Wolfenstein: The New Order

Ah, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. In a vacuum, it would look pretty normal as 20th century political movements went. To a nation ravaged by war, it would make sense to adopt a fiercely xenophobic and expansionist attitude, to reclaim the land that once had been theirs in the mists of history (That’s where “Third Reich” comes from – the first was Rome, and the second was the less powerful and vestigial Holy Roman Empire largely consolidated in Crusade-era Germany). And given the similar outlook Mussolini and Franco had had at the time, it’s easy to see why the two would join forces with the Germans, and why the initial passive ideal of lebensraum (living space) would largely be forgotten as the ideological pressure built up around the “Rome-Berlin Axis”.

But if there’s anything that shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum it’s history, even history that’s so been so exaggerated and mythologized by Euro-American culture. The frothing sea of Nazism that spilled over the sides of Germany into Belgium and Poland like the head of a stein of beer was an entirely different sort of beast to that relatively normal political movement. With America ravaged by depression and Europe by a cat’s cradle of treaties and agreements left over from the end of the last war, the Nazis were something to unite everyone in hatred, and were probably among the last things that could ever be treated that way in an increasingly fragmented and free-speaking world.

Fast forward seventy years of Nazis as universal betes noir (Man! Using a lot of foreign talk today!) and we have Wolfenstein: The New Order, a video game about how Nazis are evil and should all die. The game is definitely a product of its time, in that it feels like a reaction to Nazis being universally acceptable and recognizable bad guys. Its sensibilities remind me of Law and Order: Criminal Intent by way of Inglorious Basterds, where we really get in the headspace of not just Nazi commanders or brave Yankees fighting then but the entire environment that might be created by unfettered National Socialism, with a particular emphasis on the human element of both sides.

Pictured: Human elements

I like this so much because it’s a world that could only be brought across in a video game, because the necessary breaks from reality that allows for the gameplay exist in a logical world perfectly complements the stylized approach necessary for all this Nazi business to work, and the sense of agency and interaction with the world supports the narrative.

But you’d be forgiven for not quite getting that from the beginning, which feels like what would happen if Call of Duty gave up its timeline-hopping pretensions, just threw in the towel and made more World War II games. You’re in a plane which is attacking some ill-defined European beach. Everything’s disorienting, loud and utterly generic, right down to the gruff, British commander yammering a tutorial in your ear, which ends when your plane crashes and everyone survives.

As you go on, though, this dishwater-dull opening starts to feel purposeful. You shoot and stab your way through sewers and Nazi encampments and turret guns and rubble-filled corridors, with your rifles and guns and melee takedowns…but as you do, things gradually start to liven up. The soldiers all have little plasma globes on their heads which both serve as instant visual indicators of their health level and hint at the existence of some kind of Nazi super-science. (Good job on melding story and gameplay there!) Of course, this hint doesn’t take a lot of time to pay off, as we’re soon savaged by a Nazi robot T-Rex:

Apparently, at the time no complete T-Rex skeleton had ever been found, and so they were assumed to have much smaller heads and stand upright like other dinosaurs did…but this is Nazi super-science, so I suppose that includes Nazi super-paleontology.

Between these frisky critters, some skyscraper-sized death robots, and the addition of map screens and non-linear paths, things start getting interesting, but this opening still has a major problem in that it doesn’t have any real contextual foundation. The gruff British guy in our ear tells that we are “Captain Blazkowicz”, we get a caption saying we’re attacking a German beach in 1945, and that’s about it.

I’ll fill you all in: Captain Blazkowicz is a special agent for the army, specializing in infiltrations into top-secret enemy bases like the Prussian relic of Schloss Wolfenstein that gives the series its title. In keeping with the heightened, propaganda poster come to life feel that most of the game will have, he’s got a frankly cartoonish jawline to complement his grizzled good looks…

I haven’t played the last game, but apparently it was about magic, so I’ll assume he blocks a growth spell with his jawbone at some point.

…and an arch-enemy and polar opposite in the Nazi army’s chief super-scientist, General Totenkopf. Totenkopf doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as he deserves, with an instantly memorable appearance and a cheerfully sadistic performance by Dwight Schultz, one of the all-time great chameleons.

But this makes sense, as this is a very personal epic about the life of Captain Blazkowicz, so a  guy this powerful and cartoonishly evil can’t be a direct part of that life for very long. And so most of the battle is spent fighting through a creepy old castle like this was a Universal Monster movie (by the way, they’ve already started working on the idea that just popped into your head).

General Totenkopf. Doesn’t he look like a happy fella?

