Against all odds, the new Wolfenstein games are fantastic

How to tell a compelling story about shooting thousands of Nazis

22

Action video games that want to tell stories have a problem: players do little more than shoot people for the vast majority of their time. It’s a problem that, for many, has sunk the experiences of games like BioShock Infinite and Uncharted; they involve heroic characters whose nuanced behavior in cutscenes doesn’t match up to their murderous actions when the player is in control.

But last year, one game came as close as I’ve seen to solving this intractable dilemma, and from an unlikely source. Wolfenstein: The New Order is as brutal and intense as any first-person shooter you’ll ever play, and it’s the most recent entry in a classic series whose stock has considerably fallen. But developer MachineGames used smart storytelling devices to build up a truly evil enemy that you feel no guilt at all in taking on — the game is set in an alternate history where the Nazis won — and the results are surprisingly congruous and emotional.

Set in a devastated Europe ruled by Nazis, with burly protagonist BJ Blazkowicz as the free world’s last hope, The New Order handles persecution, sex, and politics with unusual pathos for a violent video game, while still painting the overall picture in broad, colorful strokes. It reminds me of nothing as much as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which adopted a similar schlocky tone to the same dark period of history to great effect. Dwight Schultz’s turn as skeletal antagonist Deathshead may not be quite as unsettling as Hans Landa, but his sadistic malevolence still earns him a place in the pantheon of great video game villains.

Now The New Order has a prequel. It’s called The Old Blood, it’s a $20 “stand-alone expansion,” and it’s even more extreme.

wolfenstein old blood

The Old Blood differs from The New Order in a few ways. It’s shorter, as you’d expect. It’s pulpier in tone. And, in some aspects, it turns out not to be as interesting. What it does share, however, is the way it plays: tight, old-school first-person action that removes many of the standard elements — regenerating health, for example — that people have come to expect from the genre.

"'The New Order' was definitely a bit of a love letter to old-school shooters."

"The New Order was definitely a bit of a love letter to old-school shooters," says MachineGames producer John Jennings. "When first approaching a project like Wolfenstein, we had to ask ourselves ‘Why were the original Wolfensteins so good?’ and this forced us to look at some design features that might be regarded as old school these days. Certain design elements of shooters fell by the wayside over the last 10 years, but why restrict players to only two or three weapons? It may be more realistic, but is less choice better?" But the new Wolfenstein games don’t feel stuck in the past; the simple combat and winding level design instead comes off as a breath of fresh air when married to modern graphics and responsive controls.

The Old Blood builds on that formula with the addition of a simple lead pipe. This can be used for anything: the ability to break down fragile walls, jack open uncooperative doors, and scale giddy precipices adds welcome diversity to the environments. It’s also used as a way to quietly take down enemies, which contributes to the game’s excellent balance between stealth and gunplay. Both approaches are equally viable, and unlike a lot of games, if one fails for you it’s easy to switch to the other on the fly. "We continue to let the player control pacing to a strong degree, as we did in The New Order," says Jennings. "We never fully dictate whether a chapter is a ‘stealth chapter’ or an ‘action chapter’. I think that offering this choice helps with the player immersion; giving them a choice in how a chapter plays out, rather than just being along for the ride."

wolfenstein old blood

Another difference with The Old Blood is the lack of cutscenes; the game plays out almost entirely in first-person perspective. "We wanted the game to feel like you’re immersed in a continuous mission from start to end," says Jennings. "It plays like a series of 24, with every chapter flowing immediately into the next one." It’s a technique that’s been used well by many games ever since the original Half-Life, but I don’t think it’s a change for the better here. The New Order’s cutscenes were effective and served as a breather; with less focus on storytelling and little to break up the relentless action, The Old Blood can sometimes feel like a slog.

MachineGames was founded by former members of Swedish studio Starbreeze, which has shown a flair for meaningful character-based interaction in first-person shooters. The Darkness, for example, had a scene where the main character simply sits at home with his partner to watch a movie; if you stay on the couch long enough you can watch To Kill a Mockingbird in its entirety. And The New Order’s best storytelling trick is the way it contrives situations for you to get up close with the Nazis on conversational terms. As in the astonishing opening scene of Inglourious Basterds where Christoph Waltz’s charming, eloquent SS colonel Hans Landa interrogates a farmer harboring a family of Jews, the Nazis’ evil is brought into disturbing relief when coming from the mouths of cordial, intelligent people. The Old Blood is generally less daring in this regard, though there are a few memorable moments. The first half is set up like a classic escape movie, with Jennings citing Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone as inspirations. And one great confrontation at the game’s midpoint involves primary villain Helga Von Schabbs, a crippled occultist with a penchant for fine wine, but the aftermath turns the game on its head by introducing — unfortunately — zombies.

The video games industry needs to declare a five-year moratorium on zombies. While the new Wolfenstein games do a fantastic job of portraying the Nazis in a refreshingly evil way that motivates you to carry on, they can’t do the same for zombies — they’re just too played out. And the Nazi zombies you see here — do zombies retain political affiliation, anyway? — undo much of the good work done to establish a believable, if somewhat fantastical, universe. This is a game that makes gigantic robot dogs genuinely terrifying, so it’s saying something that zombies feel like a step too far.

wolfenstein old blood

The shuffling dead do at least add a bit of variety to The Old Blood’s shooting action, and the developers are at pains to make them fit into the universe as best possible. "For players who just want to run through the game shooting then, sure, they’re just zombies," says Jennings. "But for those who want to explore the game, find the newspaper articles, and read all of the letters, they’ll see that we don’t break the world of The New Order." I don’t disagree, but I do think it’s the wrong direction for the franchise. The New Order stood out because it was so different and unexpected; Nazi zombies make The Old Blood feel cheap and videogamey.

There’s more than enough in 'The Old Blood' to make it worth picking up

But there’s still more than enough in The Old Blood to make it worth picking up for New Order players, especially considering its entry price. I wouldn’t normally get into a discussion of "value" when writing about a game, much less try to quantify it — time and money mean different things to different people. These days $60 can get you a sweeping epic like The Witcher 3 or a blink-and-you-miss-it blast like The Order: 1886. But it’s worth noting that The Old Blood’s running time of six to eight hours makes the $20 price point very generous; many shorter games sell for three times as much.

If anything, I’d have preferred The Old Blood to be a little shorter and punchier. It’s as substantial as most full single-player first-person shooters, though its development was clearly made possible by last year’s $60 release of The New Order. "I couldn’t say why more publishers don’t go down this route," says Jennings of the decision to make it a stand-alone game rather than downloadable add-on content. "It’s been done before, but it’s certainly quite rare. It just made the most sense for what we were making."

I hope other publishers take heed. But despite this, I wouldn’t recommend The Old Blood to those who haven’t played The New Order. While the earlier game is a heart-stopping ride that restored my faith in the potential of action video games to spin a good yarn, The Old Blood is simply a great, inexpensive first-person shooter with some of the same DNA. And I’ll take that. Wolfenstein 3D popularized the genre all the way back in 1992, and MachineGames has put the series right back at the forefront of relevance today.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is out now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Polygon Video archive: The New Order in under 2 minutes (2014)

The best of Verge Video