The Inner Sadness of a Nazi Murder Machine

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Wolfenstein: The New Order does things you wouldn't expect a Wolfenstein game to do, and is all the richer for it.
I was originally not going to play this game. While I'd enjoyed the two previous entries in the series, 2001's classic Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2009's flawed but enjoyable Wolfenstein (henceforth referred to in this review as '09), I had some...concerns over this title. I haven't particularly liked the way shooters have evolved over the past decade, and I expected The New Order to do the old two-gun locked-in-a-corridor thing everyone else does. Then the previews started coming out, and I became seriously fucking concerned. The trailers were dominated by images of vivisected prisoners, stormtroopers executing mental patients, gasmasked SS men cutting down hippies on the Champ de Mars, and soccer referees killing wounded players. Given that the Wolfenstein games have traditionally been as objectionable as an Indiana Jones movie, all this imagery seemed a trifle...gauche, to put it mildly. Feeling that this was going to be another "press 'F' to hide in mass grave" situation, I stopped paying attention.

But something funny happened. After the game was released in May, the reviews came out and the overall consensus was...positive. Very positive, even among reviewers who admitted to being predisposed to dislike the game. I read these reviews and began to wonder if the ad campaign had missold the game. Throwing caution and my bank account to the wind, I bought myself a copy for the PC (and subsequently spent even more getting a new graphics card to handle the game) and fired it up.

Now, to summarize briefly for the uninformed, the Wolfenstein games are a series of first-person shooters that have been around since first-person shooters were a thing. There have been a bunch of games, but they've all been about the same thing: the adventures of OSS agent and ridiculous manly man William "B.J." Blazkowicz as he runs around occupied Europe during the Second World War, putting a stop to Hitler's plans to win the war through occult magic and superscience by shooting many, many Nazis in the face. The series as a whole has never been terribly heavy on plot (or character, or theme, or...), but some loose continuity has developed with Return and '09. Interestingly, this continuity poses a bit of a problem for the prospective developer. Return is set entirely in 1943, while '09 is set (probably) sometime in 1944. There really isn't much WW2 left in which Blazkowicz can have new adventures, and the presence of the American military in Europe post-D-Day means that his lone-wolf days are numbered in any case. The only thing you could do with a new game would be to have a grand finale set in 1945 or go the prequel/reboot route.

Thankfully, one of the chief benefits of alternate history is that it can open doors many thought long closed.

Wolfenstein: The New Order begins in July of 1946, and things have gone seriously wrong. The Second World War still rages, and the Allies are in retreat on all fronts. Germany is in the midst of a technological revolution no one can hope to match. Manta-winged fighters prowl the skies. Giant mechanical "panzerhunds" stalk the battlefield, crushing soldiers in their jaws. The coasts are guarded by skyscraping tripodal robots armed with Tesla projectors. Victory, once a certainty, now seems hopeless.

The game opens with Blazkowicz taking part in a massive Allied air raid on the Baltic coast, a Hail-Mary operation to kill the man responsible for this dark renaissance, longtime series antagonist General Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse. Though he fights as well as ever, in the end even Blazkowicz's bravado is not enough. The raid fails, Deathshead triumphs, and Blazkowicz is put out to sea, rendered comatose by an errant chunk of shrapnel. He eventually washes up on the Polish shore and spends the next fourteen years in a private sanitarium, as the Third Reich destroys its enemies and consolidates its grip on the world. One day, in the summer of 1960, Blazkowicz's sanitarium is targeted for liquidation by the Nazi authorities, and in the nature of all action heroes, the horror is enough to push him to overcome his crippling brain damage and fight back. (And before you mention it, yes, Blazkowicz does maintain all his muscle mass despite being a permanent invalid. Just accept it.) After breaking free, Blazkowicz teams up with the remnants of the German anti-Nazi resistance and begins a riotous rampage of revengeance aimed at killing Deathshead once and for all.

