Wolfenstein: The New Order’s narrative shows a complete absence of ambition, the core motivation capable of succinct expression – topple the Nazi regime, fight back against the abundance of power won with success in World War II, a success maintained and built upon, Nazi powers extending far beyond Europe, their machinations and barbarities affecting all. Every missions revolves around achieving this end – no narrative complexity ever arises, this singleness of motivation resulting in a highly simplified experience, rarely engaging on a profound level – matters seem automated. The precise nature of the stakes does escalate – here is not the struggle of one man, but a struggle waged for the good of all – but no compelling statements are ever made. Repeated efforts at pathos are advanced, particularly in the narrative’s opening, showing the early years of Nazi dominance, centering primarily around the antagonistic Deathshead, a demented scientist warped in the pursuit of progress, engaging in barbarous acts seemingly for the good of mankind, representing the Nazi discard for morality, the embracing of corruption. Alongside his introduction is a clever moral decision – Deathshead has overwhelmed the protagonist, BJ Blazkowicz, overwhelming also his battalion of squadmates in their act of infiltration. Exercising this control and power, two of BJ’s comrades are restrained, their lives and ultimate fates placed in BJ’s hands – spare the life of one man, indirectly terminate that of another. Here, the efforts at pathos are commanding successes, the narrative engaging, though it promptly stalls after this engrossing opening; Deathshead retreats away as opposition for a considerable span, only reappearing at the conclusion, never reemerging to assert his menace, to provide the narrative with a sense of focus so desperately needed.
This clever, distressing opening establishes a central framework; upon conclusion of the moral decision, BJ is promptly incapacitated, sustaining a terrible blow to the head, a portion of shrapnel imbedded therein, limiting his mental and physical functions; in full manifestations of these limitations, BJ enters into a comatose state for a full fourteen years, confined to a psychiatric hospital in Nazi-controlled Poland. Over that span of many years, understandably the world has been altered greatly, and the act of understanding that world, coming to grips with its changed nature, is one of the game’s greatest successes – the world-building overall is a massive achievement. Seeing the bizarre majesty of Nazi monuments, towering and imposing; or marveling at their considerable technological advancement, their progresses permitting lunar colonization, or wider exploration of the depths of the ocean – something beautiful exists about their world, terrible and dark though it may be. Here are moral and intellectual paradoxes, the Nazis showing some good alongside their more widely acknowledged evil, the pace of progress quickened. The people of the moment may suffer, but their progeny may actually experience incalculable benefit. It is an interesting, unique portrayal, though repeated other depictions are made to advance the Nazi’s more conventional darkness, as when a prison camp is explored, tortures witnessed, acts of commanding inhumanity also laid bare. The developers have certainly succeeded in making villainous the villains, but their successes at making them creatures worthy of warped admiration mark an even greater triumph.
The game shows considerable environmental variation, illustrating the wide-reaching nature of Nazi power. Everything here is intimate, creativity embraced to the last. Rather than merely reading about a lunar base, the game makes the bold decision to actually make explorable that base – here, in the environments, is no mundanity. In this instance, BJ is actually fitted with a space-suit, navigating various claustrophobic laboratories before promptly venturing out to the lunar surface proper, moving about in its naturally lowered gravity, altering jump height and movement speed. Despite this abundance of creativity, the experience here is rather hollow – the act of exploration itself lasts but a few scant minutes, and the entire experience serves as one mere exaggerated set-piece, which the game does abound it, for better or worse. In a similar manner, scientific labs isolated in the vey depth of the ocean are explored, advanced breathing apparatus used to permit such exploration in those oxygen-deprived regions. In a more grounded, personally more compelling moment, a towering structure in the heart of London is alternately ascended and descended, beautiful snow flakes flying about in the wind, signs of immense cold visible in the air and on the environments, while an expansive draw distance conveys the true largeness of the world; highly atmospheric, here is another success, though the greatest successes stem from the great environmental variation. Alongside the more exotic locales of the moon and the bottoms of the ocean, more human environments are also frequented, like the psychiatric hospital of Poland, blinding white and almost sanitized aesthetically. The precise magnitude of this variation makes each environment uniquely and individually engrossing, staving off the repetitious; the narrative may falter, but the milieu for its transpiring is consistently engaging.
