I expected to hate the new Wolfenstein. I wanted to, even. The whole idea of rebooting the Nazi-killing epic for the umpteenth time disturbed me.
I don't remember where I was or what I was doing when I first learned that the Wolfenstein franchise was being brought back to life by a new Dr. Frankenstein—this one in the form of untested Swedish studio MachineGames. But I know exactly what passed through my mind once the information settled in.
"Dear god," I thought, "another Wolfenstein game? Another game about killing Nazis? Another ridiculous attempt at mass entertainment that pulls us further down the rabbit hole of dealing with human suffering and oppression by shooting it in the face? Another excuse to absolve our collective guilt and continued misapprehension about the Holocaust by slaughtering digitized representations of The Third Reich?"
Ok, so maybe I got a little carried away. More than a little. But I stand by the sentiment in theory if not in practice anymore.
Let me explain.
I was born in 1989. This puts me right in the age group for which id Software's 1992 classic Wolfenstein 3D stirs no deep emotions. Doom, the landmark shooter that id released the following year, triggers no feelings of nostalgia either.
Both games are profoundly influential, of course. But while I appreciate that in some intellectual sense, the first major shooter that tugs at my heartstrings is Quake, the company's 1996 classic that made the giant leap into fully rendered 3D environments.
Playing Quake was my train coming at you moment. After seeing bodies burst into chunks of flesh moments after I tapped my dad's keyboard to fire a rocket, I didn't want to do anything else. Though Wolfenstein and Doom were just a few years behind Quake, they seemed insufferably outdated in comparison. Playing them was like trying to sit through Metropolis after I'd already caught a glimpse of Terminator.
Wolfenstein's persistent ability to coax talented developers into rehashing the game over and over again has always confused me, therefore. In terms of World War II-themed shooters, I always preferred Call of Duty and Medal of Honor for the way they captured a Saving Private Ryan vibe. Wolfenstein's campy approach to a similar subject just seemed odd.
As I matured and continued to play more video games, curiosity gave way to boredom. Killing Nazis of all shapes and sizes started to seem like a mundane testament to the game industry's lack of ambition.
Eventually, it started to offend me. After making countless Hoorah-type action movies about crushing the Nazi threat, filmmakers had slowly but surely shifted towards more complex and disturbing inquiries into the horrors of the Second World War. The same thing happened in literature and the fine arts. Couldn't video games do the same thing?
Apparently not—at least in any major way. Instead, action movies featuring ass kicking, Nazi-killing Jews like Inglourious Basterds and Defiance started to pop up, suggesting that Hollywood had grown tired of the pathos of Schindler's List-style Oscar bait and wanted to give the Wolfenstein approach a go.
That's not a bad thing necessarily. But I'm a Jew who lost a portion of my family to the Holocaust. Video games' continued inability to give any voice to the Jewish experience has begun to frustrate me. The fact that Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo just barely got Wolfenstein's creators to admit that iconic protagonist BJ Blazkowicz was "of Jewish descent" didn't make me feel any better. And the overwhelming Übermensch vibe that MachineGames gave off in an extended profile prior to Wolfenstein's latest release felt a bit, well, scary.
I've killed enough virtual Nazis, I thought. Maybe, just maybe, I wanted a chance to talk to those Nazis instead. Hear their side of the story. Their hopes and dreams, the horrors they were subjected to as well.
This is all the baggage that was piling up in my head when I got my hands on the case for Wolfenstein: The New Order that arrived at my desk the day after it came out. I glumly tore the plastic off, then texted my friend Jake who'd been hungrily pestering me about the game. I've been trying to convince Jake to get a Wii U ever since we first played Super Mario 3D World together, so his noticeable excitement over this other game reminded me of my frustration and disappointment with his hesitation.
It's not gonna be that great, I cautioned him. I had attended a preview event for the game back in February, and I left feeling disappointed by its opening passage.
