So along with the Japanese literary fiction this Christmas, I got some other things too. My brother got me Wolfenstein: The New Order, which is probably not something I would have bought for myself, and wasn’t on my Christmas list this year. I guess he just thought I’d like it, and he was 100% right! Turns out it is awesome.
I clocked a fair amount of time on Wolfenstein 3D back in the day, said day being the early 90s, and back then all they had to do was point you in the general direction of some pixelated sprites and tell you to go kill all those guys. I mean I guess there was a plot, in the first level you were trying to escape the Nazi prison, and in the second one you were going to prevent the guy from creating all the zombies, and in the third one you had to kill Hitler, who was wearing mechanized armor and carrying four chainguns for some reason. But these days we expect a little more plot and characterization.
So let me lay out a scenario for you. You play an unstoppable badass, who has been out of commission for over a decade while an evil empire utilized its advanced technology to roll over all the nations of the world, and raise new monuments to its own glory while oppressing the terrified citizenry. The will to resist is only left in a few small cells, and when you get back into the action you have to run from the pursuing elements of the evil empire while linking back up with the resistance and getting some advanced technology of your own. Fortunately, with you at their side, the resistance is finally prepared to strike back at the evil empire and destroy the scientist who had been collaborating with them to enslave humanity. This guy – who incidentally, is a total jerk – gives you an impassioned speech about how it’s easier to just go around destroying stuff than to create. And it all wraps up into an action-packed first person shooter video game. That game is Half-Life 2.
But hey, if you’re going to rip off a plot, shouldn’t you rip off from the best? I think you should. This was only the first of many good decisions made by the New Order development team, and I’m not being sarcastic there. While it does have many of the broad elements of Half-Life 2, William J. Blazkowicz and Gordon Freeman are very different main characters. Freeman is a mute who never expresses any emotions, and therefore you never really know what he thinks about all this stuff. In this game, at least, Blazkowicz is an emotionally damaged meathead who rarely shuts up, unless it’s during a stealth section where he’s sneaking up on some guy to stab him in the neck. It’s not so much that he talks to the other characters – although he does – but he has a complicated inner life, which he shares with the player all the time.
A year or so ago I wrote about the Tomb Raider reboot, and mentioned that they should have had a goofy excuse plot to go along with the stuff that they were showing there up on the screen; the people behind New Order have succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible, which is making a serious plot that is composed of elements that individually cannot be taken seriously. I mean, if you try to use logic about this stuff then parts of your brain will die, for one instance in the first hour of gameplay how Blazkowicz maintains his He-Man physique despite being in a coma for 14 years. And if you are like me then you will occasionally be wondering if the way things were transpiring was really part of the plan, and if so if anyone had raised any objections to that plan. For instance when Blazkowicz infiltrates a labor camp in the general population, and if he hadn’t been selected for labor duty could very well have been gassed. But somehow it all manages to hang together anyway.
The various trailers for this game show some of the heinous shit that the Nazis were up to during the period 1946-1960, such as dynamiting Mount Rushmore and shooting hippies in Paris. Also they apparently have introduced the death penalty for flagrant fouls in soccer. So maybe you would be thinking that the whole thing is played for camp, or for laughs. But no, not really. The creators of this game have clearly thought deeply about the Nazi regime and what it was all about at its core, namely nothing except an excuse for the exercise of power. So the Nazi regime of 1960, despite its ray guns and robot soldiers, is still involved in racial purity buffoonery, trying to conquer the areas of the world not yet under its control, making huge monuments to its own awesomeness. Blazkowicz comments toward the start that it’s less war than the breaking of seals, and the game itself focuses on the essentially blasphemous nature of the Nazi regime against all virtues and humanity.