Excellent technical presentation elevates environmental beauty, while this excellence extends also to the character modelling. BJ’s model is singularly compelling, with beautiful, blinding blue eyes and a square, muscular, defined jaw – he is likable, his appearance reflecting his internal resolve, while his voice acting only furthers his likability. Occasionally, he will mutter to himself, musing on the matters before him, showing a fair degree of depth, desirous solely of finding a peaceful life for himself, of eradicating the Nazis who serve as obstacle to that tranquil existence. The cast of characters is very large, and gradually swells as the narrative progresses onward, BJ supported by an entire resistance movement headquartered in the heart of Berlin. Most central to the narrative, though, is the beautiful Anya, nurse to BJ while confined to that hospital in the eerie Polish gloom. As a character, she is abounding in sincerity and affection, also desperate to end Nazi tyranny and assist BJ in wherever life – or his mission – should lead him. Their relationship is compelling – if rather illogical. Having spent a full fourteen years together, certainly some intimacy would develop between them, though how that intimacy manifests itself is rather odd. BJ is incapable of speaking or walking, yet somehow, he wins the devoted attractions of Anya, never having once heard his voice? It all seems rather forced, for though they have spent such considerable time together, on a profounder level, they remain essentially strangers. But she supports him, and he would do anything to support her. Therein lies the secondary motivation, the establishment of a peaceful existence, not solely for BJ but for the woman whom he cherishes above all things, for the children he hopes they will one day produce together.
Wolfenstein’s gameplay sometimes soars and sometimes sinks, often in unexpected ways. Weapon variety is greatly lacking, the arsenal comprised solely of a pistol, a shotgun, an assault rifle, and a marksman rifle, with a more exotic – and highly useful – weapon rounding out the cast – an energy weapon, central to combat and the game’s basic efforts at puzzle solving. All of these weapons, save for the last, can be dual wielded, seemingly enhancing combat efficiency and overall power. In principle, this is true – wielding two automatic shotguns, each weapon chambered with twenty shots, would equate to swift and total success, the opposition decimated when at close range. In practice, though, this is rarely the case – an increase in sheer damage output does not equate with combat success. Playing on a harder difficulty setting, the game can be highly punishing – attempting to merely trade blows with an enemy, to pepper them with shotgun fire while they engage in the same; attempt such an engagement and victory is totally and completely elusive, no matter the degree of player skill. Accordingly, a highly cautious approach to gameplay emerges, cover used and exploited often. The formula of aggressiveness which is supposedly enhanced by the dual-wielding mechanic becomes irrelevant, useless, resulting in a noticeably slower pacing, a slowness which is only exacerbated by the frequently immense quantity of enemy health, the armored enemies possessing frustratingly enlarged health meters, capable of sustaining an entire two or three assault rifle magazines before finally dropping. These enemies can endure countless bullets – but BJ can endure but a few? An immense imbalance is in place, and a game which is seemingly characterized by fastness of gameplay is in actuality of a slower sort. The lack of tactical freedoms arising from low weapon diversity also lowers gameplay successes somewhat, even as alternate fire modes for the weapons are gradually unlocked as the campaign progresses, as when the assault rifle is affixed with a rocket-launching function. Everything here is competent – competent but uninspired. The game is characterized by a brutal difficulty curve, the odds seemingly insurmountable. Triumphing in these engagements is immensely satisfying, but if the game were a bit more forgiving, if it embraced the power fantasy tropes it seemingly aspires towards, gameplay would be elevated, a more unique identity achieved.
In efforts to break up the monotony of gunplay, numerous stealth sections are spread throughout the campaign. While of a basic, uninvolved sort, their inclusion is welcome, as they do serve as break from the bombastic, the cheap enemies, with their massive damage output, their massive damage resistance. Here, in the shadows, is fair and total equality. Principally, detection and evasion are determined by line-of-sight; sound production seemingly factors into the equation, but only just. If the enemies are cheap in combat, they are wildly oblivious in stealth, evasion maintained even as logic says presence should be compromised – they can cast a prolonged gaze on BJ, and still not enter into alert. Here, the sense of power fantasy is actually evoked, manifest in the violent takedown animations, the player plunging their blade into the unaware Nazis. Reflecting the basicness, though, relatively few options are here offered – the mentioned takedowns are obligatorily included, while additional knives can be thrown at distant enemies for silent incapacitation. A silenced pistol provides some flexibilities, too. Seemingly worthless in open combat, this weapon takes on a life of its own in these sections, and the A.I. is programmed believably, rather than cheaply; in certain games, like those of the Far Cry series, the silenced nature of a pistol seems to matter now, the enemies impossibly alerted even as logically they should remain unaware. Here, the gun works as it ought to. These stealth mechanics are encouraged most strongly with the periodic introduction of certain high-ranking soldiers, capable or summoning reinforcements by way of a personal radio. The quantity of this opposition is often immense – their dispatch, then, becomes a dire priority. In efforts at accessibility, a meter is in place, reflecting their proximity to the player. Finally besting these foes, direct combat can safely be engaged in. Basic though these systems may be, they do serve to break up the tedium of gameplay, to inject variety into a game which often shows itself as being tired.
