There aren’t words to describe how significant World War II is as a part of modern history, nor for how many reasons it is so significant. It only makes sense that we went straight there when we started creating games.
Games about war have been around from the beginning, and World War II is the obvious go-to event. Yet, through all of these games, I have a hard time thinking of a game that approaches the issues inherent to the war in quite the same way Wolfenstein: The New Order does.
Alternate History 101
As with every other Wolfenstein game, you step into the boots of B.J. Blazkowicz of the U.S. Army, and it’s your job to save the world from the Nazis once again.
The New Order is a direct sequel to 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2009’s Wolfenstein. The year is 1946. Where the war has already ended in the real world, this alternate timeline has the Nazis, thanks to occult technology, outpacing their enemies. Allied forces are making a last ditch attempt to take down the General known as Deathshead, but something goes wrong.
After that first chapter, which ends with a decision that splits the game into two separate timelines, time moves forward to 1960. B.J. wakes from a long coma (still totally ripped and ready to kill, however) to find the Nazis have won the war decisively and achieved their goal of world domination. B.J. plays the role, as usual, of the lone soldier facing the forces of evil, but he has a small resistance force supporting him this time around.
Real People, Pretend War
While previous Wolfenstein games have stuck firmly to the kind of material we’d expect from pulp comics and Indiana Jones, Wolfenstein: The New Order tries to tackle some of the more human aspects of war.
That success rests firmly in the hands of developer Machine Games. Many members of Machine are alumni of Starbreeze, and played a role in the creation of games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness; both games that found ways to inject interesting characters into the often stale first person shooter genre.
Putting B.J. in with a resistance shifts the focus of what a World War II game can be about. Instead of meticulously recreating and reenacting our greatest moments, or remixing together some version of that, Wolfenstein: The New Order highlights the effects of the occupation by the Nazis of places like London and Berlin, and how a total defeat might change them. We get to see how a former Nazi came to stand against his own party and how resistance drains even the best soldiers.
A character appearing in one timeline starts as a bit of a historical in-joke; a guitarist named “J” is clearly a reference to a famous guitarist from that era. However, conversations with J bring attention to the way some marginalized Americans might have viewed parts of the war effort. While we were fighting for freedom in Europe, we were still a racially segregated country and imprisoning Japanese Americans. The game uses optional news clippings to satirize the way the victors and oppressors cover wars, and also as a source for a few moments that are funny without derailing the dire tone of the game.
Even B.J. himself breaks out of the standard mold for this type of character. I won’t pretend he doesn’t have some pretty hammy lines – this is still pulp sci-fi – but despite his looks, he’s no Duke Nukem. The things he’s seen have taken their toll, and he’s clearly tired.
None of that would matter if the game beneath it wasn’t solid, though.
Great art direction helps push some of the above points home. The monolithic structures you’re either infiltrating or viewing in the distance really convey the size of the Nazi occupation.
A couple sections take you to places that require you bring an oxygen supply, and these are some of the most visually striking places in the game. The New Order‘s futuristic vision of the 1960s, populated with robotic dogs and artificial intelligence, looks great and does a lot to overcome some of the limitations of the engine the game uses, id Tech 5, as well as keeping the journey visually interesting throughout.
Each timeline has a special ability that unlocks different paths in each area. Even ignoring those timeline-specific paths, each area is carefully designed with more than one path through many sections. Despite the fact that this game does take place in a lot of long corridors, it doesn’t usually feel claustrophobic.
That level design also does a good job of encouraging and allowing a stealth approach to many situations. B.J.’s knife and an incredibly powerful silenced pistol make this approach a fun way to work through many parts of the game.
The only place the stealth approach doesn’t work is the boss battles. In boss battles, there’s pretty much one right way to do things, and it’s trial and error that lead you to this realization rather than improvisation.
Still a Twitch Shooter at Heart
Throughout these different areas and battles, Wolfenstein: The New Order walks a tightrope stretched between modern game design and maintaining some connection to its legacy. Health regenerates a bit, but medkits are still the order of the day. Armor is everywhere, and sometimes it feels a bit silly to stare at a pile of corpses while you pick up 14 helmets to use as armor. Meanwhile, accomplishing certain goals, such as killing enough enemies with a certain weapon, will unlock perks that might make you rethink some of your tactics.
While Wolfenstein‘s story and even the visual style are reminders of Machine Games’ past works, the shooting is a different story. This is a twitch shooter through and through. Guns are fast and easy to use. Most can be dual wielded. Every weapon has a second firing mode as well, most of which are both useful and fun.
Wolfenstein doesn’t worry about whether you can carry all of these and still sneak around, either. At many points, you’ll be creeping through a ventilation shaft with two shotguns, two assault rifles, two pistols and even more in your inventory. I wish the button you hold to view your arsenal wasn’t the same one you click to toss a grenade, but it wasn’t enough of a problem to ruin the experience, either.
A New World for an Old School Shooter
Machine Games mixed an old school shooter with interesting, well-written characters to make something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein gets closer to being what a World War II game can be because it veers off the standard path of reenacting events from the war. It makes it more about the Nazis as oppressors than about America’s/Allies’ role as liberators.
Somehow, Machine Games managed to weave this story into a game that uses modern elements without leaving behind its own roots as a straightforward twitch shooter. Wolfenstein is a solid, fun game in its own right, but the setting, characters, and writing are what make it a memorable experience.