The creepy old castle shows off how amazing the environment design in this game is. Sure, everything has lots and lots of detail, but so does every big release these days, this doesn’t just have some stellar art direction but some narrative weight to it. You can tell that they created the story first and the art design afterwards, so every single tiny piece of world-building makes sense in its own little context, a detail which far too many games these days ignore. Newspaper clippings and letters only appear in places where you’d actually expect people to put newspaper clippings and letters. Propaganda posters only appear in public places where people are expected to look at them, not in places that are supposed to be homes or slums.  Set dressing like crates and barrels only appear in storage areas, and are replaced by shelves and tables in more everyday spaces. The world doesn’t just look real, it feels real.

Part of this, of course, is the fact that things break when you shoot them. If you’re unfamiliar with video games this might not sound very important, but things breaking when you shoot them requires an obscene amount of computer power and design time, and to have it function so intuitively and seamlessly in combat is an unsung miracle of design on every level. It’s Red Faction-style destruction physics scaled back to a sensible form, and I hope it becomes standard for every action game real soon now. If we can do it, we definitely should.

Speaking of that philosophy, evil Nazi super-science! General Totenkopf captures you and all the rest of your British commander’s squad, and gruesomely murders one of them in front of the rest as he talks about the Master Race to your squad. There’s an interesting experimental concept here, where you have to decide who lives and who dies, but it doesn’t have any real effect on the sweep of the story, especially since right after you do Gen. Totenkopf blows everyone else up and the real story starts (Yeah, only now – don’t worry, I’ll speed up from here.)

Captain Blazkowicz ends up in a hospital and coma, in his ancestral homeland of Poland. At least I think it’s his ancestral homeland – “Blazkowicz” isn’t a common name. He narrates his long sojourn in a gruff, Midwestern accented whisper, so it’s really anyone’s guess. By the way, Captain (May I call you captain? As a guy with a weird last name myself, I feel completely justified using this one as little as possible), I know you want to sound as much like a tortured badass as you possibly can, but the whispering only really makes you hard to hear. There’s an excellent detail where he verbally reacts if the player makes him look at certain things, but it’ll be completely lost on most people since he’s so quiet and not subtitled.

When the Captain wakes up from the coma, it’s to the sounds of some Nazis being evil. There’s a bit of a slower approach to gameplay than usual, using his coma-addled timescape to show how the Nazi turns from a normal guy following orders into a joyfully psychopathic monster, eventually shooting some disabled people because he has an excuse to. The Captain fights murder with murder, and escapes the hospital to find that it’s fifteen years later – the early Sixties – and the Nazis have taken over the world.

You know, the plot device of “The hero is indisposed for a long while, and when he finally gets all his shit together bad guys have taken over the world” is strangely popular in action games. I’m almost positive Half-Life 2 did it first, but it probably would have become popular anyway because of how perfectly it seems suited to games as a narrative medium: You get to have a sense of continuity with the world and characters even where none has existed before, you have a reason for the player to be alienated in their environment, and you have an opportunity to create that environment basically from scratch while still giving it a sense of haunting familiarity that lets you use real locations to design it.

The only examples of this in an outside medium that I recall would be 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead – which is now a video game anyway – and Captain America, in both the comic books and the much more interesting films. Now, I know I don’t have an audience for these little rambles, but sometimes I like to pretend I do, and in my mind my imaginary audience is wondering why I didn’t review the latest and definitely greatest of those films, The Winter Soldier.

Review: I honestly think the entire movie was worth it for the sudden twist of the evil Nazi mad scientist pulling everyone’s strings.

The actual reason is there’s not a lot of fresh insight or new perspectives that a year’s wait has brought to the film. It was pretty darn good then and it’s just the same pretty darn good now – and all the good stuff was right there on the surface (and I didn’t have many jokes I could write about that). But another and more salient reason is that The New Order has pretty much the same plotline as The Winter Soldier, and I think ends up being the better work of art because of its world feels more like future-Nazis should be in it than The Winter Soldier does. They’re both good, but I think this big-jawed, blonde, all-American WWII veteran with the rank of captain, who sleeps through the end of the war and awakes later to find the world taken over by future Nazis, edges out the other one.

…Blazkowicz > America, in case you couldn’t tell. You see what I mean about the identical premise?

So the Captain rescues one nurse from the insane asylum, who goes to her grandparents’ house. The house and its residents are well-defined, as is the story around them, meaning there’s that backbone I talked about earlier as the Captain decides that there’s really nothing for him to do but try to revive the long-dead pockets of resistance. He kills his way through some checkpoints, complete with giant robots that serve as the boss monsters, to get to Berlin.

The robots look formidable, but even Nazi super science hasn’t advanced beyond giant glowing weak point technology.

This game is a globetrotting adventure, but I feel the central location of Berlin has been curiously de-emphasized. We see some of it, and it looks appropriately soulless and mechanized, but we never get a sense of it as a place other than the Captain grimly muttering about the array of skyscrapers under his breath. Instead, we go straight to Resistance headquarters.