It's Exploitation, But A Skilled Exploitation

If you are a longtime fan of the Wolfenstein series, it should be obvious from the first moments that The New Order has a much different tone than the earlier games. As I mentioned in my introduction, Wolfenstein is a series that has traditionally played itself as campy and pulpy, an adventure serial translated to the digital age. Previous games had you wandering through crypts shooting zombies and blowing up supersoldier cyborgs, and while the Nazi villains postured and sneered, they were more comic than anything. In TNO a lot of this camp has been excised. Mainstays of the series like the plots involving völkisch mysticism and arsenals of ridiculous energy weapons have disappeared. The closest the game gets to the supernatural is the revelation that the Nazi technological renaissance was reverse-engineered from the artifacts of an obscure Jewish sect that believed in understanding the mind of God through superscience. Even in that case, the artifacts themselves are explained in wholly materialistic terms.

At the same time, The New Order delves deeper than any previous Wolfenstein game into the historical crimes of the Third Reich. The 1946 prologue ends with some fairly graphic imagery of medical experimentation on prisoners. The regime's policies on racial and social hygiene, and the cruelty they use to enforce these policies, are a running theme throughout the game. The pinnacle (or nadir, given the subject matter) comes in the middle of the game, with a level set in a destructive labor camp servicing a concrete factory in Belica, Croatia. The level filled with the classic imagery of the camps: bent-backed prisoners shuffling down cattle lines and sleeping in their own filth, a baby dangled by the ankle by the camp commandant, emaciated bodies being shunted down into a furnace.

It is indicative of how The New Order differs from its predecessors when its antagonists are considered. Previous games had the appearance of "SS Elite Guards", squads of women commandos who ran around the battlefield wearing fetishistic leather uniforms. In TNO, those women have been replaced by Frau Irene Engel, commandant of the Belica labor camp and a professional sadist who would be quite at home in the pages of Hitler's Furies. (There's something grimly ironic about this change; the Elite Guards always seemed to draw from the pornographic Nazisploitation version of Ilse Koch made famous by movies like Ilse, She-Wolf of the SS, while Frau Engel seems to be drawn from the historical Koch). The biggest change comes to the game's primary antagonist, General Deathshead. Deathshead had made appearances in both Return and '09, and in both games he was little more a comic-opera colonel fixated on the idea of cybernetic super-soldiers and who spoke in dastardly speeches but was otherwise not that remarkable; indeed, the most memorable thing about him in Return was a letter he wrote complaining that Heinrich Himmler's plan to win the war by resurrecting an ancient Germanic warlord made no sense and how super-soldiers were a much better investment. In The New Order, Deathshead is reimagined as a figure of nightmare, a grinning ethical cripple introduced by a screeching electronic noise track, whose first act in the game is to ask a captured Blazkowicz to choose which of his two captured comrades will be vivisected. While he only appears in person at the beginning and the end of the game, Deathshead haunts the Nazified world of 1960 as both its chief architect and its avatar.

Now, thus far, these details make The New Order seem like a grim affair little resembling its predecessors. The thing is, though, is that that's not really the case. At the end of the day, TNO is still an action-packed first-person shooter, one that's often quite ridiculous and even funny in places. The story itself is bobbins; after meeting up with the resistance, Blazkowicz goes from stealing a bunch of stealth helicopters from the main Nazi spaceport/R&D center in London to hijacking the Nazi equivalent of the Red October to flying to the actual goddamn moon to steal nuclear decryption keys from a goddamn Nazi moon base. There's a few jokes sprinkled here and there, with news articles trumpeting the eclipse of fish and chips in Britain with the healthier alternative of sausage and sauerkraut. Blazkowicz himself occasionally becomes a figure of fun, fumbling with a coffee machine, meditating on the oddity of the word "buoy," and expressing his feelings regarding the Nazi moon landing.

I have seen some reviewers comment on this juxtaposition of horror and action-movie nonsense and be unsure what to make of it, speculating over some internal schism during development. Having played the game a few times myself, I would argue that the game is actually remarkably coherent in tone. It seems to me that there are two factors in play in The New Order. The first was that there was a conscious decision early on to depart from Wolfenstein's traditional depiction of the Nazis as deideologized cartoon baddies, to delve deeper into the historical actions of the regime for the purposes of emotionally involving the player in the game's story. At the same time, there was a lively understanding that, at the end of the day, they were making a Wolfenstein game. They weren't making Shoah or Come and See. The end result is a game that knows when to hold and when to fold. There is violence in the game, but it never becomes unbearable, and there is surprisingly little in the way of physical torture or mutilation. As I played through the camp level, I found myself thinking that, as hard as some of the imagery was, it could easily have been much, much worse, and that if the level had appeared in another game with the historical associations stripped out, I'm honestly not sure it would have aroused much comment.

