Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game which is best discussed after completion; its most interesting ideas, those that set it apart from the mixture of old and new FPS it is, are ones that are best experienced and then discussed. As a result this article will take the form of a short review and then a lengthier discussion of what the game does, and whether or not this is effective. As a game it plays very much like an early-era PC FPS; the player collects weapons, can carry many of them, dual-wield them and collects health items to heal. At the same time it has been updated to take into account the ways in which the genre has developed; the health items are supplemented by limited health regeneration to prevent situations becoming completely unwinnable, weapons and abilities are upgraded by completing challenges and mazelike secret areas hidden behind walls are replaced by small side areas containing optional collectibles.
It plays well; the player movement feels weighty and responsive like Killzone, the weapons feel powerful and the action is a good mixture of Call of Duty style visual setpieces and intense combat against large numbers of enemies. There are a decent number of missions, the writing is snappy and effective and the only real complaint in gameplay terms is that there are not quite enough action climaxes. It is, arguably, formulaic – but at the same time it is an update of a series that near enough invented the first-person shooter, and so adherence to a successful formula seems entirely understandable. Thus as a game it is easy to recommend Wolfenstein: The New Order to anyone who has enjoyed previous entries (such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein, or the classic Wolf 3D)
– This section contains significant discussion of the entire plot and themes of the game –
However, behind the gloss and snappy writing and references to previous games (the first thing the player sees is GET PSYCHED, and there is the entirety of a level of Wolf 3D hidden in one zone) The New Order is an ambitious and arguably risky game. It was marketed – right down to the very oldschool “feelies” in the deluxe edition – as an all-action, macho, all-American World War 2 kind of experience. The Nazis won the war! There’s Nazis on the moon, and covering the Beatles! Go fight them, BJ Blascowitz! Indeed, its memorable E3 trailer is a series of typically British and American scenes – Abbey Road, the VE Day celebrations, the Moon Landing – all Nazified and intercut with the Nuremburg Rallies and scenes of oppression. What follows is all-action fun, dual-wielding shotguns and lasers and shooting robots. This is a simple equivalence. Nazis are unequivocally, undeniably bad. They should lose. They have not lost. Thus they must be shot.
Actually playing The New Order is a very different experience. There are not, for sizeable portions of it, many robots or lasers or explosions or theatrics. There is a lot of skulking around the nastiest parts of Nazism juxtaposed with elements of the theatricality – Mengele-esque labs of the Red Skull-esque General Death’s Head where vivisection and scientific atrocities sit alongside tripod walkers and power-armoured Nazis fighting plucky stereotypical commandos, an almost Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds-esque scene in which the player tears down a concentration camp with a war mech after having explored its horrors first-hand. The heroic commandos of the opening mission are replaced by a resistance group of the victims of the Nazi state – Jews, the disabled, Eastern Europeans and such. These are who the player is directly fighting for, who the story focuses on, and this is a very bold move. At its heart, The New Order is the over-the-top game it appears to be. The player collects, in gamist fashion, “Nazi Gold” and weapon perks. There are records to find in levels offering amusing stereotypically Germanic remixes of pop classics. There is a level on the moon, and a boss fight against a giant robot, and all the things one would expect of a fun and bombastic FPS drawing on the old days of Wolf 3D and Doom. In the Bioshock series this dissonance – between the visceral fun of shooting things in a game and efforts at a serious plot – is often destructive to both aspects. The plot feels too chopped up by long tracts of shooting men while other characters alternate between silent and appalled, while the gameplay does not fully commit to over-the-top-ness. The New Order is less clear-cut than this; it is hugely effective at times. Getting the chance to brutally take down a concentration camp commander and then destroy it all is a level of catharsis Bioshock can never offer. Fighting for the actually dispossessed, and – at all stages of the plot – fighting to give them the means to fight back, stolen from the oppressor – is a much more agreeable kind of action narrative than many. The protagonist is not, by the end of the game, standing as the great white hope for the dispossessed; he has liberated them and given them the means to fight the Nazis with his help. A lot nicer a philosophy than the sole hero fighting for a dispossessed with no agency themselves.
That is one way of reading The New Order. That it tries to do these things – that it addresses Nazism as something beyond a source of grey-shirted men to shoot and – in its own way – tries to handle the matter of resistance groups over liberating armies – is hugely interesting. Super-technology is not just a way of allowing slate-grey robots with iron crosses to be liberally included among a lot of men with MG42s, it is shown at every stage as a way of strengthening the oppression of an occupied Europe. But, that it does have that awkward, confrontational humour, is worth discussing. Tarantino’s films addressing difficult historical issues – Django and Inglorious Basterds – are good comparisons here. Both use liberally applied gore and cathartic violence to tear down the evils of the past. The atrocities of history are built up and up to parodic levels and then smashed into bloody pieces by those oppressed themselves. Thus is The New Order. But this whole idea – that you can use humour in this way – is an incredibly fine line. There is a point where juxtaposing the wacky with the trappings of history becomes uncomfortable – given The New Order ends with submarines blowing up secret Nazi bases, shootouts with zeppelins and mechs and an orbital-re-entry leading to a chaotic chase across London, effectively moving away from those more serious beginnings, it could be argued they are simply setting up pathos and reminding the player of the self-evident. Indeed, at times it feels like two games; the dramatical parts endeavouring to be sincere and the over-the-top parts providing a violent release from thinking too hard about the other parts. You get outraged at the serious bits and blow off steam in the power fantasy bits.
It could be argued – and I think, for all I liked The New Order it is certainly true to an extent – that The New Order fails to commit strongly enough to the very good foundations it lays down in its prison and camp levels. In so doing – in failing to go all the way and fully undermine the cheapening of WW2 into a reminder that we are good people that will not let those mistakes happen again as the oversaturation of games and films risks doing, it arguably loses some of that impetus. Actually engaging with some of the vilest events in history through the medium of a game that nevertheless still relies on theatrical, preening Nazis and science-fiction trappings – but never really committing to challenging the depictions of these events as it might be expected to – puts the game in an odd situation. Is the chance to shoot Nazis – as one has been doing, and one will continue to do – really appropriate as the conclusion to a science-fiction concentration camp level? It is this tension between taste and the sensation of catharsis that drives action as a genre that Django Unchained revels in; cinema, being a non-interactive medium, can play with these ideas in different ways to a video game. In some ways cinema can challenge depictions on an aesthetic level; since there are no user-interface or input format constraints, much greater stylistic changes are possible. Furthermore, Django‘s climax comes at the end of the film and is a level of absurd violence beyond anything previous; The New Order opens with its atrocities and escalates the violence and catharsis over the reasons for it.
That it ends with the protagonist dead, having been wounded in the final battle and unable to escape the destruction of the symbol of Nazism he is fighting to destroy, is perhaps the most fitting end and a welcome return to the game’s more serious edge; the game has been about arming a resistance and beginning the downfall of the Nazis, and in the end one soldier is only one soldier. The player’s catharsis is over, they have killed their fill and the final scenes – of prisoners freed from a terrible laboratory complex – remind them why they did it. It is hard to say if a more consistent focus on the darkness it dips into would have been exploitative, or if it could have sustained the real visceral response that those levels do give. But while I appreciate their presence, the game feels front-loaded with them, and the way in which they are – for much of its latter half – in some way sidelined for a more traditional FPS experience calls to mind doubts about the effectiveness of the entire experiment.