designs from the last decade. Supernatural elements that dotted the games post-3D and pre-New Order are largely missing on the enemy side, replaced with a simple mix of Nazis and robots. One message is clear: Wolfenstein is back to its roots.
This is even more clear in level designs with curves, turns, secret passageways, shortcuts, stairs, and all matter of ornate detail largely missing from modern FPS titles. Areas feel real, maddening, inspired. Instead of relying on props to define levels, MachineGames builds a zeitgeist with architecture.
Sadly, the inverse can be said of the game’s plot. Things come and go with little consequence, scenes replay without cadence, characters interact and forget about each other almost immediately. As the Third Reich is portrayed a technologically advanced society that has enslaved the world, it’s hard to imagine the fourteen years that separate The New Order’s prelude from the first act would have gone as they did.
Shortly after the game begins, Blazkowicz escapes a failed assassination attempt on Nazi leadership with a few shards of metal in his head. This puts our hulking protagonist in an asylum for fourteen years. The same asylum, of course, that Nazi soldiers enter hundreds of times to collect mental patients for likely experimentation and extermination. Every single time, they ignore our protagonist. Not only does this not make much sense for their awful strategy, it also flies in the face of Blazkowicz’s face being infamous due to his prior exploits. It’s a convenient plot contrivance existing only to show the brutality of the enemy force, but it makes very little sense.
Even worse is how the game moves on from Blazkowicz’s awakening–he wills himself to stand and stab a soldier to death, then goes on to fight an entire regiment with very little consequence. Fourteen years of paralysis somehow didn’t atrophy any of the strength of muscle mass from the now pushing fifty year old hero.
Moving forward in the plot, even after his re-emergence in the world is a known quantity, Blazkowicz is somehow still unknown. A tertiary antagonist to the plot, Frau Engel, is established as very near to being second-in-command of Deathshead’s regime. She and her boytoy Bubi encounter an incognito Blazkowicz on a train to Berlin. Somehow, wearing a nice shirt and holding some drinks hides an extremely defined face and set of scars. The New Order brings this lapse in storytelling back for a second round in a concentration camp, where said antagonists are somehow still ignorant.
On the other hand, MachineGames developed some very well-written moments in the narrative. Tough elements to portray, such as the aforementioned concentration camp, are built with an unexpectedly adept hand. A series of love scenes between Blazkowicz and Anya, his nurse-cum-revolutionary, somehow establish a very mature tone. Fellow freedom fighters find small victories and celebrate them, as rationally as they can in the horror story of a world they’re in.
They then scuttle the majority of these moments at a moments notice. A sorrowful trek through a concentration camp changes gears as soon as the one special Hebrew deus ex machina is freed, leaving the majority of the suffering to their own devices. Said Jewish man is actually a member of an secret society who developed a weapon of terrifying effect, said effect makes Blazkowicz take pause having used it. Even this is swept under the rug immediately as a co-star reminds the game that our lantern jawed hero’s raison d’etere is killing Nazis.
While the supernatural elements may have taken a leave of absence in the opposing force, the time spent dwelling on the secret Hebrew society is probably the best addition to Wolfenstein’s canon. Instead of being merely freakish in execution, the variety of weapons and devices found in an ancient underwater temple were made for the explicit cause of communicating with Yahweh. It’s an interesting flavor put on the tried-and-true Nazi Killing genre of games that resonates extremely well.
Ultimately, Wolfenstein: The New Order is at once a triumph of storytelling while a failure of story structure. Just like Blazkowicz’s steroidal physique would lead to weak tendons in a real-world situation, MachineGames’ strong moments find themselves with a tenuous grip to the skeletal framework of the plot. Still, for a bit of nostalgia built on a whole lot of Nazi Killing capped with a fight against a Nazi in a Robot, it’s hard to go wrong with Wolfenstein: The New Order.