Wolfenstein: The New Order, three years later: a sleeper classic

Bethesda recently announced that they'll be releasing a sequel to their acclaimed reboot of the Wolfenstein franchise, The New Order (and its expansion, The Old Blood). Entitled The New Colossus, the sequel will pick up several years after the events of the first game and looks to have all the elements that made the reboot such a success:

With the sequel on the way, it seemed like a good time for me to revisit the first game, which had been a favorite of mine when I played it back in 2015.

The New Order fully embraces the absurdity of the franchise, which kicked off way back in 1992 with Castle Wolfenstein 3D and featured a cybernetic Hitler as the final boss. There are giant Nazi mechs, giant Nazi robot dogs, and of course a robust supply of foot soldiers waiting to be blown to bits by a fantastical arsenal full of hyper-powered shotguns and laser beams. Is there a Nazi moon base? Fuck yes there's a Nazi moon base.

Developer Machine Games could have stopped at Nazi moon bases and had a really fun game, perhaps one that recalls over the top shooters like Serious Sam. In truth, that's all the previous games in the franchise aspired to be, and likely all that anyone really expected out of the reboot. But to their credit, they decided to try something new: storytelling. Like, really damn good storytelling.

While the gameplay is a delightfully absurd cornucopia of comic-book violence (interspersed with quieter but no less absurd stealth sequences), the themes, characters, and storytelling are done with a nuanced maturity that makes that absurd violence feel all the more cathartic when it arrives. The game doesn't pussyfoot around the oppressiveness of Nazi fascism, giving us characters whose plights are believable and a world that, despite its disregard for laws of physics, feels eerily possible.

In one sequence, I (as protagonist BJ Blazkowicz) was trudging through a sewer system on a relatively mundane mission. Muffled voices could be heard; some of Nazi guards, some of citizens on the streets or in their homes. One woman spoke of being awoken the night before by commotion outside; Nazi soldiers were talking with her neighbor, one of whom was a woman sobbing, holding an infant. The next day, the woman goes on to say, the family next door was gone. Just gone.

Newspaper clippings can be found throughout the game, riddled with Nazi propaganda of the bold new world Hitler is creating. Meanwhile, disabled people and anyone not fitting the Aryan description are in hiding, in forced labor camps, or being rounded up for execution. In one early sequence, Nazi soldiers periodically visit a hospital to round up patients for some unspecified purpose. When the supply of bodies runs dry, the hospital is shut down and the remaining staff and patients executed. In the Belica forced labor camp, prisoners are herded like cattle and forced to do monotonous, arduous tasks under threat of torture or execution, while they are housed in fly-infested filth.

Throughout the game, Blazkowicz is beaten, mocked, and humiliated. The need for violent catharsis builds and builds as the villainy of the Reich becomes ever more palpable and, for Blazkowicz, personal. When that catharsis arrives in the form of giant weapons and robotically enhanced Nazis, every exploding Nazi corpse feels satisfying in a way that it simply couldn't had the game left the narrative in the backdrop, as it had in the franchise's previous entries. Most first-person shooters view wartime backdrops as little more than excuses to blow stuff up, usually while they shoehorn in cliched military-bro characters. The New Order was different: it gave us characters we could believe in and a cause worth fighting for. And did I mention there's a Nazi moon base? 


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