So, overall, I've grown to think of Wolfenstein: The New Order as an exploitative piece, but a intelligent, skilled piece of exploitation that is aware of its nature and consequently knows how far to push things. The camp in TNO is a sanitized version of the historical camps, but the game understands the symbolic and metaphorical weight of this location. The action and sci-fi chicanery is pared down to the minimum, and the humor is totally absent. The level is slower paced, built around Blazkowicz interacting with the inmates and sneaking through the administrative buildings. While the level does end with Blazkowicz liberating the camp by commandeering a giant robot (as I said, this is a Wolfenstein game), even that does not detract from the overall impression of the level. By contrast, something like Call of Duty: Black Ops's Vorkuta gulag level is just a shooting gallery, a prison-break firefight that just escalates and escalates and leaves no memory afterwards. (Also, if I may editorialize for a second, I found The New Order's handling of its issues far more effective than Bioshock: Infinite's, which started out as a game purportedly about racism, class conflict, and the American nation, supposedly became a game about guilt and parallel universes, and ultimately became a game about how Ken Levine doesn't like people playing with his toys.)

A Reich For All Seasons

The survival of the Third Reich is, without a doubt, the biggest cliché in alternate history. It's no surprise, really; as John Clute wrote in the SF Encyclopedia,

"the astonishing intensity (and intoxicating vacancy) of the evil [Hitler] represented; the dreadful clarity of the consequences had the Allies failed; the melodramatic intensity of the conflict itself, with the whole war seeming (then and later) to turn on linchpin decisions and events; and (shamingly) the cheap aesthetic appeal of Nazism, with its Art Deco gear, its sanserif Babylonian architecture, its brutal elites, its autobahns and Blitzes and Panzer strikes, its extremely attractive helmets, its secrecy and paranoia,"

in essence, the fact that the Nazi state is the closest the real world has come to creating Mordor (another observation of Clute's), all serve to make the Third Reich an attractive subject for anxious speculation. Of course, the nigh-on-seventy years that have passed since the Second World War ended have served to produce any number of differing interpretations of what the regime would have become. Older works written by people closer to the war tended to imagine the postwar Nazi state growing stranger and more brutal, as in Keith Roberts' short story "Weihnachtsabend," where Nazi elites engage in gynocidal neopagan hunting rituals. Later works such as Robert Harris' Fatherland and Arno Lubos' Schwiebus imagine Reichs that have lost their youthful ferocity and become partially deideologized regimes characterized by rampant bureaucracy, urban malaise, and extremist subcultures itching to take power. There's plenty of arguments for and against each approach; critics of the former argue that imagining a perpetually ideologically committed Reich grants the Nazi regime a supernatural ability to avoid the trends of history and reshape the world in its own image, while critics of the latter approach claim such normalized portraits are more often about the societies of their authors than the historical Third Reich.

The Nazi world empire of 1960 presented in The New Order is very much in the former mode. If anything, it resembles the victorious Nazi state depicted in Phillip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle. The Nazis manage to win the Second World War by around 1948 by reinvading and occupying the entirety of Eurasia and compelling the United States to surrender after an atomic attack on New York. In the process, they also contrive to convert wartime allies Italy and Japan into vassal states. By 1960, the Reich is fielding occupation forces across the entire northern hemisphere while simultaneously involving itself a war of conquest, colonization, and extermination deep into Africa, and a program of manned exploration in the inner solar system.

