Wolfenstein: The New Order

Game * MachineGames * Alternate Reality Dystopia * 2014

Synopsis

You know what’s fun and that whole family can enjoy? Shooting Nazis in their stupid Nazi faces. And thus sprang forth the idea behind a seminal gaming franchise. The original game, which I remember having stored on mismatched floppy disks, was essentially just that. You are dude. Here is gun. Now kill those Nazis! And then you do until you finally get to the end and Mecha-Hitler kills you with his robo-Gatling-cannons. Man, those were the days.

Now, many years later, comes a sequel of unexpected quality that has you essentially doing the same thing as its distant ancestor. You are dude. Here are many guns. Now kill so many more Nazis! And robot Nazi dog monsters! Well, that’s actually quite reductive. Wolfenstein 3D came out over twenty years ago, and of course the modern game needs to do quite a bit more than have you run around shooting robot Nazi dog monsters for 20 hours to be relevant or interesting. And so The New Order does, but crucially the game maintains the ridiculous spirit of the original game. Sadly, there is no Mecha-Hitler in this game, but if there was he wouldn’t be out of place at all.

So, you are dude. Specifically, you are B.J. Blazkowicz, an American soldier noted for his appetite for wielding duel assault rifles and mowing down waves of Nazis. The prologue of the game is set in 1946 during the dying days of World War II, which of course frames the narrative as an alternative history story. In this timeline the Allies are overmatched and in a last ditch effort to win the war send in B.J. and his crew to infiltrate the stronghold of a particularly evil Nazi named Deathshead (yep) and destroy the place. They fail spectacularly. Deathshead and the Nazis triumph and Blazkovicz ends up in a coma. If all this sounds real dumb, you are correct. But the game embraces the dumbness. It owns it in such a way that, if you are inclined to enjoy ridiculous things (which I so totally am), the story absolutely manages to engage.

Many years pass, and the game resumes the story in 1960. Blazkovicz wakes up in the asylum where he’s been kept since the war and immediately starts the Nazi-killing. Mechanically, the game gives the player many ways to kill said Nazis. They are all pretty satisfying, whatever your preferred approach. If you enjoy full frontal assaults, I would suggest going duel-shotgun and just exploding everything in sight. If you prefer stealth, it’s super fun to whip knives at unwitting Nazis and watching them drop dead regardless where you hit them. Like, “ow, my leg, oh I’m dead.” The only thing the game does not allow you to do is take a non-lethal approach… but, I mean, that’s sort of the antithesis of the whole “shoot Nazis in their stupid Nazi faces” theme they have going here. You kill Nazis, you find The Resistance, you travel around the world on missions which involve more Nazi killing. It’s a pretty good loop. It’s a pretty good game!

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It really is a shame the Nazis ruined zeppelins for everyone.

Discussion

So let’s talk about Nazis for a little bit, since this game requires you to kill so many of them. I’m not terribly interested in entering historical mode now (I will later, since the Third Reich was essentially a dystopia that actually happened and as such is quite important), but when it comes to video game villains, they’re right up there with zombies and aliens. This makes sense, of course, because if the player is running around murdering folks indiscriminately, they should probably deserve it. Zombies aren’t alive, and will eat your brains. Aliens want to assimilate your planet and lay eggs in you. Nazis are snappy dressers and kill everyone who doesn’t want to be a Nazi. Also the Holocaust (which doesn’t really come up in this game, nor should it). Essentially, if a game is going to cast the player as an action-hero, it needs to set up baddies in such a way so that we’re not questioning the game for turning us into sociopaths. Yet, it’s not really enough to slap a few swastikas on the enemies and then send you on your way. And that’s where The New Order really puts some work in.

Perhaps more than any other medium, setting is paramount in video games. World-building is a key concern for developers, which only makes sense considering the amount of time one spends involved in the world of a game. Unlike film or books, a game can present a fully realized world and then allow the player to do what they will in it. Obviously some games allow more freedom than others, but by any measurement the interactivity involved with a video game creates a sense of immersion in that world unavailable in other mediums. Wolfenstein wanted provide context for so much Nazi-killing and thus imagined a world in which the Nazis won the war. Obviously, this is well-worn territory. If you’re going to imagine a different timeline, it makes sense to take on the single most important conflict in history, so it’s a thing that’s been done. I will argue that tropes and clichés are okay if done well, and I think this applies here. The game has managed to craft a world that feels like the Nazis won. Since the Nazis were known primarily for their efficient brutality, their drive for technological progress, and their ruthless dominance of conquered territory, the game translates these traits into vast environments built of concrete and red banners and are populated by scary robots.

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The New Order takes its world-builiding seriously, as seen with these Nazified albums. Details matter!

The Nazis were masters of presentation and spectacle, and this game takes their historical propensity for the grandiose and extrapolates a plausible conclusion. The world of Nazi 1960 is writ large in massive concrete super-structures decked in stark red and black. The swastika, arguably the most striking, effective logo in history, is everywhere and on everything. Wolfenstein feels oppressive.  At every turn there are vast panoramas of Nazi dominance. The architecture is large and harsh, and everything is a concrete monolith. This, in fact, becomes a key plot point in the game when it is revealed that the Nazis have been utilizing a new kind of, ah, uber-concrete, in order to build so many massive buildings across the globe.

In addition to the dominance of the city-scape, there is the Nazi’s technological dominance to contend with. I mean, one mission has you going to the moon. When you restrict everyone’s civil liberties it frees up all kinds of resources for this kind of thing. Anyway, there are robots everywhere. Robot dogs. Robot Nazi-men. You fight an enormous robot in London. Hell, the end boss is yet another robot fight. Deathshead’s whole deal is to merge human brains (which are harvested in a ridiculously grotesque and inefficient manner, just by the way) with robotic technology because there is no better way to dominate humanity than to turn them into machines, apparently. Between the prevalence of domineering technology and the intimidating architecture, then, the world of The New Order is ripe for subversion. I mean, come on. No way would a guy like Blazkovicz is gonna just stand around in the face of all that. After all, there are Nazis to kill.

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