Wolfenstein: The New Order

WolfensteinTheNewOrder

Some day I would really love to hear the story behind the development of Wolfenstein: The New Order.

What we have here is one of the strangest, most incoherent games I’ve ever played, a revival of a decades-old IP that made me jump out of my seat and cheer roughly as often as it made me pull my hair in confusion and bewilderment. This is a game that features both a visit to a horrific concentration camp and a visit to a millenia-old underwater temple constructed by an order of Jewish super-scientists. This is a game where you can, in the space of roughly thirty seconds, go from turning retro-future Nazis into raspberry jam with a pair of automatic shotguns to listening to characters ruminate on the horrors of war and genocide. And they’re pretty good ruminations. Someone, somewhere really wants you to take this shit seriously.

And you just might, in between making space-Nazis pop like water balloons full of red paint with your laser cannon.

The New Order starts off in alt-history 1946, where the Nazis are on the brink of winning World War II due to the sudden development of powerful super-weapons like robot dogs, robot soldiers and robot robots. BJ Blascowicz, lantern-jawed hero of all of the previous Wolfenstein games, takes some shrapnel to the head during a last ditch British-American assault and wakes up in an asylum 14 years later to find that the Nazis have taken over the world. After teaming up with a resistance group led by a character from the 2009 Wolfenstein reboot that not many people played BJ sets out to kill the cartoonish Nazi overlord whose death everyone for some reason seems to think will immediately cause the entire regime to topple.

I’ve complained often and loudly on this very blog about the problem of emphasizing world-building over story, but videogames are the one medium where you can craft an experience entirely around a setting and get away with it because the act of exploring the world ties so easily into the core gameplay. As a piece of world-building The New Order is close to perfect, using unobtrusive environmental storytelling to immerse the player in its setting. You only need to catch a glimpse of the sprawling concrete mega-cities the Nazis have replaced the great capitals of Europe with (something they actually dreamed about doing in their more megalomaniacal moments) to understand the kind of place the developers have dropped you into. It’s one part Mad Men and one part Apple circa 1985, wrapped in barbed wire and drab grey stone. There’s a unified aesthetic design here that you very rarely see in games, particularly when you get to the Nazi’s moon base (because of course there are moon Nazis) and discover a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. Between the meticulously detailed environments, frequent use of newspaper clippings to flesh out background details and BJ’s near-constant inner monologuing I get the impression someone at Machine Games just wanted to make Gone Home: Alt-History Nazis Edition.

(If any developers are reading this, I would totally play Gone Home: Alt-History Nazis Edition)

Completely at odds with that holistic aesthetic is the game’s story, which begins suffering from a profound identity crisis from the moment you press start. In the prologue you jump out of a plane onto the wing of another place in mid-air, then you use an anti-aircraft gun to shoot a giant robot dog. “This isn’t war,” BJ growls. “It’s the opening of seals. The end of all things.”

I…. what? Is this a joke? Did I somehow splice in the audio from Schindler’s List: The Game?

No, it’s just the fact that The New Order can’t decide if it wants to be a hilarious Quentin Tarantino-esque carnival of violence or a grim, serious meditation on war and inhumanity. And the frustrating part is that it actually manages to do the latter quite well, presenting a cast of characters that are fairly nuanced and well written by videogame standards (the fact that BJ and his designated love interest just straight up have sex within the first two hours of he game felt somehow refreshing) and giving BJ some pretty sentences to grumble, in between blowing up hulking robo-soldiers. The game’s tone just doesn’t mesh from one moment to the next, feeling very much like it started out as an original story before the developers were asked to Wolfenstein it up a little. By the time the end credits were scrolling across faded pictures of dead characters and falling ash accompanied by a touching song about hope I just had no idea how I was supposed to react to it. As the capstone to the serious, grim story The New Order seems to be trying to tell about half the time it would be moving and eloquent; as the finale to a story that also involves secret underwater Jewish super-science temples and Nazi moon robots it came off as self-important to the point of parody.

