Alas, poor B.J. I knew him well.
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
Hi, everybody! Doctor I Coleman here with a PhD in not getting to go to E3. Now, I know that you’ve read the title already, and I know that a lot of the people who follow this channel are big fans of old-style shooters, particularly those made by Id. After all, our two most-watched videos are about Doom 2016, which was also Hey Poor Player’s game of the year last year, and I have a brand new show all about Doom which you should check out if you haven’t already. I know that there’s a good chance that if you’re watching this you have a deep and abiding love for Wolfenstein as a series and for its latest entry in particular. I’m not asking you to abandon that love. All I’m asking is that you trust me, as someone who has the same obsession with classic FPSes you do, and that you hear me out while I give Wolfenstein The New Order what is quite possibly its first-ever Second Opinion.
So, this week was E3, and among all the announcements and the trailers and the stuff that’s gonna turn out to be blatant lies later and the OHMYGODHYPE the game that most caught the attention of the sort of people I follow was Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The trailer itself featured weird live-action television nonsense, deadpan voice acting and incredibly wobbly animations – it was all very Bethesda. But it’s not hard to see why people were excited – the last game in the Wolfenstein series and the first game in this reboot canon, The New Order, put Id Software back on the map, was a massive critical and commercial success, and reintroduced a generation to the joys of singleplayer first-person shooters that are about fun, fast-paced action instead of wall-hugging quote-unquote “realism.” As for me, well, I’m sure you can guess my thoughts – as a huge proponent of old-school FPSes, a particular fan of Id Software, and a collector of Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein shlock, I was…extremely disappointed. This, you see, is my dark secret, my deepest shame as someone who is best known for his love of Id’s recent work – I didn’t like Wolfenstein: The New Order.
Why? Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of reasons, but what it really comes down to is that it feels like a game trapped between two worlds. It feels like…actually, you know what it feels like? It feels like the original Wolfenstein 3D. Not in terms of actual gameplay or presentation – in which the two games sadly have very little in common – but in terms of their place in history. The original Wolfenstein 3D was the first-ever first-person shooter, but while it had some good ideas and enjoyed not-insignificant success, it was a pretty shallow experience completely overshadowed by the vastly superior Doom. And that’s not a value judgement, either – it’s about as objective a statement as you can make when talking about videogames. It’s the difference between having one type of perfectly flat identical corridor and four different guns and having 7 guns in dynamic, non-linear rooms with more lighting, better level design, and greater enemy variation.
In the same way, many would credit Wolfenstein: The New Order with being the first major step in convincing Triple-A publishers that people wanted shooters with that old school cool, rather than the increasingly bland cover-based brown-em-ups that had plagued the genre for years. And yet, it too was overshadowed in this regard by 2016’s reboot of DOOM. When that game became Hey Poor Player’s game of the year and I was asked to do a writeup for it, I talked about how to me, that game’s most impressive achievement is that every one of its systems, from the music to the way you collect ammo, is focused on the same thing: fast-paced fun. It’s the perfect modern implementation of the design philosophies of John Romero, which was that nothing should distract you from the pulse-pounding action.
Wolfenstein: The New Order doesn’t have that singular focus, and I thought so even before we had the far superior DOOM 4 to compare it to. For one thing, let’s talk about the story, which for reasons beyond my comprehension is something fans of the game love to praise. Now I’ve got no beef with story-driven shooters – in fact, I think 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein (which may or may not be in the same timeline as the new games depending on who you talk to) is a fine example of how to merge classic shooter gameplay with a more complex narrative. But the story of The New Order is just so depressing. The original Wolfenstein’s story was pure power fantasy, the story of a tough-as-nails Polish Jew who, armed with only a knife, escaped the most secure prison in history and clawed his way up to killing Hitler. Along the way you’d fight mutants, robots, dudes in mech suits, etc. Watching the trailers for The New Order would suggest that you were in for the same sort of thing, but the actual story involves scenes of graphic torture, a dumb romance (because everything has to have that now), and so, so, so much talking! Two and a half hours of the 15 hour campaign is taken up by cutscenes, most of which involve Blazkowicz mumbling a deadpan monologue with all the righteous conviction of a bored schoolteacher (a monologue that continues even during normal gameplay).
There’s a time and place for serious storytelling in games. In fact, I think it would be fascinating to play an actual historical shooter that focused on the human drama of these characters, since so many World War II games (or alternate history WWII game, in this case) are little more than contextless Nazi shooting. Is there a place for a Blazkowicz whose last lines involve him mournfully reciting poetry? Sure. But not in this game.
The following is going to be a purely personal opinion – take that as you will. As you’re no doubt aware if you’ve seen any video where I show my face, I myself am Jewish. Amongst Jews, there’s a lot of debate as to how Nazis should be portrayed in media, whether they should be portrayed at all, whether it’s appropriate to put them in videogames as enemies, etc. I can tell you that any Jew playing The New Order is likely to be offended by Blazkowicz’s horrible butchering of the language any time he tries to speak Hebrew or Yiddish. (Seriously, I don’t know how they messed that stuff up – Google Translate will give you more accurate translations than anyone in this game is capable of.) But as for the Nazis, you have to understand that even growing up as filthy Millenial in the past handful of decades, the Holocaust is still terrifying. I still remember clearly the first time my parents told me about the event – long before we learned about it in school – and the visceral fear of realizing that six million members of my family had been utterly destroyed just for existing in the way that I exist. If it hadn’t been for the Holocaust, there would be as many as 32 million Jews in the world today instead of 13 million. That’s unfathomable.
