Warning: A fair few spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order in this, so go play it first. Unless you don’t care, in which case crack on.
When Wolfenstein: The New Order came out back in 2014, I fired it up expecting a first-person shooter that would tick all of the boxes I require a first-person shooter to tick. I’ve always prioritised things like a good, varied set of guns that have this frankly intangible ‘feel’ that I’ve been chasing after since the shotgun in Doom. Or a sense of speed/weight to the movement and combat, ensuring that the actual shooting of the guns and killing of the enemies is front and centre, over any needless, set-piece heavy narrative. I like my first-person shooters to be about shooting, from the first-person perspective, and that takes priority over any story the game is trying to tell.
Like, I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly what is going on in Quake — something to do with portals, like that other game, right? — but it is a game that has the lot, as far as I’m concerned. The weapons, map design, enemies and even that aforementioned (and I can’t believe I’m going to type this) ‘gun-feel’ that makes it all come together. Who cares that it barely has a story. I don’t, and you shouldn’t. It’s about shooting and it does that perfectly.
Wolfenstein: The New Order delivers on this. The arsenal available to BJ Blazkowicz is full of some really tremendous firepower, almost all of which can be dual-wielded. There’s a clear understanding of how ludicrous — and crucially — fun this is when you find the Automatic Shotgun, a hulking bit of kit that can literally blast through a full clip in seconds and turns whoever is unfortunate enough to be stood directly in front of you into a crimson paste. It is wonderful. Machinegames gate receiving this gun from you until a sequence where BJ and his pals are trapped in a room, with the only exit being a slim corridor packed with Nazis who are trying to break the door down. Blazkowicz heads over the top of them through an air vent and finds the weapon, giving him a corridor full of unexpecting victims to test it out on. It is hilarious.
It’s not just the heavier side of weaponry that Wolfenstein excels in, but also gives you plenty of options if you prefer a more subtle approach. A decent silenced pistol, throwing knives and some instant takedowns from behind an enemy means that you’ve got enough tools to play the game in a more stealthy manner. There’s a Nazi Commander in most of the larger combat areas who will summon more enemies to the fight if he is startled, making everything much more difficult. So, you’ve got these little environmental puzzles, where you’re trying to figure out how to get to him without upsetting any of the other guards. It’s totally optional, never causes a failstate if you screw things up but adds a nice bit of depth to the combat that really complements the hardcore shooting.
A few levels in and it was everything I expected, including the plot. Blazkowicz was a hard-assed action hero who seemingly expressed his personality through the guns on screen, while his fellow soldiers were a bunch of war movie cliches. The enemies, well, they’re Nazis. They’re as bad as you can get. Stick a Swastika on something and that means you’ve got to punch it in the face. Or shoot at it. Easy.
At the end of the first ‘bit’ of the game, the raid on Castle Wolfenstein goes a bit wrong and our hero finds himself having to make a choice that actually affects the rest of the game. Someone has to live, and someone has to die, and it is on Blazkowicz’s head. It is an intense end to what turns out to be the prologue and it is from here that Wolfenstein: The New Order starts to add something into the mix that I genuinely didn’t expect — a real human element. Heart. Character. Characters.
Blazkowicz isn’t just a burly meathead with a gun. Sure, he’s a man who happens to be really good at killing Nazis, but he is very much a man. A human. Someone who spends the rest of the game dealing with this choice, but also with the horrors of this seemingly endless war. He’s plagued by nightmares about the time he was held captive in Castle Wolfenstein — brilliantly delivered in game by a flashback to the very original game — and, likely in order to deal with all this, he’s emotionally a bit broken. The gritty, war hero dialogue in the prologue gives way to a man who speaks frankly about the things he has seen, a reality that is ignored by most first-person shooter figureheads. I don’t particularly want Duke Nukem or Doomguy (who subverts the standard FPS protagonist superbly in the latest Doom game) to start ruminating on man’s inhumanity to other man, but it fleshes out Blazkowicz into something, well, real.
He starts the game proper in a hospital, picked up by a shipping boat, in a catatonic state. He’s cared for in this time by Anya Oliwa, who goes on to become a key member of the rebel group the Kreisau Circle later in the game. Although she becomes BJ’s love interest, she’s a fairly fleshed out and one of three major female characters in the game, the others being Caroline Becker, leader of the Kreisau Circle, and Frau Engel, the evil Nazi officer. The game passes the Bechdel Test, which is absolutely unheard of in a first-person shooter.
