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.