The actual narrative suffers all the usual problems we’ve come to expect from AAA writing- it’s choppy as hell, things happen in order to facilitate the action whether or not they make any sense (at one one point the characters appear to drive from London to Berlin in the space of roughly five minutes), the game introduces about fifteen different plot threads and follows up on less than half of them, the ending is an unsatisfying cliffhanger obviously designed to facilitate a possible sequel. The aforementioned sub-plot with the ancient jewish super-scientists gets dropped into the story with no buildup or context in order to facilitate several minor story threads and then is never brought up again. It’s a mess, but at least unlike most other games with cinematic aspirations it’s a mess that’s composed of solid components. If only they were assembled in a way that makes sense, The New Order could have been something special.

In terms of gameplay, fans of guns and shooting and shooting guns who are burned out on the Call Of Duty/ Gears Of War gameplay hybrid that dominated the previous console generation will be pleased to find a return to fast-paced run and gun gameplay. All weapons can be dual-wielded and hip-fired with full accuracy, health and armor have to be restored from pickups scattered around levels, you can carry enough weapons to arm a small country. It’s a massively refreshing throwback to a time when FPS games were about adrenaline-fueled action, but aided with modern gameplay conventions and graphical technology so you can rip scenery apart and tear bodies to pieces. Turning a room full of enemies into chunks of bloody flesh is perhaps not sophisticated entertainment, but it’s extremely entertaining none the less.

Or at least it is up until the game starts throwing robots and other heavily armored opponents at you, which shrug off multiple full clips of ammo with seemingly no damage, rather putting a damper on even the most ferocious rampage. The only effective way to deal with them is a laser weapon you get early in the game that does huge damage but depletes after a few shots. Recharge points are plentiful all over he game, but this just means you end up running back and forth from the nearest one to wherever the action is, taking a few pot-shots at whatever bullet sponge you’re fighting at the moment before you have to recharge again. It’s an extremely odd gameplay choice that could have been avoided by simply making the tougher enemies slightly more vulnerable to normal ammo.

Surprisingly, The New Order also features a basic but fully functional stealth option alongside all the bullet-fueled carnage. You can’t sneak your way through the entire game, but most of the big enemy encounters can be tackled with a knife and silence pistol or just bypassed entirely if you’re good enough. Usually when a game tries to take on such such disparate genres at the same time it’s a recipe for disaster, but the stealth option here is fun and well designed even if it’s not going to be giving Dishonored a run for its money any time soon. It acts as a welcome palate cleanser in between bouts of shooting and gives more time to examine the environments to boot.

As a fan of first-person shooters, stealth, dystopian fiction and videogames that actually put effort into their writing I find myself left with a strange fondness for Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s a stupid game with massive tonal problems, but it also clearly springs from someone’s deeply passionate artistic vision, even if that vision involves chainsaws and space future Nazis being turned into chunky salsa. In an age where so much of the FPS genre consists of lazy copy-cat attempts to jump on the Call of Duty bandwagon I feel like I have to give it a thumbs up.

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40 thoughts on “Wolfenstein: The New Order

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  5. Tim

    As another note: as I recall, Nazi architects weren’t really all that fond of reinforced concrete because of its tendency to crumble and stain, and were big into natural stone. Speer in particular wanted to deliberately design buildings so they’d form impressive ruins for future generations studying them, look up “ruin value.”

    Reply
  6. Tim

    I do question how BJ can be immobile for 14 years and still be an enormous slab of beef when he gets back up again. Did he suffer from an involuntary benching reflex?

    Reply
  7. R.S. Hunter (@rshunter88)

    Just finished the game and a lot of my thoughts about it mirror yours. Plus I never played the 2009 Wolfenstein which apparently was a sequel to 2003’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein (which I also didn’t play).

    I met the Resistance fighters and it felt the game expected me to know who they were and why I should care about them. Plus their whole plan to kill General Deathshead didn’t make a lot of sense. Yes he’s the mastermind behind all the super-Nazi-robot-soldier-things, but he’s just one dude. The game presented it as if killing him would somehow undo the last 14 years where the Nazis already won WWII.