The New Order does a lot of work in building its setting, from collectibles, letters, and diaries to the uniforms the soldiers wear and the weapons they carry. In terms of general visual style, the alternate world of TNO could best be described as a fusion of 1960s high-tech futurism and pop culture with wartime German militaria and various Nazi enthusiasms. It's a world staffed by hard men in black leather, where laser-armed bipedal robots tromp the streets, and where there's a microcomputer on every desk. As for the wider world, the plot of the game has been structured such that the player gets a whistle-stop tour of every location of note in the realm. The pinnacle is, of course, Berlin, rebuilt into the Welthauptstadt Germania of Hitler and Speer's dreams, complete with great domed hall, four-lane autobahns, and blocks upon blocks of ersatz Brutalist apartments. (There is something amusing about the fact that this Berlin exists in a video game environment; after the war Speer admitted that due to Berlin's marshy soil, the city he and Hitler dreamt up could have never been built. The game fudges the issue by adding an improved form of concrete to the Reich's list of purloined accomplishments.) In the occupied cities such as London, the old downtown cores have been bulldozed and rebuilt into modernist-pagan shrines to urbanism and German science. Indeed, megaprojects are the order of the day; a great bridge now straddles the Gibraltar strait, the Great Wall of China has been expanded and augmented with anti-air emplacements, and plans are underway to begin the terraforming of Venus.

On the ground level, the chosen people have grown more comfortable since the end of the fighting, but only just. The state still maintains its racial hygiene laws, and citizens are encouraged to spy on one another. Those who fail to meet the goals of the state quickly find themselves in a camp or a lime pit. The cult of cruelty has maintained itself in small ways, nurtured by the regime through things like televised executions, but in general the state prefers to keep the homeland placid and export the aggression to the colonial wars in the south.

Truth be told, aside from the color palette and the swarms of laser-toting robots the Reich of 1960 doesn't seem to be very different from the historical Reich. The concerns of the Nazi regime seem to be identical to the regime in the 1940s, and its behavior seems to have changed not a whit. Even things that have changed seem to be little more than old wine in new bottles. The colonial war in Africa is described in terms that are basically identical to the historical war of colonization in eastern Europe and Russia. (About the eventual fate of Generalplan Ost and the Slavic nations, the game is silent.) Now, while some of these events were created by the developers as ways to depict certain events without depicting them (if you see what I'm saying), I think this seemingly static nature actually gets at a fundamental aspect of the Third Reich itself.

This particular idea comes from the historian Roger Griffin, one of the best minds in fascist studies today. In his book Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of A Beginning Under Mussolini and Hitler, a book well worth reading for anyone interested in fascism, he describes fascism as "a revolutionary species of political modernism [...] whose mission is to combat the allegedly degenerative forces of contemporary history (decadence) by bringing about an alternative modernity and temporality (a 'new order' [title drop!] and a 'new era') based on the rebirth, or paligenesis, of the nation." The first half of the book is dedicated to exploring how this concept, of people forming revolutionary movements in response to blocked or decadent societies, is a classic feature of human history. However, Griffin argues that fascism differs from most other revolutions in that, while it posits a decadent past and a revolutionary present, it has very little to say about the future. The Nazis expended a lot of words, treasure, and blood in strengthening the chosen race and in fighting the Jewish conspiracy, but it was never very clear on what all this was for, what exactly the great goal was that the Aryans were working towards. Griffin's interpretation is that, for fascists, the future is not as important as an endlessly dynamic present, and as such fascist regimes can never change, for they run the risk of falling apart if they ever stop moving. To put it a pithier way, communism dreams of utopia while fascism dreams of permanent revolution. It is this eternal revolution that the Nazi state of TNO governed by, forever finding ways to the keep the 1940s going in perpetuity.

While TNO does spit out a bunch of shopworn platitudes about the nature of the Third Reich (the industrialization of human beings, the brutality, the single-minded certainty of its dogma), it does slip in a few more subtle notes. Blazkowicz's first encounter with Frau Engel takes place in a train car where she forces him to submit to a test to prove his Aryan nature. The test itself is fairly simple, with the player having to choose which picture they think is more beautiful/repulsive. However, at the end of the test, Engel explains that the real test wasn't in the pictures, but in whether the player made a grab for her gun on the table, making the point that the Nietzscheian "will," the idea that life can only be truly experienced and understood at the extreme, was as much a concern of the historical Reich as the biological racism. At the end of the game, Deathshead himself expounds the view that he and Blazkowicz "will be judged not by what we have destroyed, but what we have created," elaborating a view of himself entirely in historical terms rather than any traditional morality, a worldview that the art critic Boris Groys has argued was the core feature of Adolf Hitler's views on art, statecraft, and life itself.

