As I have mentioned before, I’ve recently been drawn towards the moral absolutes of games about fighting demonic Nazis. Having played Return to Castle Wolfenstein, I naturally wanted to progress on to the next game in the main series – 2009’s Wolfenstein.
However, that one’s quite hard to get a hold of, and I am bad at patience. So instead, this is a review of the next one on: Wolfenstein: The New Order. To avoid typing that again and again, I’m just going to refer to it from here on out as Wolfenstein.
The Nazis win WWII – that’s the set-up. Suddenly, their technology leaps forwards and the Third Reich spreads to cover the globe. WWII ends, but with the opposite result to the one you are familiar with. The next fifteen years pass under the jackboots of the oppressors, with everything that you would expect that to entail.
William Blazkowicz, injured in an attack against the Nazi war machine, spends those years in an asylum, unable to move or speak. It’s not until the Nazis attack the asylum, wiping out the inmates, that he finds the ability to fight back. Now he has to fight a one-man war in a world in which all resistance seems to have been totally crushed.
One thing I was particularly impressed by was the depth of the world-building. The story of the regime is told through scraps of newspaper report and architecture; there aren’t many cut-scenes, but the flavour of the world really comes through. By reading the articles stuck to walls or left on tables, you get a big picture understanding of the war – the way the ideology spread, through war or diplomacy. It’s well done, creating a convincing, albeit extremely depressing, narrative that has a tang of realism to it.
There’s a lot of variety in almost everything – settings range from an ancient facility to a modern lunar base, and these settings are stocked with metal dogs, hovering drones, and specialised infantry. The weapon choices, too, are extensive. Some of them felt a bit redundant, but most weapons clearly have different functions, and each one can be upgraded to add functionality – scopes and silencers and secondary ammunition.
I enjoyed the stealth elements, though I’d prefer them to have been a little more transparent. You can sneak and assassinate, but it’s not always obvious what exactly will draw attention and raise the alarm. The alarm mechanic is an interesting one – if the alarm is raised, reinforcements arrive, so it’s in your interest to take out those who can raise it before dealing with anyone else. It encourages remaining stealthy for as long as possible.
Level design isn’t as open as I’d like, but there are generally a couple of different routes/tactics to choose from. Large ventilation shafts and secret passages abound, meaning that not everything has to be a pitched battle. However, Wolfenstein is good at the variation – sometimes the pitched battle is a necessity, sometimes it won’t work. This keeps the gameplay from getting stale.
There’s an element of character-building to the game, in that Blazkowicz gains abilities in line with how you play. Certain achievements – killing a specific number of guards with thrown knives, for example – unlock skills, like the ability to carry more grenades or resist a particular kind of damage. It doesn’t change much, really, just reinforces the way you were already playing to some extent. Despite my strong preference for stealth, I found that I ended the game with almost all skills unlocked, even the rather vulgar explosive ones.
The game is distinctly part of the Wolfenstein series, despite changes in the setting. The enemy are still Nazis and the levels bustle with collectibles. There is a difference in focus though – rather than the supernatural, the less grounded elements of the plot concern ancient Jewish science. That means no demon enemies, but it does lend itself to some ridiculous weaponry and sequences. I didn’t care for this change, to be honest. The supernatural is one of the draws for me, and the idea that Jews have been controlling secret knowledge and working behind the scenes for millenia is uncomfortably close to something the actual Nazis believed.
There are a couple of other points where the game cuts a little close to the bone. There’s a level inside a concentration camp, for example. It’s difficult to sensitively gamify something like that – a place of real and recent cruelty and inhumanity. Perhaps as the medium matures, games will be better able to tackle topics of such sensitivity, but even though the section was really well done, it still felt a little glib, as though it was trying to reduce the horrors of the camps to something for entertainment. I don’t doubt that the designers intended no disrespect, and they definitely manage to get across something of the appropriate sense of hopelessness and cold brutality, but there’s a false note struck there.
With that said, I’m all for games attempting to explore deeper topics. The attempt doesn’t come off, but it’s a brave attempt, a stab at doing something a little deeper than most FPS games manage. For that, Wolfenstein deserves praise.
Wolfenstein is a engaging and very playable modern shooter. Lots of enemies, lots of weapons, lots of spectacle. It’s also a little better than that though, with an atmosphere and a narrative that are more finely crafted and, to an extent, deeper than those you normally find in games. I’m glad I played it.