Why I really like the beginning of Wolfenstein: The New Order
The first level of 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of my favorite openings in any game, despite itself.
It’s not a particularly good bit of the video game, in the most technical sense. The design of its corridors is predictable, we’re introduced to characters in throwaway moments that aren’t given time to breathe. And it’s proof that no game with Nazis can exist without beginning with an invasion of Normandy in some form or other.
What makes it so good is its sense of dread. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill Nazis. They’re Nazis that are about to win the war. They’re Nazis with jet aircraft and lasers when the allies are using prop-based bombers and Tommy guns. When you reach the shores, giant walkers and robotic dogs rip your fellow soldiers apart.
So maybe it’s not a particularly fun level, but it’s an introduction to my favorite part of The New Order; It’s strange balance between being a dumb shooter, and a story of resistance in the face of a hopelessly powerful enemy.
The game shifts to a new context after, you’re thrown 14 years into the future in a world a decade into the Nazi rule. You’re tasked with infiltrating a German prison to break out members of the resistance. As you come out of your hotel balcony, you’re hit with the Berlin skyline. Massive grey monoliths jutting into the sky, and Nazi banners are hanging in every direction. It’s a powerful image, one that almost makes you give up as much as it does push you further.
It required a deft hand to balance dread and fun. This horrifying backdrop is, mercifully, coupled with a fantastic first person power trip. A running theme being idealism versus action, you can’t kill Nazism, but you can kill Nazis. You’ll never be more powerful than Germany, but you’re always deadlier than whoever happens to be near you. You can’t win the war – at least not yet – but you’re all but certain to win the battle.
Scenarios, where the Germans won World War II, aren’t new in fiction, but they were in the video games space. The New Order came out at a time when games about shooting Nazis hadn’t been popular in half a decade. The whole “what if” timeline, where the German war machine emerged victorious, was novel for gamers. It was a fun spin on the WWII shooter, and a great reinvention of an old, beloved game.
It’s an absurd image, but it’s one that holds power because a version of it could have happened. This is a game that is based, however loosely, on history. National Socialism is a concept still firmly entrenched in peoples’ minds, especially right now. When the player sees those huge buildings in the German capitol, they see monuments built by a faction of people that actually existed, they see a heightened version of a reality that could have existed.
The New Order is getting a sequel later this year, The New Colossus, and I can’t wait to see how MachineGames has developed this imagery to fit America. As someone who lives in the U.S., it’s not exceptionally often I get to see my homeland in this context. I hope they treat it with the same level of craft as in they do in The New Order.
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