A Simple Man Who Wants More

One of the most surprising features of Wolfenstein: The New Order is the character of BJ Blazkowicz. Specifically, the fact that he has a character. While Blazkowicz was the face of the first-person shooter in his day, he's never been a particularly memorable individual. Hell, in Return he didn't even have a voice actor, and the best that '09 was able to do was a generic cocky pulp hero.

The BJ Blazkowicz of TNO, by contrast, has become a man of layers. To the outside world he presents himself as the same action hero he always was, shaking off his years of convalescence with a quip, keeping his can-do, get-those-Nazi-bastards attitude. He's isn't a dummy, but he's hardly what you would call an introspective man. A lot of the time he comes off as a thug, though compared to the people he fights his sadism seems almost trivial. Outwardly, he seems to be the same "character" he always was.

However, Blazkowicz has his own voice, an interior monologue that keeps a running commentary on his experiences. While Blazkowicz evinces a profound hatred for the Nazis and a simple if honest sense of morality, what emerges most prominently from that voice is a sense of profound weariness. Right at the beginning of the game Blazkowicz is introduced dreaming of the GI's ideal; a house in the suburbs, a white picket fence, children playing in the backyard and steaks on the grill. However, even in his dreams he realizes that "none of it [is] for me." Much of the early game is spent with Blazkowicz ruminating on the horrors of the war and the malevolence of the Nazis in tones that evoke, ever so slightly, genuine sadness.

Of course, no man is an island, and TNO does an excellent job building Blazkowicz's relationships with the members of the resistance. The closest relationship Blazkowicz has is with Anya Oliwa, his former nurse at the sanitarium who fled with him after her parents were killed in the Nazi purge. In a genre infamous for its inability to handle anything resembling an emotion, their relationship is handled with surprising sensitivity. The relationship doesn't exist for Blazkowicz's pleasure; if anything, Anya seems to be in the driver's seat, and Blazkowicz's love of Anya provides a genuine respite from the new world. Blazkowicz has little moments with everyone in the resistance, from growing to respect an ex-Nazi defector to developing a bond with an Eastern European woman who struggles to cope with her fractured mind by endlessly calculating probabilities. It's not surprising that these moments work; The New Order was made by Machine Games, a studio founded by a number of core veterans from Starbreeze Studios, the guys who took a game about an Image comic about a gothy mobster with eldritch genitals and gave it emotional heft. It may be a bit blunt in places, but it is effective all the same.

What is a surprise, though, is the fact that the game also has a fair amount of criticism towards Blazkowicz. The game is ultimately on his side, of course, but there are a lot of moments that question some of his behavior. He's complimented by Frau Engel for having the body of the ideal Aryan warrior. One of the members of the resistance, an African-American expat, explains to Blazkowicz that he feels little desire to mourn the United States since for men of his race and class, men like Blazkowicz were the Nazis, prompting an infuriated Blazkowicz to put him in a chokehold. They do eventually make up over some acid and electric guitar (oh, and spoiler, it's alternate-universe Jimi Hendrix), but the moment lingers. There's also a certain discomfort in the game with Blazkowicz taking on the role of anti-Nazi terrorist. The entire game is set in military or military-related locations with nary a civilian in sight, an act of censorship designed to give the player a pure enemy to fight. However, even in a sea of black, it is difficult to not feel the faintest twinges of sympathy, even for an enemy as terrible as this. Blazkowicz's adventure at the London Nautica spaceport starts with the building being cracked open by a suicide bomber, and the first few minutes of the level have the player stumbling through the wreckage, killing wounded soldiers as they call for help. After I had recovered my weapons in the lunar level, I felt a certain unease as I saw the soldiers peacefully milling about, unaware I would be ending their lives in a few seconds. Probably the biggest example of this in the game is the Gibraltar Bridge level where, to get ahold of a researcher's uniform and documents, Blazkowicz drops an arcane superweapon on the bridge in front of a troop train, demolishing a span of the bridge, tearing the train apart, and killing scores of men on leave. It's an interesting moment, both for the fact that it is the first time that Blazkowicz is genuinely horrified by his actions, and for the fact that no one else in the resistance notices this. (Incidentally, there are a few places in the game where the resistance is twinned with the regime it fights. It's never equivocal, but it's enough to give one a few moments' pause.)

