Following the less consistent Heavy Rain, it was a joy to finish our playthrough of Wolfenstein: The New Order on Kotaku’s Twitch channel. While Wolfenstein might look on the surface like a mindless Nazi killing simulator, it’s actually a deeply human game.
In the beginning of The New Order, World War II is going poorly for American soldier BJ Blazkowicz. The Third Reich, armed with experimental war machines, is pushing back the Allies, and the only hope is a desperate raid to stop the mastermind behind their production. But everything goes wrong; BJ and his squad fail their mission, and he’s knocked into a coma for fourteen years. He wakes up to a world ruled by Nazis and sets out to do whatever he can to stop them. It’s a wild ride that works for many different reasons.
When I first started playing around with The New Order’s weapons, I was dismayed by their lack of focus. Pistols launch sputtering roars of bullets while assault rifles and shotguns belch death with a thunderous recoil that initially made firefights difficult to manage. In many games, this would be unacceptable. 2016’s Doom, for instance, relies on a tight core loop of combat built around responsive weaponry and melee kills. The New Order is less precise and feels ready to break apart in your hands.
However, it works. The gunplay’s ferocious and uninhibited nature meshes well with BJ Blazkowicz’s raw anger. The clumsiness feels natural for the character you’re playing. BJ is the underdog, outmatched by the sea of soldiers and armored monstrosities in his path. It is only through rough, skin of the teeth struggle that he progresses. The gunplay captures that feeling admirably, turning every gunfight into an exciting scramble to survive.
Playing The New Order after Heavy Rain showed an amazing difference in how the two games handle physical intimacy. Heavy Rain attempts to make sex feel like a physical activity through highly specific controller inputs, the result is clumsy and off putting. In The New Order, BJ’s relationship with the highly capable Ayna Oliwa is not only a natural fit for two characters trapped in an uncaring word and eager for companionship, but the sex is great as well.
Anya and BJ’s sexual encounters run the gamut from a bold first encounter to a rushed, stolen moment before a dangerous mission. These moments make sense, showing their relationship as one that ignited from an initial physical desire into something more tender. Occasional kisses and sly smiles sneak their way into cutscenes, expertly animated to express a palpable sense of longing between the two. It would be very easy for The New Order to descend into the depths of pulp pastiche with its romance. Instead, it manages to explore sex in a sensible manner for the setting.
While The New Order is full of explosions, lasers, and Nazi robo-dogs, it is also full of humanity, especially in regards to its well-rounded cast of secondary characters. The game revels in little details, turning inward to examine characters and their feelings. A tough decision at the start of the game forces the player to choose between the lives of two soldiers. In my playthrough, I saved a young soldier named Wyatt. Much later in the game, Wyatt unleashes all his pain and sorrow on BJ, raging that he was the one who should have died and lamenting how he could never become the strong leader his fellow soldiers needed. It’s rare to see a character react so painfully to a player choice. Wyatt’s sorrow is just one key moment in a sea of strong performances. When Nazis find the resistance headquarters, the bold musician J takes up his guitar to play one last song before being gunned down. Meanwhile, in another scene, Jewish scientist Set Roth watches a woman beaten to death in a prison camp, lamenting the certainty of the Nazi worldview and telling BJ that if God is testing humanity “we are failing gloriously.”
These small moments accumulate to create a game that is not just about shooting baddies and collecting armor pickups but also one deeply concerned with the ways we can resist evil and the pain that comes from that struggle. Some, like Wyatt, stand on the razor’s edge of despair. Others, like Set Roth, keep their mind and thoughts a free space the Nazis cannot reach. All these reactions are relatable and understandable, creating a cast that I came to deeply care for.
Throughout The New Order is is possible to find hidden nightmare levels that combine the game’s modern mechanics with id Software’s maps from 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D, the game often hailed as the original first person shooter. These levels are a wonderful look at game history, but they also complement BJ Blazkowicz as a character. The New Order takes place in an amalgamated universe where most of the Wolfenstein games are all broadly canonical. Diving into a nightmare mission isn’t just distraction, it’s a look into BJ’s mind. Even in a dreamworld, he can’t escape the Nazis or the war. He can’t stop killing. One of The New Order’s most remarkable achievements is turning a bog standard 90s shooter protagonist into a man with hopes and fears. The nightmare levels are a subtle piece of characterization hiding in an easter egg’s shell.
The New Order is a smart game with few noticeable flaws outside of a slow middle act. Completing it has left me excited for The New Colossus’ release in October. If it all goes well, it will continue the work started here and craft a deeply human piece of speculative fiction while letting me kill a ton of Nazis.