Fight for freedom in a world where the Nazis won.
PC Release: May 20, 2014
By Ian Coppock
I’ve never been a huge fan of the festering historical revisionism that is Nazi games. You can introduce all the sadistic scientists and ruthless tacticians you want, but the fact that the Nazis lost World War II severely hamstrings my suspension of disbelief. Never mind that almost all of these games deal with some kind of super-weapon or mass-murder trope.
On the other side of the spectrum, the problem we face is not Nazis, but a series of German-speaking dummies who drape swastikas on everything and serve more as target practice rather than a chilling adversary. I guess technically this is my first “next-gen” game review, though as a PC gamer I live in a world where such terms mean nothing and all games roll together into a single, glorious tapestry.
Wolfenstein is one of the series that I was generally unfamiliar with up to this point. If you’re in my boat, the games deal with a lone American special ops agent and his battles against the sinister Nazi war machine of World War II. William “B.J.” Blazkowicz has gotten everything from Hitler-mechs to zombie German princes thrown at him since the series’ debut on the Commodore in the 80s, but I never paid the games any mind because of the disbelief suspension we talked about. Indeed, my only brush with digital Nazis at all comprises a few hours spent shooting up the Reichstag in Call of Duty: World at War.
Wolfenstein: The New Order immediately shoots the suspension of disbelief problem in the foot by branching into alternate history, envisioning a world in which the Nazis bombed the hell out of Manhattan, and won the Second World War using steampunk technology and tank-sized robotic kill-dogs. The prologue follows B.J. on a desperate last-ditch mission to stop the Germans from doing this, but all he gets for his trouble is a piece of shrapnel to the frontal lobe and 14 years in a Polish looney bin.
While B.J. sits in a wheelchair and muses about the passing of the seasons, the Nazis use their arsenal of futuristic weapons and technology to drape the entire world in Swastikas and advertisements for bratwurst. The montage about spending 14 years trapped in your own body was certainly more concise than the hour or so-long prologue mission. Things ramp up when the Nazis arrive to purge the asylum of its inmates, in accordance with the Nazi belief that anything not blonde-haired and blue-eyed is trash unworthy of living.
Not to worry, though. Despite having suffered enormous brain damage, B.J. magically decides to wake up and counter-purge the place, before taking off with his conveniently attractive nurse to find the resistance and overthrow the Nazis. B.J. is shocked to find that the Nazis really have dug in; the southern half of Africa is literally the only scrap of land left on the planet that isn’t drowning in Nazi regalia.
Despite it being 1960 and B.J. having reached middle age, he’s no worse for wear. He somehow retained his amazing physique despite spending 14 years in a wheelchair, and pretty much picks up and gets back on his crusade as if he never left.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a dark game, as one might expect of a world run by right-wing pure-blood shitheads who take far too casually to the act of murder. Unlike every other game I can think of that deals with Nazis, the developers made an effort to imbue their beautiful, savage world with the group’s gravely immoral ideology. There’s one spine-tingling scene toward The New Order‘s beginning where you have to play a card game with a skull-faced Frau in which your choices apparently indicate how Aryan you are.
Nazi beliefs and ideology are almost never mentioned in video games, but their inclusion in this game made The New Order feel both more novel and more disturbing. It’s refreshing in the same sense as when someone breaks down all pretenses of courtesy to have an honest conversation with you. It may not be a pleasant conversation but at least you have the truth of it.
The developers pulled no punches when demonstrating the Nazis’ utter disregard for human life; you’ll witness atrocities being committed against people of color, the disabled and the poor. Some of the scenes are incredibly gut-wrenching, like when a Jew being sent off to a labor camp gets his baby son confiscated by a guard, but I appreciated the scene’s installation for demonstrating that these things actually happened. It serves as both a grim reminder of what people are capable of, and as an unparalleled driving force for hating the game’s antagonists.
Anyway, B.J. infiltrates an art deco Berlin and joins up with the resistance group plotting the regime’s downfall. Thankfully, the developers sidestepped casting all Germans as evil by including a few German resistance fighters, perhaps as a reminder that many German citizens were just as brutalized by the Nazis as the regime’s enemies. Unfortunately, the developers do not find a way around stereotyping women and black people. Even the resistance’s paraplegic female commander wears a questionable outfit, and the black guy (yes, the black guy) just sits on his ass and gets high while playing guitar.
I really hate American cultural stereotyping. I don’t know how minorities put up with it.