On the subject of Anya being the ‘love interest’, Wolfenstein tells a surprisingly touching tale of the two characters — Anya and Blazkowicz — essentially finding each other in this war. I remember seeing some chat about the scene where they’re disturbing the people in the Kreisau Circle base of operations with their loud shagging, saying that it was a bit cheap, put in for some mere titillation, but honestly it seem way more realistic than any of the soulless rutting you see in Dragon Age et al. There’s a tragic undercurrent to their relationship, too. Perhaps their roles in this war is what is going to ultimately put an end to it? Perhaps it was not meant to be? There’s a moment of genuine heartbreak that I simply didn’t expect to see in a game that is part of a series where you fought a gigantic robot Hitler, but then, I didn’t expect half of what this game does. This game even passes the Red Letter Media character test, where you must describe a character without talking about what they look like, their job or their end goal. Everyone has a background, everyone has their own struggle outside of the core storyline and their own stuff going on outside of interactions with Blazkowicz.
Even the Nazis themselves are more than just fodder to be shot at, an easy evil force for videogame violence on the same rung of the ladder as zombies. Machinegames clearly wanted to use them for much more than just that — a potentially risky move. Throughout the game there’s glimpses of life under the Nazi rule, from simple environmental storytelling to conversations with the rebels, they’re an important part of how this new Wolfenstein world has been crafted. There’s more to them than just some black uniforms and some red banners. You see what they’re doing to the people. You see how they’ve changed people’s lives and the way they live. Their actions, including those you don’t see in the game, add an emotional weight to the proceedings. They’re more than just a simple rent-a-villain.
The level of detail is best shown off in the character Max Hass. A very large man who has a chunk of his skull missing and has been left in a childlike state by whatever caused this. He’s a pacifist, refusing to fight until pushed to the extreme limit. It isn’t explained why exactly he’s missing a chunk of his head — could it be due to the fact he lives in a conflict zone, some sort of explosion maybe — but as you play through the game and see what Deathshead, the main antagonist, is trying to achieve, you realise there may be a more sinister reason behind all of this. Deathshead is trying to make Ubersoldaten, giant soldiers in heavy duty armour who are basically brainwashed to kill. Is Max a failed Ubersoldaten? There’s fact that the character Klaus Kreutz, who is essentially his father figure, used to be a Nazi and ‘found him’. Did Deathshead’s doctors lobotomise him, find out was a pacifist and try to bin him? Who knows, but then how many games have built such a consistent, rich world around the characters that this kind of speculation can even exist?
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. Machinegames is made up of talent behind The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Darkness. Both games that go out of their way to create worlds, characters and a strong sense of place and atmosphere. I mean, in The Darkness there’s a bit near the start where you can sit on the couch with the protagonist’s girlfriend and watch the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird. There’s no cheesy dialogue to emphasise that these two people are in love and it would be terrible if she was to get killed. It’s real, it is human and it builds characters without having to rely on standard videogame tropes. Look at Horizon Zero Dawn, where they rely on some of the cheapest tricks ever to try get you to care about the cause of the main character, some entry-level ‘revenge’ rubbish you’ve seen a thousand times before. Attached to this piece is a few bits of concept art, taken from the fantastic art book released alongside the game. They’re extremely detailed portraits, just looking straight at you, all the intricacies and scars and blemishes there to see. I feel that rendering them as if they were real people was an intentional and major part of creating such believable characters.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a fantastic shooting game, but one that creates a world you want to spend time in, characters you want to spend time with and a protagonist that is much more than a floating gun. The fact that the closest game I can think of in terms of this stuff is Half Life 2 — one of the best videogames ever made — speaks volumes. It does this through well-written, believable dialogue and a level of detail in the world that provides a place that tells as much a story as the actual plot does. The main plot — the through line from push X to start to the end boss — isn’t actually that great! It’s a framework that allows for the characters to breathe, to tell their stories and become, well, human. Humans who deal with PTSD, with life-changing injuries, with love, with suicide, with acts of terrorism from both sides, with survivor’s guilt, with an existence under a real evil. Wolfenstein may play like the very best ‘dumb’ shooter, but this a smart, smart videogame.
At the end of the game, a severely wounded Blazkowicz calls an airstrike on his position to destroy the Nazi compound. While dragging himself to the radio, you see Anya on the beach head, holding a spotlight to guide the rescued people to their escape. Blazkowicz internally recites a poem. A poem about the Statue Of Liberty, written in 1883.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The poem is called ‘’The New Colossus’.