I’d been going through a dry patch when this came along. No game seemed to quite have that special spark to make me want to commit to it. So I didn’t commit to anything, and got on with some gardening instead.
Then I saw my first trailer for Wolfenstein: The New Order, and knew I was looking at the next game I was going to play.
At the time, this bullets-and-boilerplate industrial Nazi shooter just seemed to offer an easy way back in. Lots of mindless carnage and muzzle-flash, but with an interesting aesthetic. Lumbering steampunk stormtroopers and fascist robo-dogs against a brutalist alternate-1960s backdrop, and a banging rock soundtrack that probably wouldn’t be in the game anyway.
The New Order didn’t disappoint, but it did confound my expectations.
The carnage was mindless, I’ll give you that. I’d say that you hit the ground running, except that actually you hit the fuselage running, because you haven’t even set foot on the ground before you’ve jumped out of a plane over the North Atlantic to land on another goddamn plane. Explosions! Giant robots! More explosions! If the whole game had been set in the bullet-filled, castle-storming world of that prologue, I would have had a perfectly good time.
Yet already there were hints of something a little more interesting going on. Did you notice that when Fergus saved you from slipping off the plane, the game seemed to linger for a moment on the act of him and Wyatt hauling you up to safety? Did you notice how that action was then oddly repeated at certain points in the game?
Leitmotiv—such a lovely German word, don’t you think?
BJ was different too. No longer the emotionless, soulless killing machine of previous games, he expressed regret for a life unlived, compassion for fallen comrades. In a calculated up-yours to continuity, he didn’t even look like the dark-haired BJ of the last Wolfenstein. MachineGames went right back to the fair-haired, implausibly square-headed BJ of the original—and made him human and likeable. He’s the big, corn-fed college quarterback you want on your side, who takes the time to teach the panicking new recruit a trick to control his fear. “Inhale, count to four, exhale. All there is to it.” When was the last time you saw a tough-guy protagonist in a shooter who was human enough to even need a way to control his fear, let alone admit to it? “Inhale, count to four,” of course, becomes another recurring phrase.
It was the little touches I noticed most. The cheery crooked grin on the face of cliched Nazi supervillain General Deathshead. The old boy’s so upbeat, so amused by life! Right now, he’s amused because you’ve somehow managed to break into his impregnable castle only to lock yourself in his giant trash compactor. “What are you people doing in there?”
Wolfenstein: The New Order, it turns out, is going to have fun with the format. It’s going to be smarter, more inventive and sillier with the franchise than it even occurred to any previous developer to be. Not Raven, not Splash Damage. Certainly not id Software. You’re going to watch the best part of fifteen years pass in a single time-lapse panning shot across a sanitorium day-room, because the developers thought that would be a cool thing to do. Later a uniformed harridan will show you some photographs on a train, and you’ll fly to the moon.
I’m not holding The New Order up as some kind of Academy Award eligible masterpiece here. BJ’s internal monologues are pretty risible. But equally, don’t let that blind you to what MachineGames have achieved. Even to consider giving an inner life to a man whose name is essentially Blowjob McBlastobits is an act of sheer game development heroism.
In Wolfenstein, MachineGames inherited PC gaming’s oldest, most juvenile and unevolved premise: the big shooty man who kills Nazis. They had the guts and the vision to do something new with that, when everybody else played it safe. I’d love to see what they did with Duke Nukem.