    Plus the whole Jewish secret society thing felt really, really undeveloped. You go to their underwater base and a secondary character gets a powersuit that restores her mobility (actually really fricken cool!) but that’s about it with that.

    Stealth sections were actually okay, but I agree with you about the laser-gun. It’s the only thing that can kill the heavily armored guys easily but it had to be recharged after like 2 shots.

    I enjoyed the worldbuilding (wanted to see more of it) and the cohesive visual aesthetic. I quipped on Twitter that The New Order looked basically like the precursor to the Helghast from the Killzone series. (Which was basically the point of the Helghast)

    But yeah, did the game want to be a shooty-shooty explody game with double automatic shotguns or did it want to be a game that had something to say about the horrors of war and genocide? It couldn’t decide. Plus somebody really, really, really needed to do a better job with the audio mixing. All of BJ Blaskowicz’s lines were extremely quiet like he was a chronic low-talker or something.

    (Sorry for the mega comment)

    Reply
    1. Tim

      I think the main idea is that the game is trying to draw a parallel between the Nazi-occupied world and colonialism / segregation, most blatantly with the stoner guy pointing out that under Jim Crow white Americans were basically the same (BJ conveniently forgetting he’s ethnically Polish to make that scene work) and the very Heart of Darkness-style account of the African campaign. So the idea seems to be that the system is crumbling anyway and just needs a push.

      Also I always go with my spellcheck and call him Death Shed.

      I found the super-science society kind of awkward since it suggests that a group of IRL persecuted people have been keeping super-science that could better the lot of everyone in the world hidden for centuries, which is a really dick thing to do all things considered.

      Reply
      1. ronanwills Post author

        The whole jewish super science thing was just bizarre. It was like something from a completely different story got spliced into the game’s script and no one noticed.

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      2. Tim

        I’m just going through your Rothfuss posts and it reminds me of the thing he has for persecuted super genius intellectuals, actually. Having it done by literal Nazis is I guess the logical end point.

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      3. Tim

        I *guess* it’s that the Wolfenstein formula has always had some kind of occult element (Germanic paganism in the original and especially in Return, the Thule civilisation in the 2009 game) and they were trying to throw a curve ball by making it be good occultists with really advanced tech that only looks like magic. Hence the checklist-like inclusion of it, it’s just there so the old grognards won’t grumble that That Ain’t No Wolfenstein.

        Reply
  8. Reveen

    I can envision a lot of shouting between different factions of the writing and design staff while making this game. Maybe some fists or chairs being thrown. All the while there’s the rest of staff stuck in the middle having to pull the mess together and make a game out of it.

    Reply
  9. Alice

    “(the fact that BJ and his designated love interest just straight up have sex within the first two hours of he game felt somehow refreshing)”

    Yeah, that sounds *SO* refreshing. Just what I’ve always wanted – more cishet male protagonists with designated love interests that exist solely to be fucked by said cishet male protagonists. Refreshing. Exactly the word I was looking for. We definitely need more of this. Not enough of this going around in all media formats. No, I’m not bitter lesbian, why do you ask?

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      Understandable!

      I guess the reason I found it refreshing is that usually games saddle the protagonist with a love interest but then have their “relationship” consist of sexual tension and fridging. The fact that they just have sex and act like an actual couple just made me go “hey, someone is trying to write a story here for once”.

      Reply
      1. Alice

        Yeah, it’s just that it’s the same heteronormative story that every form of media tells all the time. Just because the mandatory cishet relationship is written slightly better than normal doesn’t change the fact that it’s a mandatory cishet relationship.

        I recently played a PS1 classic, Threads of Fate, and nearly fell out of my chair when I realised neither the male or female protag had love ineterests or romance plotlines. That shouldn’t be so rare that it shocked me, but it is. And it helped me enjoy the game more, because it wasn’t actively alienating me by forcing me to play a protagonist in a straight relationship. It’s not LGBT representation by any stretch, but it still made me feel better, and it’s still *rare* to see.