A compelling if similarly basic progression system is also in place, included seemingly because such inclusions are now expected. There are the mentioned weapon improvements, the most dramatic belonging to the energy weapon acquired toward the beginning of the narrative. Initially of a weak, meagre sort, it can eventually fire automatically, while, in the late game, it becomes fashioned with a scope, and can literally disintegrate the opposition, reducing them to ash. But going beyond this weapon, the progression systems are presented most strongly in a skill tree system, subdivided into four distinct branches, one centering on explosive kills, another geared towards stealth, while a third tree focuses on dual-wielding, and the fourth is of a more general sort. But rather than needlessly forcing in an experience system, progression is directly tied to the completion of certain challenges – takedown a predefined number of enemies with a throwing knife, and the carrying capacity for that weapon type will be increased. It is all very logical and unintrusive. Many of these abilities, though, are lackluster and unimaginative. Alongside expanded throwing knife capacity, grenade capacity can also be increased, while the magazine size of a pistol can also be expanded; these are but a few examples of many, though they are almost all linked in that unimaginative quality. Some instances of creativity are present – performing a stealth takedown will regenerate health, for instance – and they require more creative means to unlock, encouraging experimentation, an adoption of approaches which would otherwise go neglected. But their presence only serves to emphasize the mundanity of many of the skills, the unexciting way in which they are acquired. Still, these progression systems do impart some degree of depth, providing something wider to work towards – some new reward exists always just around the corner, a tantalizing prospect, while the experimentation they facilitate also serves to liven up the gameplay.
Wolfenstein: The New Order’s greatest failing is tied to the basicness of its narrative, never going anywhere or increasing in complexity – topple Nazi dominance; that is the objective from the first to the last. Some tentative efforts at depth are made, with the inclusion of a sort of revenge tale, Deathshead presented as ultimate antagonist, seeming embodiment of Nazi excess and moral distortions, eager and willing to kill and torture whoever should fall in his way – like BJ’s friends and brothers in arms. As figure, though, he never shows real depth, serving as antagonist because fiction needs visible antagonists; he is of a generic sort, fitting in neatly with the mad scientist trope, warped and distorted by an intellectual mind and a proclivity for violence, though undercurrents of brain-washing are apparent, Deathshead devolving into madness because all around him the world was madness. Here, with this world-building, the game shows its greatest strength. These vast European landscapes and cityscapes, these sublunar laboratories, these facilities at the bottom of the ocean – these are wonderful things, a unique sort of world portrayed perfectly, the attention to detail immense, both realistic and creative. A world bizarrely beautiful in its grandeur and scope is here presented, both dark and light. Deathshead may be generic and uninspired, but the movement he is part of, the things they have and will accomplish, are fascinating, the game treating Nazism maturely. Ending in a fairly conventional fashion, Deathshead is vanquished, though true resolution seems elusive – he is defeated, but the Nazis still exist in full force; one man has been killed when behind him exist an entire army. Relative bleakness here shows itself. The journey can feel needlessly long, the game often growing tiresome, even as the involved nature of the gunplay demands constant attention. The mechanics, meanwhile, are solid – guns feel weighty, stealth is suitably visceral, and the cutscenes are of a highly stylized sort. But whether shooting or stabling, exploring the moon or the vast oceans, the game remains consistently enjoyable to play – enjoyable but unremarkable. Excellent world-building and atmospheric environments impart some commanding uniqueness, but more often than not, Wolfenstein suffers because it has failed to achieve a totally unique identity.