Sex is not something Wolfenstein: The New Order should be expected to depict with any degree of grace. That isn’t a knock on Machine Games, the studio behind this latest sequel to Id Software’s foundational Wolfenstein 3D. For any studio, getting digitally rendered people to knock boots in a non-laughable way is hard enough thanks to the uncanny valley—let alone capturing the sweet ugliness of real sex. Yet halfway through The New Order, when B.J. Blazkowicz hooks up with his partner, Anya, the result is a moment of surprising honesty for this decades-old shooter series. And it’s one of many such moments in an unusually good action game.
It isn’t pretty. The American soldier Blazkowicz—who was comatose as Nazis took over the world between 1946 and 1960 in the game’s fiction—and Anya, the Polish sanitarium attendant who cared for him, keep most of their clothes on. After sneaking into a side room for a respite from their fellow rebels, they lunge for the nearest surface and tear into one another. In the midst of this passion, they stop, breathe, and look at each other. “I just want to stay like this,” Blazkowicz says, sounding every bit as stupid and kind as anyone else pausing mid-coitus with someone they love. New Order has you barrel through sci-fi Nazi bases on a quest that stretches from occupied London to the moon, so there’s not a whole lot of time for tender, honest intimacies. Even when you’re sneaking up on stormtroopers in a massive prison, though, Machine Games strives to render Blazkowicz as a whole human being—at least, as human as he can be when he’s killing literally thousands of people, robots, dogs, and robot dogs.
While there’s some Grinch-style heart-growing going on, this is still a Wolfenstein game. Murder is still how you spend the bulk of your time as Blazkowicz. Opening in 1946 during a last-ditch Allied assault on the fortress of General Totenkopf (Death’s Head, if you want to get all Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS about it), The New Order lays out its modus operandi quickly and sticks with it. You get your hands on pistols, shotguns, and machine guns, you use them to shoot Nazis, and when you aren’t shooting them, you’re sneaking around and stabbing them.
From this basic premise, Machine Games does yeoman’s work. Whether you’re organizing an escape from a Czech concentration camp or seizing a nuclear U-boat, myriad assault options present themselves. Equip two machine guns if you like and sprint in like a madman, or sniff out false walls to stealthily pick off guards one by one. New Order also offers standard “perks” that reward your sticking to a particular approach. I favored sneaking around and using a knife, and after doing that a bunch, I unlocked a perk allowing me to carry more knives. I could almost hear Blazkowicz’s dull whisper, muttering to himself like he regularly does in the game: “Huh. These knives seem to work. I should carry more knives next time.”
Logic like that never feels wholly real, but Wolfenstein thankfully isn’t concerned with reality. Guards are quick to spot you but all too happy to ignore a fallen comrade with a giant knife sticking out of his leg. (And leg-stabbings, strangely enough, can cause instant death.) And while these shooting galleries are broad and twisting, eschewing the straight hallways of modern peers, they do inevitably, conveniently funnel you to the next set piece.
This unreality is a boon. The New Order would be ghoulish if it were trying to simulate Nazi atrocities rather than reflecting them in a fun house mirror of dumb action. The game builds a pulp reality, recalling the real horrors of World War II just enough to never come off as monstrous or exploitative, and instead using character to provide the game’s soul. The concentration camp doesn’t feel true, but the moment when Blazkowicz pauses to cut away numbers tattooed on his forearm offers an echo of truth.
As do the supporting characters. Fergus, the wiry, exhausted Scottish airman expertly voiced by Gideon Emery, is a slice of acerbic joy—though not a guaranteed one. In fact, you choose whether Fergus lives or dies in the game’s opening chapters, altering the slate of characters you meet later. Keep him around, and you’re treated to some great comedy, but also thick tension—he’s equally angry and grateful for your saving his life. Anya, too, is revealed to be more than a case study in the Florence Nightingale effect. Her storyline features the rare worthwhile earnest use of audio diaries. Spending time with the members of the rebellion also broadens the game, sending you on optional exploratory errands back at the home base and providing needed (albeit brief) relief from the blitz of explosions.
In a certain sense, the entire game is a relief from the blitz of explosions—as strange as that might be to say about Wolfenstein: The New Order, a sequel born of a legacy where a dude in sweatpants blows up Robo-Hitler. Yes, it’s a game driven by the uncluttered pleasure of making video game stuff blow up, but there’s little in the way of excess. The set pieces are infrequent enough to be impactful, and there’s no arbitrary need to upgrade Blazkowicz’s skills in an elaborate menu.
Beyond its mechanical parts, The New Order is a relief because it’s a reminder that profundity doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to big, universe-shattering ideas. Small moments—natural and ugly moments—can be as moving as the most intellectually rigorous or provocative dissertations. Like great sex, the good stuff can be dumb and dirty as long as it’s truthful.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Developer: Machine Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4