To me – and again, this is a deeply personal choice – the most powerful way to fight that fear is by turning the Nazis into objects of utter ridicule. The New Order makes them into impossibly powerful monsters, a group that the protagonists will never be able to defeat no matter how hard they try. In the original Wolfenstein, Hitler was a ridiculous, over-acted coward who had to hide in his mech suit in order to take on one pissed-off Jew with a knife. His death got an ESPN-style slow-mo replay. Even the later pre-New Order games kept a certain level of supernatural ridiculousness, and that, to me, is infinitely more satisfying than the world The New Order presents, and is the kind of story that would much more effectively make you feel like the badass you supposedly are. Is it realistic? You tell me, game about Nazi robot dogs.
Okay, enough of the sad stuff. The story may be dull as ditchwater and may have missed the point of the glorious original games, but all could be forgiven if The New Order delivered on its promise of amazing gameplay. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Sure, it has many of the features of classic shooters – checks a lot of the boxes, as it were – but it lacks the same focus on fun. You can duel-wield shotguns, sure, but getting enough ammo to actually use the dual-wielding for more than a few shots is basically impossible. Plus, enemies have a stupid amount of health so on all but the easiest difficulties you’re still going to have to spend a lot of the game ducking behind walls or other cover rather than running out guns blazing. There’s a greater variety of enemies than we’d usually see in a WWII game but their AI is terrible and they’re all identical bullet sponges, with the robots acting as slightly spongier bullet sponges. There’s secrets, yeah, but the game doesn’t really reward exploration beyond that. If anything, it punishes you for trying to explore, because its dark, ugly, identical gray corridors are incredibly easy to get lost in while you’re looking for the teeny tiny objective marker, leading to one of the most annoying things any game can force you to do: backtracking.
Also on the list of most annoying things games make you do: forced stealth sections! I honestly cannot fathom what Bethesda was thinking when they included this shit. The B.J. Blazkowicz I grew up with would never hide from Nazi scum. Now, most of the stealth sections aren’t actually “forced” – technically you can shoot your way through them, but like the choices presented in the game’s terrible story, the distinction is pretty meaningless, since any section that gives you the option of stealth is gonna have enough Nazis to insta-kill you if you dare to try anything else. And then there’s the prison section. Does fighting super soldiers in power suits with a bit of broken pipe sound fun? No? Obviously not? Then it looks like you’ll be doing a lot of stealth, my friend.
At this point, I suspect that people are going to accuse me of not liking The New Order simply because it wasn’t what I was expecting. And maybe that’s the case – there is a reason I titled this feature “I don’t like The New Order.” But remember that I actually did like Doom 3, the Doom game that had almost nothing to do with Doom, and that that’s a series I’m much more invested in than Wolfenstein. If The New Order had just been a stealth game, I might have enjoyed it, but the stealth is limited to an instakill single-use knife and a pistol that will alert everyone on the planet to your position if you don’t get a perfect headshot, making it clear that it’s at best a dull, frustrating secondary feature to the shooting the game was meant to be based around. If The New Order had just been a gory shooter that committed to its ridiculous premise, I might have enjoyed it, but its dull gray color palette, forced stealth sections, forced use of cover, and regenerating health all smacks of a game that’s too scared to fully embrace a style of game that hadn’t been popular in years, which is why I say that it feels like the test run for the 2016 DOOM game that did. If The New Order had been a story-based adventure that was trying to tell a story in its interesting but never-fully-developed-in-game world, I might have enjoyed it, but instead it’s just an action game that keeps interrupting the action to deliver Todd Howard’s terrible 40,000-word Man in the High Castle fan fiction, starring his personality-devoid OC who hasn’t aged a day in 15 years and doesn’t even have to have any kind of interesting or convincing romantic buildup before the pretty girl falls in love with him.
Sure, The New Order wasn’t a traditional Wolfenstein game, and it clearly didn’t want to be, but is it my fault for expecting it to be so based on all of the trailers, marketing material, and reviews? Sure, to reviewers who had spent years playing the same brown and gray military shooters even its slight changes to the formula probably felt like a breath of fresh air, but good 90s-style shooters were still around if you knew where to look for them. Wrack. Strife: Veteran Edition. Ziggurat. These are the reasons I wasn’t impressed when The New Order promised a return to form and delivered a watered-down disappointment. It wasn’t horrible, but having played it once, I feel no need to ever play it again when there are so many other better shooters to play instead. It’s forgettable. It’s boring. Even the good parts of its gameplay get stale a couple of hours in. And to me, that’s almost more offensive than if it had been amazingly terrible.
Let’s just hope that the upcoming sequel takes more inspiration from The Old Blood, eh? Because even with its awful final boss, at least that game felt like it actually knew what it wanted to be when it grew up.