        Reply
      2. Signatus

        I have to agree with Emily here, although for different reasons. It is true most media always portray heterosexual relationships, completely ignoring other forms of love. That is disrespectful to a whole collective, but we all know the old white hetero males that control the medias will not allow the representation of other ways of love and relationships. Apparently, the voice of a bunch of insecure raging biggots is louder than the simple fact of letting people be happy and treating such happiness as the ultimate objective to pursue, not the form of the happiness in itself.

        However, the fact that the media is controlled by such old white hetero males has a second downside; females. A hero always has to have her female, we are treated as objects, things who exist merely to be the hero’s trophy, the bearer of children so that the hero’s bloodline won’t get lost (while in my culture females retain their second names, and we have BOTH, the mother and father’s second names, being allowed to choose the order, although the norm is the father’s first, in many cultures the female looses her identity, she’s either her father’s property or her husband’s property). Relationships are a must because of course the hero needs to have his woman, and if he doesn’t have his woman, he’s got plenty of sex interests to fornicate as he pleases (I’ve bought Jim Butcher’s last book and I’m not 10 chapters into it that Harry has already lusted after some hot chick).

        There are some rare times when females are a personality of their own and their existence flows independently of that of the male, but most of the time, as we see for example in Blade’s first movie, or Wizard’s First Rule itself, the woman merely exists to be the male’s trophy. We could remove the lady from Blade and Kahlan, and yet the plot would loose nothing. The greater issue is that, just like only representing heterosexual couples maintains the idea that other forms of love must be hidden or something, treating women like trophies, like objects, maintains the idea that we exist solely to be with a man and have babies.

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      3. Tim

        I think the main problem with that is that she’s just spent 14 years wiping his ass and feeding him, which I’d think would render it rather like screwing her own son. It also comes off as rather skeevy that BJ jumps her bones when her parents, colleagues and all the other people she was caring for were murdered right in front of her a level ago, and weird she would trust him when among the handful of things she knows about BJ is the guy has a thing for torturing dudes with chainsaws.

        I mean yeah, it’s nice taken in complete isolation and shows a more healthy attitude to people actually having sex than most games have, but in context it comes off rather fuckuppy.

        Re: the objections to a woman as the prize, it’s extremely rare for shooters to even acknowledge women or relationships exist, unless you count subtextual bromance. This is not the genre you are looking for.

        Reply
      4. Alice

        “Re: the objections to a woman as the prize, it’s extremely rare for shooters to even acknowledge women or relationships exist, unless you count subtextual bromance. This is not the genre you are looking for.”

        It would be if they CHANGED it. That’s the POINT. I’m complaining because I like playing shooters for the gameplay, but the story/characters in a lot of shooters alienate and repulse me, and they don’t HAVE to. It’s just because of the shitty way they are written. I shouldn’t have to stop playing an entire genre of games I like playing just because they’re written by sexist, misogynistic assholes. My favourite shooter is Rainbow Six Vegas 2, where I can play as a female protag and there’s none of this shit in sight. It can be done. It often isn’t. That’s a problem, and I want it fixed. It’s 2014, enforcing women as sex objects gets them shot in real life, as we’ve recently seen. Saying “This isn’t for you, go play something else” is BULLSHIT. I should damn well be able to play shooters that don’t treat me like a fucktoy. That is NOT asking for too much.

        Reply
      5. Tim

        I was mainly objecting to the idea that women as sex objects are common in shooters, which really isn’t in any way true; shooters tend to have other issues (for example, the only women in the 2009 game who aren’t evil or finish the game dead are the invincible* npc prostitutes). They have problems with even containing women, possibly because it detracts from all the sweaty tactical operators watching sixes and Oscaring their Michaels.

        I’d love to be able to play as a woman with the same skillset as the male character and no “secret weak defenceless side” fuckery, and the romance as shown is screwy for a dozen different reasons, but it *is* a step away from prudish conservative bullshit to accept that adults who are physically attracted to each other will Do The Sex (and she’s on top, even). Saying it’s nice to see a baby take one hesitant step in something resembling the right direction isn’t saying we should bolt him to the floor because now he is done with walking forever.