Your chief antagonist, Wilhelm Strasse, doesn’t really appear to have strong feelings one way or another about political stuff, he is more along the lines of a very unethical scientist who just wants to see what will happen if he does various things. I got the impression he only signed up so that he could vivisect people and build a bunch of killer robots, and this was the faction that encouraged that sort of behavior. He only personally shows up near the beginning and at the end, but it’s his super-science that enables the plot to happen. (In another one of those logic questions, you have to wonder if taking him out in 1960 when the Nazis have already been victorious will actually help much of anything, having failed to stop him in 1946. And isn’t he about 100 years old by the end and probably going to die soon anyway? You know what, it’s probably best to just not worry about this any further.) You do hear his smarmy voice in various recordings throughout so you can be reminded of how much of a horrible asshole he is. And although he’s undoubtedly an evil genius, in a nice touch the game establishes that much of his vaunted discoveries were actually reverse-engineered from a sect of Jewish mystics, thereby showing Strasse as essentially parasitic – and hypocritical, when he purports to lecture you on the virtues of creation. Secondary antagonist Irene Engel , on the other hand, simply gets off on hurting people. She sadly appears based on various real-life Nazi functionaries.
There’s also a surprisingly well-done love subplot between Blazkowicz and Anya Oliwa, a Polish nurse from his sanitarium. Blazkowicz thinks at the beginning how he dreams of a picket fence and a family but that it will never happen for him; and of course in this world it’s pretty much not going to. But these two find comfort in each other how they can. Anya’s also not some 20 year old ingénue, she is in her late 30s and has had her own life experiences up to that point. This is rare for main characters in games generally and unheard of in for a love interest, unless she happen to be a 700 year old vampire or something who just looks 20. Despite some of the campy undertones throughout I’m just going to use the word “mature” to describe it. It’s not something you see that often.
The gameplay itself is really solid, and does interesting things. The most out-and-out “gamey” element is probably the perk and item system. There are a bunch of random items scattered throughout the levels and collecting them gets you bragging rights and some useful upgrades. Perhaps most interestingly, the item collections are persistent, so if you start a new game the items that you have previously collected stay collected.
The perk system is similar. You have to perform some sort of feat to unlock them, which range from “you will accomplish this in the tutorial” to “very difficult”, and once done they reward you by improving your stats in some way. For instance, if you stealthily kill 20 soldiers with throwing knives, you can carry an additional throwing knife in your inventory. Like the items, the perks stay with you regardless of whether you start a new game or restart a checkpoint. I think the purpose of that is to enable you to play at higher difficulty levels with increased health and armor capacities, faster movement, sneakier stealth, etc. Oh, and modern shooters typically limit you to two guns at a time, but Blazkowicz was in a coma when that design decision was made, so he can carry a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sci-fi energy blaster, grenades, sniper rifle and a bunch of knives all at the same time. In fact nature has blessed him with two arms, so he can dual wield anything except the sci-fi laser, so if you prefer to hold an automatic shotgun in each hand this is an option for you. In fact there are perks for doing so.
If you want to simply run around blasting everyone you can do that, but there’s also strong encouragement in spots for the stealth approach. Those helmets apparently give the Nazis bad hearing and non-existent peripheral vision, so you can get right up behind them and finish them off. There are officers in these sections, who will call for assistance if they notice you and will continue calling for backup as long as they live. (You would think that maybe once HQ gets a request for backup and then hears nothing more from the requesting officer or the guys they sent down there that someone might get a little suspicious, but I guess they figure no news is good news, or a new radio operator just happens to be coming on shift, or actually what did I say about the logic, never mind.) Fortunately these officers tend to stand very still with their backs toward corridors. There are also areas without officers where everyone knows you’re coming, and in those areas you have to simply go around killing everything that moves. This is, if I haven’t been clear on this point, quite satisfying.
The game does a good job of mixing up the levels; you have action-packed shooting setpieces followed up by stealth/puzzle levels, or simple domestic arrangements. To some extent the levels are a little fragmented, but I guess the developers decided that they simply wanted to have a level in an old castle, on a bridge, a couple of prisons, a U-boat, and the Nazi moon base, and didn’t sweat the transitions too much.
In short, Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to somehow transcend its pulp origins and put together a coherent, challenging, and adult look on a first-person shooter that’s altogether much better than I expected or than it had any reasonable right to be. It addresses complex questions without giving pat answers; it’s one thing to wipe out the staff of an extermination camp, but even Blazkowicz seems to wonder about tearing up a train full of soldiers on leave. Anyway, if you’ve ever enjoyed an FPS, this one is absolutely worth a look, and it’s impressive enough to be mentioned as an all-time great.