You can tell that this location was the big, tent-pole art showcase, even in a game where the environments are already so exhaustively well-designed, so these can be downright jaw-dropping sometimes. Literally every square inch of the little place has been injected with instantly recognizable and memorable bit of set dressing or world-building, and all of it is designed to service either the world or the many, nuanced characters who have been living there for more than a decade. Just walking around is breathtaking. It doesn’t just feel like a place where people live – it looks like a place you might not even mind living, even with the Nazis.

Case in point – the next mission is a raid on a Nazi research center-cum-science museum. We find that by 1960,  thanks to the genius of General Totenkopf, the Nazi subjects have a moon base, rudimentary AI, command-line computers, cathode-ray TVs and even stealth bombers. That last one is particularly important, since you commandeer the prototype one and take it back to your HQ in the sewers of Berlin just because you can. While you’re there, you also discover a few hints as to some kind of secret cabal that are the real driving force between all of Totenkopf’s innovations. Because of reasons, the best way to investigate this is for the Captain to be captured intentionally, Joker-style, and sent to a concentration camp.

You see, this is the strength of the story. The actual plot is just basically a sightseeing tour – the Universal Studios Man In The High Castle ride, if you will. But because there’s a foundation of characters we know and care about who are along for that ride, it feels like a much more coherent and unified story than it actually is. The main characters of the game are the nurse from your hospital, who has a pretty obvious thing going on with you that’s quite well developed as video game romances go; the older, grouchy OSS veteran who runs the resistance by basically being its pushy and teasing mother; one (1) Nazi who realized how evil he was, and in the way of bad guys we have a married couple of Nazis who are blissfully unaware of how evil they are.

We first meet the couple in Berlin, where their creepy and predatory wedded bliss serves to introduce the story’s main thread that Nazism brings out the worst in people and the best in those fighting it. The next time you see them, it transpires that they also run the concentration camp you have to infiltrate for reasons. The chief reason, in fact, is being able to hear their increasing anguish as you liberate the camp out from under them until finally getting a patently out-of-place giant robot to gruesomely torture them.

I have a sick urge to show this to an actual Holocaust survivor.

The other main reason to go to the camp is that some kind of Yiddishkeit super-genius has been hiding there for decades. The captain extricates him from the camp and finds out that he was a member of a secret Jewish cabal of deeply religious scientists and inventors, who created all of Totenkopf’s inventions and many more, all in the name of the Almighty.

The unspoken joke of this entire sojourn, where the Captain commandeers a beautifully-designed Nazi nuclear sub and drives it to the super-genius’ ancient, mystical grotto filled with magic-looking devices, is that the Nazis as depicted here are both completely evil and completely justified. The Jews were secretly controlling everything, and wiping them out root and branch really did save the world from their influence!

It’s treated exactly tongue-in-cheek enough to casually slip the narrative by, but it does sort of bother me that so little attention gets treated to this major recontextualization of everything our omnipresent bad guys have been doing for the entire game. But since it does, let’s take a look at that submarine-commandeering sequence and talk about another super-genius to the bristly Jewish one – the gameplay.

The New Order is very obviously made by fans of first-person shooters, for fans of first-person shooters. There are all sorts of little gameplay tweaks very obviously designed to address long-standing frustrations with the genre – you can pick up more health if you’re already full up. The little trinkets you can find while exploring each have a benefit on their own, instead of only doing anything if you collect them all. The menial upgrade system works pretty intuitively and doesn’t require a lot of thought at all. There are still a couple of kinks that could have been ironed out, but overall it’s one of the most slickly designed shooters in ages.

The story, though, gets a bit more unwieldy as it goes on. You take one of the mysterious devices from the ancient mystical grotto, and the Yiddish guy essentially tells you “Just put this somewhere near the most impressive Nazi thing you can find”. You go to the strangely modern-looking bridge across the Strait of Gibraltar – which is actually quite impressive for the year 1960, a year where, in the real world, Eisenhower was in office, no one cared what cigarettes would do to you, and black people had to drink from different water fountains in large parts of the US.

Anyway, the Nazi bridge. You put the little magic gadget near it, and it just rips it apart:

Take that, fascism!

Of course, you then have to fight your way across it, which can be a bit annoying on the several occasions you have to take long and perilous detours. It’s worth it, though – when you get to the other side, you’re on the moon!

No, really, you go straight to the moon. There’s some excuse, like one of the guys who you broke apart on the bridge was an astronaut and you needed to impersonate him so you can find some critical information on General Totenkopf which they only have on the moon, but the real reason is so the Captain can finally have the whole time jump deal start really getting to him, when he realizes what a big deal it is that he’s walking on the moon. It’s an understated and powerful moment, that continues to resonate even after the Captain sucks it up and starts murdering the Moon Nazis which one will naturally find when on a Nazi moon base.