        *They forgot to set them to be immune to Geist explosions but that looks like a design oversight.

        Reply
      6. Tim

        To better summarise: I thought you were generalising a problem to a genre that doesn’t really have it because it’s busy being even worse.

        Reply
      7. Alice

        Oh yeah, we really need to bring down the prudishness in video games! TOO MANY games have the mens not having sexytimes with the womenz! Such a problem! This one instance of a mandatory cishest male protag having sexytimes with his woman is so fucking progressive, man! What? You want non-sexualised female characters and protagonists? You want female characters in shooters that don’t exist to be fucked by the manly man beefcake? Baby steps! Stop criticising this awesome progressive thing! This progressive baby step is such a rare and beautiful thing, quit complaining!

        *eyeroll* Gimme a break.

        Reply
      8. Alice

        “To better summarise: I thought you were generalising a problem to a genre that doesn’t really have it because it’s busy being even worse.”

        No, I was just complaining that a male protag having sex with his lady fucktoy is not a refreshing or progressive thing. But yeah, shooters in general do have a problem with female characters and representation, and this one instance of straight heteronormative sex is not something I can see as a breath of fresh air, because I’m still choking in the toxic cloud of masculinity in these games, and it’d be nice if I could have shooters that not only have female characters and protags, but said female characters don’t exist solely to be fucked by a guy.

        Reply
      9. Alice

        To clarify, I get that women as trophies and sex objects is not a frequent problem in shooters, it’s more an issue with the gaming industry in general. However shooters rarely have female characters and protagonists at all, so when this particular shooter has a female character, and she has sex with the mandatory male protag not long after she shows up in the game, I would hardly call that progressive, or a breath of fresh air, either for shooter games or games in general.

        I don’t see prudishness and lack of sex in games as an actual problem, when we have almost zero LGBT representation, sexism, racism, few female characters/protags, and fewer still non sexualised female characters/protags. Those are all much bigger problems as far as I’m concerned. I really have no fucks to give about a mandatory cishet sex scene bucking the normal trend, because the lack of such things isn’t remotely as much a problem for real life people as the issues I mention above are. It’s like being proud that you fixed a crack in the wall when you’re standing next to a giant fucking hole.

        Baby steps? Yeah, but this is like praising a thirty year old man for baby steps. He’s an adult, baby steps are not an accomplishment for him when he should be walking and talking and doing stuff. I’m not going to praise a game or an industry for baby steps when the time for baby steps has long since passed. It’s not enough. And this particular step does fuck all for people like me. It’s once again catering to straight cis males, and they get catered to enough already.

        Reply
      10. Tim

        Yeah, I mean I agree this doesn’t do anything at all for you, that’s a given, and trumpeting it as some progressive triumph rather than a sort of “oh, this game was made by people who have been in contact with other humans, that’s novel” isn’t anything either I or I think Ronan ever intended to imply. I mean, I pulled out the fact that in context it’s really skeevy and weird, so I’m hardly going to put it forward as the great proof that Games Is Art Nao.

        That’s not even mentioning the ludicrously stereotyped Black hippy dude who gives you LSD at one point, that was, um…

        Reply
      11. Tim

        Also I think referring to the games industry as an adult is giving way too much credit, currently it’s more like an eight year old who’s obsessed with gross stuff because people find it shocking. *Should* be an adult, but never quite made it there.

        Reply
      12. Alice

        Given its actual age, it’s less like a childish eight year old and more like an adult *behaving* like a childish eight year old. The difference is that you can excuse the former, but not the latter. Also, the latter has a lot more power and influence than the former, and can cause a lot more harm. Lets not undersell the cultural impact and power the industry has, especially when it continues to push sexist, racist ideas, themes and messages. If the industry doesn’t grow up and act its age, it’s only going to make things worse for a lot of marginalised people.

        Reply
      13. Signatus

        I never said women as sex objects are common in shooters. If you see both examples I cited were a fantasy movie and a fantasy book. I said it is common for the MEDIA (as in whole) to portray women as sex objects. Specially when said media is done by hetero white males like Jim Butcher and Terry Goodkind.