I took the subway over to his apartment with my coworker Chris after work that night and watched Jake play through the same section. We cracked open beers and happily jeered at the game's ridiculousness. I cracked a smirk every time I saw him struggle to find his way around some unnecessarily confusing part of a German bunker.
Yep, this game is gonna suck, I thought. I felt vindicated.
I brought Wolfenstein: The New Order home with me. Actually, I was in the process of moving, so I brought it to my new place. The night I finally got around to unpacking with my friend George who'd come over to keep me company, one of the first things I did was unpack my PS4 and boot it up again.
There were still boxes and piles of junk everywhere, but I didn't care. Maybe it was morbid curiosity or egotism plain and simple, but I wanted to see the game fail. In turn, I wanted to be proven right.
Then, something weird happened. I got through the game's clunky opening section and watched as BJ sat helpless and paralyzed as World War II wound to a close. Spoiler alert: it didn't end in his favor. When he woke up 14 years later, he seemed like the only guy left who was ready to keep fighting.
But boy, was he ready. Once one German soldier got close enough to his wheelchair, BJ leapt at the first real chance to kill a Nazi he'd had in over a decade. He did so with a fierce passion, sinking a blunt kitchen knife into the man with palpable fervor.
Actually, BJ did none of those things. I did. I looked around hurriedly as the SS man stepped towards me. I found the knife, and I sank the knife into him. And when the Nazi was still squirming and coughing up blood, I gritted my teeth and murmured how does that feel, asshole?
Wait a second.
I lowered my controller. It fell out of my hands, clattering on the floor. George, who'd passed out on my couch, stirred and opened his eyes.
What the hell just happened?
I was supposed to be hating this game. For a while, I was. Everything was going according to plan.
Was I suddenly…having fun?
I started chattering near nonsense about how killing Nazis was suddenly making me feel things I hadn't felt in years of playing bland first-person shooters about killing Nazis.
George went back to sleep. I kept talking. Sometimes, he'd mumble in agreement. More often, he'd wake up for a moment and ask me why I couldn't get off the couch and let him spread out there for the night.
Hours passed. Well into the early hours of the morning, George gave up and wandered over to a spare mattress to flop down there instead.
I haven't finished The New Order yet, so I don't have any more fully-formed thoughts about my experience to date other than: it's been fun. "Fun" is an understatement actually. This is one of the best shooters I've played in a long time.
I find that all the more impressive every time I consider the fact that The New Order is only a single player game. Leaving out multiplayer is a gutsy decision for any studio making a blockbuster-sized shooter since it's considered so central to many of the reigning pillars of the genre like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and now Titanfall. Even if one year's Call of Duty sucks, plenty of fans (such as myself) will still gobble it up because we all know that the game's deathmatch and zombie-killing modes will still be awesome.
In comparison, Wolfenstein: The New Order put all of its eggs in one basket. A big, beautiful, Nazi-killing basket.
Enjoying Wolfenstein as much as I have been so far has left me feeling incredibly conflicted. I really wanted to think I was above killing Nazis at this point in my life. Apparently, I'm not.
One night this week, a music critic friend of mine started messaging me to ask about something related to the console wars. He grew up a Nintendo fan, but he's become increasingly disappointed by what he sees as the company's lack of innovation.
A game like Super Mario 3D World was fine, he said. But it was still "just another Mario game." It didn't feel new to him in the same way that BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us did.
I used to feel the same way, I responded. Or at least I thought I did. But then I started to play the new Wolfenstein. It didn't take me long to recognize I was having a much better time in The New Order than I did in the last BioShock.
Sure, the floating city of Columbia is a stunning spectacle unlike anything I'd ever seen before in video games. But shooting Nazis? Well, that never seems to get old—provided that it's placed in the right hands.
Maybe novelty is overrated. Maybe killing Nazis is underrated in turn. I can't decide yet. So if you don't mind, there's a German war machine buried somewhere in my PS4 that still needs destroying.