Until now, Wolfenstein has been a mature series only in terms of age. 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D was the first game to popularise the first-person shooter genre, but even that was preceded by two-dimensional games dating back into the Eighties. So synonymous is the Wolfenstein name with its simple, blocky origins that it’s hard to imagine an entry being good for anything other than mindless shooting.
Which is why Wolfenstein: The New Order is such a breath of fresh air. It’s a shockingly good game, not for the expected Nazi-blasting (which is alright) but for its story. I feel weird typing this, but Wolfenstein: The New Order has a compelling and well-told story that is by turns exciting, surprising, and even moving.
Much of the story’s success lies in the alternate history in which it takes place. Starting three years after 2009’s Wolfenstein, we open in 1946: World War II is still in full swing thanks to Nazi advances in robotics, and protagonist BJ Blazkowicz is leading a push to eliminate General Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse (Dwight Schultz in a role far removed from Reginald Barclay), the scientific genius and war criminal behind it all. Things quickly go pear-shaped and Blazkowicz sustains a head injury in the first of too many blunt-force knockout scene transitions. But it’s what happens next that, as Upworthy would say, will leave you speechless. That, and the fact that talking to a video game that’s not listening to you would be really stupid.
Blazkowicz’s is sent into a catatonic state, locked-in in more than one sense inside a Polish insane asylum for fourteen years as the seasons pass in the blink of an eye. Outside the asylum, the Nazis win the war, and by 1960 they’ve spread across most of the Earth - and the Moon. The only thing that awakens Blazkowicz from his stupor is the appearance of Nazis to execute the asylum patients. That only the desire to kill Nazis can give Blazkowicz purpose is presented tragically, while possibly also as a wry nod to the nature of shooters. But this is only the beginning: BJ and his nurse Anya escape, plunging into a rousing story of resistance and romance that succeeds, unlike real Nazi Germany, on a number of fronts.
Rather than merely using Nazis as joke-butts and bullet-recipients, Wolfenstein: The New Order takes its conceit seriously and mashes players face-first into the horror of what a Nazi-controlled 1960 would look like. It's astonishingly well thought out, and pulls no punches. Concentration camps, medical atrocities, Aryan supremacy, and even the unavailability of legal and safe abortions are all confronted. Most WWII-centric games have avoided such subjects, rightly terrified of being seen as making light of them. But The New Order is braver than those games. It’s great to see a AAA title taking this kind of risk.
And the characters! Far from a squad of macho soldier variants, the Kreisau Circle resistance are an endearing, ragtag band of misfits who get under your skin just enough to land their tragic or victorious payoffs late in the story. There’s a paraplegic, middle-aged former schoolmistress turned resistance leader; an ex-Nazi who turned coat when his club-footed baby was executed and the mentally-disabled man he took in as a surrogate son; and a character who may or not be Jimi Hendrix. Most important, though, are PTSD-ravaged BJ Blaskowicz (more often referred to as William - even Blazkowicz is pronounced correctly, without Americanisation), and Anya, Blazkowicz’s former nurse, who finds new purpose fighting the good fight after what is implied to be a troubled past. Anya and William forge a romance as the game progresses that doesn’t come across as forced or cheesy, but as an honest relationship between two people bound together by the horrors and camaraderie of war. It’s the emotional core of the story, those characters’ only bright spot in a dark world, and it works.
On paper, the mixture of The New Order's gleeful Nazi-killing and science fiction with its more earnest aspirations is a queasy one. But because developers MachineGames treat their scenario and characters with such respect, the moments of fun and spectacle (and boy are there moments of fun and spectacle) feel earned, which goes a long way to explaining how the game's fascinating tonal balance is maintained. Every setpiece is driven by story or character; there’s a purpose behind everything that happens, and clear, sometimes emotional stakes behind that. If I have to complain, the 15-hour story feels like it’s an act too long. Several sequences could easily serve as the climax but don’t, notably the ones involving a Nazi moonbase and a building-sized robot.
Oh yeah, that’s right. This is still a game with laser guns, cyber-soldiers and Moon Nazis, a bloodbath of a shooter filled with huge, ostentatious action. Oddly enough, the engrossing story lends the gunplay more impact. These Nazis deserve everything that’s coming to them, and there’s nought more thrilling than splattering Dead Alive quantities of Nazi gibs across all nearby surfaces with The New Order’s small-but-mighty range of weaponry.
The gameplay itself is more open-ended than you’d expect from an id shooter. While going in guns-blazing is more than catered for (and intensely satisfying in an old-school bullets’n’blood manner), many missions have alternate routes and stealth options (making use of a superb multidirectional lean system) to cater for more thoughtful players, even if the AI is too stupid to give the stealth any believability. The pacing takes many cues from Half-Life 2 and Bioshock (because why not crib from the best?), with the occasional puzzle, undercover or exploration sequence mixing things up. Only the reductive and inane boss fights - except one that takes a surprising personal turn - truly feel like relics of a bygone age.
I also want to take a moment to give the New Order design team their own well-deserved BJ. Rarely does it feel like you’re treading old ground, which is something that’s troubled previous Wolfenstein titles. You’re constantly treated to new, gloriously detailed sights and sounds, which range from a bright, 2001-inspired lunar base to the dusty despair of a desert concentration camp. I love, love, love the secret Kreisau Circle resistance base, literally packed to the rafters with wonderful character details and environmental storytelling. Though idTech 5’s texture-pop issues still haven’t been fixed in the years since Rage, this is a fantastic illustration of what AAA budgets and technology can achieve when used right.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is the best kind of exploitation: the kind that lures you in with an outrageous premise, but then surprises you by committing to that premise completely, delivering the promised spectacle but telling a great story in the process. It strikes a precarious balance between silliness and sincerity, and for the most part pulls it off. I for one am amazed at how well it works.