It’s a grim world. There is nothing left but uniformity and conformation to dictated norms. All independent thinkers and dissidents have been forced out, and all that remains is more of the same drudgery, day in and day out. Indeed it would seem to be a world under occupation, with no hope left in sight.
This is not the world of Bethesda Softworks’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, at least not yet. The world I am describing now is that of the First Person Shooter genre, and how for the past five years it seems all the vitality has been sucked out of what was once the reliable backbone of the video gaming world. The same stories, told in the same ways, over and over again. The same dull tropes, the same tired dialogue, and the all-too-predictable twists. Call of Duty has lately become an easy target, but it is far from the only one to have twisted the FPS genre in pursuit of greater and greater profit. However, in the midst of all this, there is still some hope. Every once in a while, when you least expect it, a diamond in the rough appears. From the most unlikely of places, a breath of fresh air to reassure the world that excellent, big-budget FPS games are still possible. And that is what brings us to Wolfenstein: The New Order. Here we find a game that doesn’t feel the need sacrifice a compelling story for thrilling action, nor huge, eye-popping settings with heart-pounding, close-quarters combat. I often hesitate to refer to a game of any genre of “having it all”, but if Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn’t meet that description, it at least comes very, very close.
The gameplay is straightforward: In addition to a wide variety of weaponry options, there are also melee attacks and a cover system to accommodate any playstyle, from stealth kills to guns-a-blazing. Every gun has a secondary fire function that can be unlocked throughout the game (rocket launchers, laser cutters, etc.), and most weapons can be dual-wielded. Health is collected in increments, and you can upgrade your health bar throughout the game as well.
To be perfectly clear though, the true magic of Wolfenstein: The New Order is in its setting and story. The game’s prologue takes place in 1946, during a last-ditch Allied air raid on the castle headquarters of General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, the Nazi’s head of secret weaponry. In this timeline, after the events of Wolfenstein (2009) the Nazi’s have become the undisputed masters of advanced military technology and have turned the tide of the war. Thanks to the diabolical inventions of Strasse such as hulking armored dogs the size of a car, nuclear weapons, super soldiers, and tower-sized robots that seem straight out of War of the Worlds, the Soviets have been sent into full retreat and the rest of Europe has been subdued. The British and Americans know that if they can’t kill Strasse in this raid, then they will soon meet a similar fate. Here we meet our main protagonist: Captain William Blazkowicz, accompanied by pilot Fergus Reid and infantryman Probst Wyatt III. After crash-landing on the beach, the team proceeds on foot to infiltrate the castle. However, they are eventually captured and are brought face-to-face with Strasse, who makes the player choose which of the other two he will kill in front of them. This choice affects how certain mechanics function throughout the game, as the person who is spared will appear later on in the story. After narrowly escaping the castle’s incinerator, Blazkowicz suffers a major head injury, which leads to a coma that lasts 14 years.
When the player awakes, they learn that the year is 1960 and the Nazi’s have won the war. He is informed that the United States surrendered shortly after an atomic bomb was dropped on New York in 1948, and that the Nazi’s now control nearly every corner of the globe, turning it into a warped dystopia. With the help of Anya, the Polish nurse who assisted Blazkowicz during his coma, you find you way to Berlin to reconnect with what’s left of the Kreisau Circle, including breaking out of prison the person you chose to save 14 years prior. As the game progresses, the world under Nazi rule is revealed, taking the player from Berlin to a forced labor camp in Croatia, to a still rebelling London, to a Nuclear-powered U-Boat to Gibraltar and even to the Nazi’s expansive moon base in pursuit of the launch codes to the nuclear weapons that will be used to destroy the Nazi war machine. This is all accompanied with thrilling combat with Strasse’s new and more terrifying weapons and soldiers, and set pieces that actually reward exploration and offer multiple pathway’s to the objective. At the end of the story, Blazkowicz defeats Strasse in a climactic final battle, though sustaining mortal wounds himself. He decides to sacrifice himself in order to complete the mission, and the last words of the story is him mentally reciting “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.
Throughout all of this, you feel an actual connection with the characters you are fighting alongside, who, unlike the usual one-note FPS protagonists whose dialogue is as thin as paper, raise some thought-provoking questions about the cost of war and its many unforeseen consequences. Throughout the game a certain feeling is hammered home –the fight you take part in is an inherently unfair one. Instead of trying to single-handedly bring down Nazi rule, your fight is just to survive the harsh new realities of the world.
And so, Wolfenstein: The New Order is blazing the trail for the next generation of FPS games that will break the mold and end the stagnation that has become the hallmark of the genre in these past few years. And that is the true brilliance of MachineGames, the developers of Wolfenstein: The New Order. That a game can contain as much narrative heft AND impactful action is a rare occurrence.