The design of the Moon Nazis needs more credit, because if there was anything you could just half-ass on an execution level and have no one care it would be Moon Nazis.

After a while of that – including a particularly memorable sequence where you have to walk on the lunar surface in nothing but a suit, where things get sort of Dead Space for a few minutes – the next mission is a blazing climax as you escape from the Nazi space program headquarters, making your way down the scaffolding and repair work of that Nazi science museum you blew up earlier. I like how they use this opportunity to show us the repercussions of what we’ve done earlier and use the opportunity to broaden the gameplay – because last time you were there you blew up most of the floors, a lot of fighting is done across multiple levels, with interesting things being done with fallen planks, ladders and collapsing piles of bricks.

Again, this is why the thing is so good – the future Nazis is a good hook, but it’s not used as the be-all and end-all of why the game is good. On the nuts and bolts level the only major connection between the story and the gameplay is the upbeat, breezy and brutal romp of a tone, so the environmental design can do all that legwork in connecting the two and get the spotlight it deserves.

Once you fight your way to the bottom of Nazi Cape Canaveral, you have to fight the big final giant robot, which is shown to be comparable in size to Big Ben, which in in the background as you fight. No, not Benedict Cumberbatch, the actual Elizabeth Clock Tower in London, England. Just in case there was any confusion about that.

Starting to feel a little boy-who-cried-wolf here. My mean nicknames are coming back to haunt me!

You narrowly escape the Big Ben Bot (which I think is called the London Eye, despite that not being a very good joke) and run away to Resistance HQ, which is under attack. This was sort of inevitable since this is a video game, but there’s definitely more pathos to be gotten out of your home base under attack than there is in quite a few other places, given the investment they’ve gone so far to make sure you’ve put into it. Even the married couple of bad guys is there, to get in on the action and get you really riled up to murder them.

So, bidding all the Captain’s friends a tearful goodbye, you infiltrate General Totenkopf’s base just like you did at the beginning, only this time you’re fighting robots instead of old soldiers. You blast, stab, shoot and gut your way through the pristine halls, with Totenkopf himself constantly yammering about how horrible this makes you as video game bad guys are wont to do in final levels.

Eventually, after a thrilling final confrontation with the evil married couple, you confront Totenkopf, who protects himself by throwing a big switch, labeled “SIMILARITY TO CAPTAIN AMERICA THE WINTER SOLDIER”. In this case, he basically brings out The Winter Soldier himself – an old fallen ally of the Captain’s from his WWII days, who was put in Nazi cryopreservation and turned into an evil cyborg, but manages to break his programming enough to allow the Captain to take him out of the fight. In this one, it’s whichever of the two dudes at the beginning you murdered, although there’s pretty much no difference which since they could only be bothered to make one evil robot and they’re just poured inside like beef stew in a death-ray-equipped can anyway.

Really boring design for the Winter Soldier-bot, in contrast to most of the rest of the baddies here.

Once you put them out of their misery – so much for a possible appearance in Wolfenstein: Civil War, where Captain Blazkowicz becomes political rivals with Gordon Freeman – Totenkopf gets in a much better-looking mech suit and has an explosive and climactic final battle. For some reason it’s reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver in a power loader than anything WWII-related, but I suppose they wanted to go above and beyond to cap the game off.

As the mournful music tells us all that the American dream rules and Nazism drools, the story reaches its bittersweet end. It works in context, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense after a dozen-odd hours of joyfully brutal Nazi murder, where even the brutal concentration camp has giant fire-breathing robots. It’s probably a symptom of that just-make-up-cool-places-and-stick-em-together gameplay design, but again, the consistent characters make it work because they stay consistent throughout the serious and silly moments alike.

Maybe more games should be this way – a runtime measured in hours instead of minutes gives a story an opportunity to have all kinds of discordant emotions if it links them together well enough, which is generally the right way to go since video game stories have to really go all out to get people to pay attention over all the killing bad guys.

Like I say, Nazis are the quintessential hate targets of the modern age, but in the world of video games that puts them on a curiously equal footing to the humble first-person shooter that the original Wolfenstein fundamentally linked them to. They’re old standbys, perfectly functional but unremarkable, and the good ones only reach the annals of history by doing interesting things with those standbys, using them as a canvas to make new art.

And by those standards, it’s clear that Wolfenstein:The New Order is essentially a tribute piece – a big, expensive, fun and technically brilliant one, with people at the top of their game celebrating what got them into that game in the first place.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: The environments, destroying those environments

THUMBS UP: The characters and gameplay

THUMBS DOWN: The haphazard narrative

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The even more haphazard connection between levels

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