Wolfenstein: The New Order, a continuation/reboot of the long running, Nazi-shooting franchise, has an effortless maturity. It handles themes that most video games struggle with, such as war, violence, racism and death, with tact. It is rarely subtle, but it is careful. It builds its ideas with a holistic awareness. While it is no masterpiece, Machine Games have created something that is fun, memorable, and meaningful.
It is 1960. The Nazis won the war through use of mysterious and frightening weaponry. The hero, B.J. Blazkowicz, has awakened from a 14 year coma. He must gather the remnants of the broken resistance and find a way to topple the omnipresent Nazi regime.
The New Order strikes a balance between the silliness of its gonzo sci-fi premise and the seriousness of such a bleak alternate future. It does this by being aware about both sides of itself. It sets up both the horror of its fascism and the preposterousness of its universe early on and never lets one overtake the other. In so doing, it manages to feel like a truly complete work, in which all aspects feed into each other. The most visible example of this is the game’s treatment of violence.
In The New Order, war is horrible and you fight to end violence rather than perpetuate it. This use of violence contextualizes and grounds the world and the player’s participation in it. In contrast, most shooters are coy about the consequences of their violence. Enemies are faceless, inhuman, or unclearly defined. While some of these elements remain true in The New Order, it is often clear that you are killing other human beings. You find heartfelt letters. Enemies gossip and chat. They have longings and problems of their own. The game has the courage to frame your actions as necessary rather than good. The Nazis are evil and must be stopped, but that does not come without cost. As another example, the game uses atrocities that mirror real ones, not for petty shock value, but to connect the player to the world and its conflict. It shows how much suffering the Nazis created and in doing so, shows what you are fighting for. The game has nothing profound to say about violence or war itself, but it does handle it maturely. It uses its narrative design to build a foundation, letting the game exist as both a power fantasy and a sobering story.
This grounding leads to a game that is more about overcoming than dominating. On a basic level, The New Order pushes into the rhythm of shooter present and past. I.E. use the missile, switch to shotgun, up the stairs, guy on left, guy on right, assault rifle, oh crap a super solider, grenade, run, die. Repeat until victory. However, in other elements, it is delightfully out of step with modern sensibilities. Most current shooters allow players to carry only two weapons at a time and have regenerating health. These choices have had the side effect of discouraging exploration and choice. In these kinds of games, the player becomes a god of war, untouchable and powerful. The New Order chooses to place the player in circumstance. It allows the player to carry as many weapons as they like. However, both weapons and ammo must be scavenged from the environment. Enemies don’t usually come in waves, but are placed intentionally in an environment. Thus, it asks the player to explore a space, find its ins and outs, hidden passages, and supply cabinets. It gives you a place and a situation to overcome. Shooters like Call of Duty test your ability to perform efficiently, to quickly get head-shots. The New Order tests your ability to strategize and outwit a complex, spacial puzzle.
This need to manage and stockpile resources, as well as understand the possibilities of a space, encourage the player to explore the environment. This feeds the game’s relentless commitment to its world-building. The New Order has levels that feel like actual places. They feel practical and grounded in real world ideas. The Nazi skyscrapers and towers resemble Hitler’s actual plans for the third reich. The offices, museums, bases, and prisons you explore are laid out like actual locations. By taking its world seriously, it enables the minute to minute moments, as well as the broad arc, to have a sense of reality and truth.
Although much of The New Order is grim, its thematic aims are not particularly ambitious. It wants to be the best version of Wolfenstein. As a consequence, it has little interest in being anything more than a semi-serious romp. Often, its attempts to make you think are trite and broad, but its efforts to make you feel rarely are. Each of its characters has dignity and humanity. From Caroline, the unflappable leader of the resistance, to Frau Engel, the menacing officer who is the game’s most human villain, The New Order lends its characters motivation, agency, and truth. At the center is a love story that feels neither contrived nor exploitative. In games like this, such humanity is rare, but experiencing it here affirms that it should be everywhere. There is a story and there are characters, that will stick with me as much as any singular gameplay moment. In video games, real character can be so rare, that it is a miracle whenever it shows itself.
This is a game that could be heralded as a masterpiece, but it is not any such thing. It is a game that succeeds on its own terms, that fills its schlocky premise with human detail and life. It is a game that brings reality to the absurd and maturity to the juvenile. In short, it is very good, but it does not reach beyond. It is not a particularly ambitious or profound work, it just mines the everliving life out of its concept. The New Order is a reminder of what big-budget games can do. It is a reminder of how real, present, and powerful they can feel under the right hands. However, it is also a reminder of their continuing limitations. It gives me hope for more games like it. Even so, it makes me want games that are more than The New Order ever aspired to be.