Blazkowicz's relationship to the world is more difficult to parse that it has been in any other Wolfenstein game, and it's a matter I've spent some time mulling over. Personally, I have come to believe that, deep in his heart, the BJ Blazkowicz of TNO is a man who doesn't want to be BJ Blazkowicz anymore, but doesn't really know what he wants to be or how he can change. The game itself has a certain awareness that Blazkowicz has essentially gone to hell, that he is trapped in a world where he can do nothing but kill people/Nazis forever, and where the only aspect of himself people respect is his ability to kill people/Nazis. I've been tempted to say that he spends most of the game with a profound death wish, but that interpretation goes too far beyond the evidence. For the moment, I think of Blazkowicz in TNO as akin to Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4; a warrior old before his time, adrift in a world that is rapidly outpacing him, wanting to rest but forever unable to do so.

Christ, Alasdair, Talk About The Gameplay Already.

Oh. right. This is a videogame. It has gameplay. Right. I suppose I should say something about that. Hmph. is good. It is very good. In fact, it's probably the best new shooter I've played in years.

To summarize it briefly, Wolfenstein's mechanics succeed in bridging traditional shooter mechanics with a few of the modern trends. Health in this game works on the combination of partial regeneration and medkits that worked so well in games like Resistance. Blazkowicz's arsenal threads the middle path between the two-gun only systems of contemporary games and giant-backpack-of-guns-only-five-of-which-you-ever-use of previous Wolfensteins, giving you an arsenal of only six weapons, all of which are useful for the entirety of the game and, once you consider alternate ammo types and firing modes, encompass all the weapons you could want. (Seriously, the man who came up with the idea of putting an underslung mini-rocket launcher on an assault rifle deserves a medal.) The only gimmick gun you get is the "Lazerkraftwerk," a combination laser cutter/blaster that can get you past a chain-link fence, seriously damage a supersoldaten, or turn a soldier into a cloud of blood. There's a simple but robust stealth system in place; while you can't play TNO like Dishonored, there are plenty of places where you can slip around and go after officers with throwing knives and a silenced pistol. If you do get seen, though, it's no biggie; you can just stand up, dual-wield your weapon of choice and tear the room apart. The game is paced beautifully; levels of prolonged firefights are broken up with levels in the resistance HQ chatting with your new buddies or trawling the endless Berlin sewer system so that you never get too fatigued. Oh, and best of all? No multiplayer.

So that is Wolfenstein: The New Order, a sequel that had no expectations of success, but which pushed an old but forgotten franchise into strange, exciting new territory. It's a bit of a shame this game has faded as the other releases have come and gone. If anything, this game deserves more of a cult than games like Bioshock: Infinite. Certainly TNO manages to combine a richly detailed setting, the interrogation of history and gaming, and memorable characterization far more effectively than Infinite ever does. Still, there is always the hope that history will vindicate...

Hmm...maybe not those words. How about "hope people play this game, like it, and remember it fondly?" That's a good coat of paint on the rotten barn door, don't you think?

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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 22:45 on 2015-01-01
They weren't making Shoah or Come and See.

I can imagine it now: "Mash X to claw your way out of the barn window before that scene happens."
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 02:08 on 2015-03-05
I can imagine it now: "Mash X to claw your way out of the barn window before that scene happens."

This is even worse now that I've seen that movie.

In lighter news, I just found out that there's a short standalone prequel, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, due out in May. Very few details as of yet, but it looks like this will just be good old fashioned shenanigans in a spooky castle.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 04:07 on 2017-11-22
So, um, gonna toot my own horn here and say if anyone wants to know what I thought about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, I wrote 2300+ words about it over on my blog. Suffice to say, I was not pleased at all, and I will not be purchasing any future games in this series.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2017-12-15
Sorry to hear the new game is such a disappointment, Alasdair. I remember a friend enthusing over some preview material for the game a little while ago, basically because it defies the myth, which is gaining an alarming amount of traction in the national discourse here in the States, that the people who fight against Nazis are as much of a problem as actual frickin’ Nazis.
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