The plot of Wolfenstein: The New Order is pretty simple: liberate Nazi superweapons and whatever else you can nab, and turn it all against their creators. Just as eternal to the series as B.J. is his arch-nemesis, General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, the creator of this robo-punk Nazi war machine and the game’s primary antagonist. The issue this game faces when casting a decades-old foe once again is that he only appears literally twice in the entire damn game: at the very beginning, and… well, if you guess the very ending, I didn’t tell you to guess that, did I?
The writing and pacing of the narrative is good enough. It’s not BioShock, but holy mother of God it’s not Brink either. The lack of transitions between missions could get to be a bit much, though; one second you’re flying a stealth chopper over London and the next you’re at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. I suppose this was installed at the behest of legions of twitchy, Red Bull-guzzling shooter fans who will snap unless alien and Nazi genitalia are bouncing off of your power armor more than five seconds into the damn game.
For all the above-average writing and pacing the game offers, I had a massive sticking point with one subplot. I spoil slightly, but toward the middle of the game you figure out that the Nazis were able to build all their futuristic weaponry using secret Jewish treasure vaults. Okay, it’s never explicitly stated that these vaults are Jewish, but everything’s written in Hebrew and your Jewish teammate is the vaults’ last guardian, so…
I was brutally disappointed to see this sort of story point in the game. It’s not a stupid idea in and of itself, but the stereotype of Jewish knowledge and treasure hoarding is one of the oldest forces of discrimination in human history. Hell, it’s one of the excuses Hitler used to persecute the Jews in the first place, so it was really sad to see such an apparently anti-Nazi game using one of the most antisemitic tropes in storytelling. I’m going to give the developers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they weren’t trying to perpetuate the stereotype that all Jews are sneaky wealth-hoarding pricks, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s in the game. Really? I mean… really?
So, yeah, awkwardly blatant Jewish stereotyping aside, The New Order‘s plot is intriguing and fairly effective at drawing you in. B.J. Blazkowicz isn’t much better than your standard meathead protagonist, though. The developers tried to work some sort of stream-of-conscience narrative into the missions, but B.J.’s whispering is so breathy and heavy that you can barely understand what he’s saying. The sound design in general has some questionable qualities, and I laughed out loud when I saw that the game denoted a Scottish accent as a foreign language.
Back to the plot, though. There’s something about how this game was paced that makes me wonder if the game was cut up into squares and the developers went, “this part is for story. That part is for shooting”. It doesn’t really blend the two together like BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us did; gameplay and story are segregated into cordoned-off chunks that, while not necessarily bad, did take away a bit from the flow. You alternate very strictly between using Nazi body parts as clubs out in the field, and interviewing resistance fighters in the base, a model that I saw and sighed at a bit in Dishonored.
The gameplay in Wolfenstein is fine. It’s not groundbreaking and it’s certainly not remarkable, but Wolfenstein: The New Order is the smoothest shooter I’ve ever played. You point your gun and shoot at things, and they die. You stab things in the back, they die. You can be sneaky and stealth your way around, but this mechanic is hamstrung if a Nazi should see you, because then all Nazis everywhere will become omnisciently aware of your location and force you to break out the dual-wielding shotgun mechanic, which is actually pretty amazing in its own right.
I suppose the game has the smoothest stair-climbing I’ve ever seen, I’ll give it that.
To be fair, the game does a great job at level design, breaking out of the linearity swamp plaguing modern shooters. The New Order gives you multiple pathways to your objective and lots of opportunity to grab ammo and candy bars along the way. The boss fights are a little too easy and anticlimactic, but I suppose that’s better than them being shirt-tearingly frustrating.
Wolfenstein‘s visuals start out colorful and gorgeous but they begin to sink into a palette of gray as the game goes on. As if to give itself a breather, the game will make textures muddy when you look away but won’t load them quickly enough to stop you noticing when you look back. I decided to play red-light green-light with a castle wall and the swaps back and forth were a bit disappointing.
None of these things succeed in stopping Wolfenstein: The New Order from being an unappealing game. Its shooting mechanics are mostly nothing new, and its plot relies on some unfortunate conventions, but it’s the most enjoyable shooter I’ve played since BioShock Infinite. The gameplay is smooth and the world is absolutely engrossing; it has its drawbacks, but this cyber-Nazi dystopia we have here is something that everyone should explore.
You can buy Wolfenstein: The New Order here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.