A Boot on the Face, Forever
HIGH Jimi Hendrix's last scene contains a perfect moment.
LOW So you let me play classic Wolf3D with this game's weapons, but only the first level? Why not put the whole game in there!?
WTF Oh my god, I'm on the MF-ing (spoiler)!
Wolfenstein: The New Order represents nothing less than the elevation of the FPS.
As a pure first-person shooter, it eschews all of the genre's recent attempts at relevance and modernization to prove that not only can a game about being in narrow hallways while blasting Nazis be released in 2014, but that if made with enough care, it can be a beautiful, and even essential thing. There are no RPG-lite elements, no open-world side missions, and absolutely no sign of a loot system. Just shooting. Glorious shooting.
Opening in an alternate-history version of World War II where high-tech Nazis have the Allies on the run in 1946, the plot gives players a chance to acclimate themselves to the game's systems in a relatively familiar location before jumping 14 years into the future for the rest of the story. It's to the developers' credit that the time jump feels as jarring as it does—in the opening hour they present a setting robust enough to support an entire game, and then discard it and all of its characters to show a world that has grown from the seeds sown in that first level; a world where Albert Speer was allowed to build a Europe of concrete towering high enough to block out the sun, and Werner von Braun lived his dream of putting men on the moon by the early 50s.
The Nazi-run "future" of the 60s is as fully-realized a setting as I've seen in a video game thanks to the developers providing windows into the art and culture of this occupied world. The standard device of newspaper clippings scattered around levels is employed, but it goes deeper as well, with posters, signage, and even record albums demonstrating how far-reaching the cultural impact of a Nazi victory would have been. Is it potentially libelous to suggest that the Beatles would have been singing in German if England had lost the war? Maybe, but it still makes for some interesting in-game music.
Characters get representation equal to the concept, with the script taking time to make sure that every member of the Resistance is a fully-drawn person, rather than a simple stereotype. Far from the silent protagonist in his original appearances, B.J. Blaskowicz is now a vocal narrator, giving us a sense of who he is, and grounding the story's sci-fi flights through his realistic reactions to them. Likewise Anya, the second lead, gets such a detailed backstory and is so integral that it's impossible to think of her as a token love interest, even if the player does have to rescue her from danger more than once.
The only bad thing I can say about the story is that it does shy away from some of the plot's darker implications at times. It's left implicit that the Final Solution has developed into the Final Success, but no one ever comes out and says that this is a world without Jews, gays, and few non-white people remaining. This lack of nerve doesn't really hurt the story, though, especially since the villains are such amazing accomplishments. Rather than painting central foe Death's Head as a mad scientist bent on genocide, he's assigned a wholly consistent and well-thought-out worldview. He's not necessarily evil, he merely represents an entirely alien morality that values technological and genetic advancement over all else.
Storytelling of this caliber would make Wolfenstein worth recommending even if the gameplay wasn't stellar, but the game doesn't disappoint there, either. The core play is incredibly well-tuned, with intuitive controls giving players ample ways to use cover while fighting enemies, and at most points players can choose between stealthily creeping around to slit throats, or dual-wielding to blast all opposition into meaty chunks. The developers also do an amazing job of working cinematic setpieces in without stripping control away from the player. Jumping to the wings of planes, fleeing from giant metal hounds, running over Nazis in a stolen car—across the game's levels, players are constantly being presented with new and innovative ways to break up all the running and gunning, ensuring that no single mechanic ever gets worn out through overuse.
It's almost absurd how seriously the developers took this game—there's no winking at the audience, and nothing to undercut the horror or the thrills of the situation. The developers fully commit to their ideas, and in doing so, Machine Games have done something incredible with Wolfenstein—they've taken a corny "Super-soldier vs. science Nazis" premise and built the most convincing, most compelling version of it. Thanks to the quality in both concept and function, this is one of the finest first-person-shooters I've ever played, and the best iteration of one of gaming's most storied franchises.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 20 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times). There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs. There is an M on that box for a reason. Murder, genocide, sex, smoking and drinking, the list goes on and on. This is a game about Nazis taking over the world and treating it just as badly as you'd expect them to, and then being killed in exactly as brutal a manner as they deserve. It's not for children, full stop. If all of that didn't dissuade you, how about this—taking LSD is presented as a positive experience.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You're going to have some challenges. Hearing the approach of enemies is important during the stealth sequences since the game doesn't offer any of the visual shortcuts that have become so standard these days. When people are shooting at you, you're only going to know when you start getting hit. Other than that, all the dialogue is subtitled, so you won't be missing out on any of the plot.