        Reply
      14. A.

        Alice, awesome. As a female gamer who loves first person shooters, I feel exactly the same and I love the way you say it. Keep being a voice. Thank you.

        Reply
    2. Alice

      Who is Emily?

      Anyway, I agree with everything you say. I would have written that myself, but it was late and I was tired.

      Reply
      1. Signatus

        Alice, sorry. 😛
        That’s what happens when I am at several things at the same time and not double checking what I’m writing before hitting the “post” button.

        Reply
    3. Tim

      Also by prudishness (wrong word, lack of coffee) I’m more referring to the societal attitude that a woman who desires or enjoys sex in any way is automatically unworthy and that sexuality in general is evil and shameful; obviously that’s dubious here because the woman in question isn’t real and does whatever the (presumably) male writer wants her to do.

      Of course the game attempts to address it in a really poorly thought-out way that basically negates anything positive it might theoretically have been attempting.

      Reply
      1. Alice

        I would have less of an issue here if the sex was a choice on the player’s part. Games are interactive media, choice is what seperates them from other things like films and tv. Forcing a heterosexual sex secene on the players and giving them no choice in the matter is depriving the player of agency and reinforces compulsive heterosexuality, which is a harmful practice that really fucks over LGBTA people. It’s bad enough forcing a lesbian gamer to watch her PC have straight sex, but what about asexual gamers? I straight up refuse to play Darkengard 3 because the female protag has lots of sex with men, and the player has NO say in the matter. I don’t need my interactive entertainment forcing straight sex on my character, especially seeing as corrective rape is a thing lesbians have had to deal with. I mean, if developers want to put sex in their games, go ahead, but at least give me the option to opt the fuck out of it. Don’t force that sex on the players in such a way that they either have to sit through their PC having sex or just stop playing the game. Give me a damn CHOICE, that’s not asking for much in a VIDEO GAME. Hell, it’s what we expect of real life isn’t it? Because without that choice we get rape culture.

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      2. Tim

        I’m sort of wondering if it is mandatory since there’s a choice immediately before it which *looks* like it’d either be instant death or prevent the sex scene happening, but I didn’t take that choice because I was trying to figure out what they might be getting at with the photographs.

        Still, even if that’s the case, it’s still bad to give you no hint what you’re deciding to do there, and I can’t disagree with any of what you’ve said.

        Reply
        1. ronanwills Post author

          I’m fairly certain if you go for the gun in that scene you just get killed, since killing the two nazi characters would prevent them from showing up again later.

          Reply
      3. Tim

        Yeah, but I balance that against one of those characters being absolutely fine after being shot in the jaw with a captive bolt gun and thrown off a cliff.

        Reply
      4. Naoist

        In response to the part about Drakengard 3, Zero is a sexual person, and thus there are dialogue references to her having sex with men, although nothing beyond that. There’s one Intoner that obviously abstains from having sex because of her personality, and another Intoner is implied to abstain as well, but it’s also shown that Intoners don’t discriminate between sexes. Five has explicit attraction to both men and women, acting on it in the game (she has a huge obsession with Zero), Four desperately wants One, and Three is indiscriminate.

        This is all a huge part of all their characters. Taking away their sexualities removes a large part of what drives them as people, and I think it’s nice to have a game where women are shown to have sexual desires without it being anything that detracts from them, and is in fact a normal and healthy part of their personalities.

        Having a choice in the matter for a game that prides itself on an empty protagonist who is who you make them (e.g., Skyrim or Dragon Age) is important, yes; however, I feel like shying away from creating sexual characters in general is defeatist and potentially harmful to creating a unique narrative. If you don’t want to play a game that has sex in it, that’s your prerogative, but I would shy away from calling it oppressive, marginalising, or sexist in and of itself.

        Does there need to be more variety? Yes, of course. Should we remove it from games? Absolutely not. Sex is a part of life, and for many people, it’s a huge part of interpersonal relationships. Just skip the sex scene/dialogue.

        Reply

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