There is something visceral about ripping through a Nazi horde, something deep down in our genes that gives us guttural satisfaction in the act. It also serves as a moral loophole for pretty much anything. Mass murder? Doesn’t count, Nazis. Baby eating? It’s all good man, they were Nazi babies. Wolfenstein: The Last Order? It’s all good man, you get to kill Nazis. Is it, is it really?
There is only so much that the Nazi clause can be used to excuse. Your killing spree doesn’t lose reprehensible points just because you spray painted Swastikas all over your victims; in the same regard Wolfenstein’s production sins should not be overlooked. I preface this review by stating that I enjoyed the original Wolfenstein 3D game series, much for the reasons I’ve stated before. That primeval satisfaction of mowing down hundreds of SS soldiers, complemented by a simple and fun engine lead to many an afternoon blown on blowing away Hitler’s hordes. Now that our ironically Aryan anti-Schutzstaffel hero has hit the current gen, I’m beginning to notice that the modern adaptation is much like the game’s story: odd, cumbersome, and on a confusing quest to figure out what it’s trying to accomplish. Blazkowicz, a name so 90’s that it demands Ray-Bans and a Doritos sponsorship, is an iconic one-man threshing machine with a moral compass as superficial and one-dimensional as his skill set. He kills Nazis, and he kills them good. If the game had just left it at that, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it on a thematic basis. However, that would suggest that this game has any coherent theme.
On a confusing and semi-regular basis, BJ Blazkowicz is questioned on his ideals by various characters, including a Jimi Hendrix wanna-be friendship interest who bellows non-sequiturs about segregation and oppression. This gets to the point where he grabs the hero and states: “You don’t understand. Before they were the man, you were the man.” He then lets the statement linger, as if doing so makes it any less confusing, illogical, and nonsensical. The mentioned character comparison to the Nazis is done throughout the narrative and doesn’t go anywhere. It would be a resonant theme and a head-scratcher if there was any explanation or reasoning behind it, hell even if there were any redeeming qualities to the Nazis you meet, but this is not the case. To be frank, if the hero is going to be compared to a culture of racist genocidal maniacs, I would like some evidence to be presented. Failing to present some sort of argument doesn’t make the gamer think, it just makes everyone involved feel stupid. This isn’t the only ham handed attempt at moral ambiguity. Constant references towards the price of capitalism and the cost of governmental hubris are hammered over the player’s head. These sophomoric attempts at intellectualism are conveyed with the grace and intensity of having constipation at a Solid Snake impersonator convention, where BJ’s gravel voice waxes middle school poetic about his regrets and his insightful thoughts on politics. To no one’s surprise, it boils down to: Nazis bad, freedom good. ‘Merica.
I wish the developers had taken BJ Blazkowicz’s sloping brow outlook on life to heart. BJ is an action hero stereotype and his game demands to be as dumb and mindless as the protagonist. Somehow, someone didn’t get the twenty year old memo. Wolfenstein attempts to be current by adopting, and by adopting I mean plagiarizing, Call of Duty’s game engine. Iron sight targeting is here in full effect, but is flaccid in comparison to its source of ‘inspiration’. The aiming system on it feels off and clunky, which resulted in me outright not using it when approached by multiple targets. Some guns are outright worthless towards the middle of the game. From the middle point on, I never bothered to use the shotgun, as it became ineffective at crowd control.
About halfway through the game, you’re given an overpowered laser gun, which makes the rest of your arsenal all but obsolete. From that point on, the game boiled down to obliterating waves of enemies with a stop and pop strategy, punctuated by the long trek back to the recharge station once it runs out of juice, which happens often in late game. Speaking of which, the enemy AI in this game is inconsistent. In some stages, my attempts at stealth were laughed at by guards who must have possessed thermal vision and bionic reflexes. In other stages, I could follow the unsuspecting soldier across the map without him mustering an offended glance.
The AI goes full on straight-jacket when big robots are introduced, which appear to be unstoppable forces of impotent programmer hatred until you realize one thing; they don’t understand the concept of doorways. Once this groundbreaking concept of robotic theory was discovered, I was able to clear entire rooms of robo-sapiens with deliberate (read: agonizing and slow) precision, picking off waves of the robotic rapscallions in between running back and forth to the laser recharge station. Did I mention the laser gun is broken? Most heavy armored guards go down in one or two shots once it’s at max power. I could go on about the ridiculous and player-hating position physics, the endless frustration gained from quick, frequent, and almost inescapable deaths, dumb resource-to-baddy ratio on many levels, and one dimensional character development (I swore one of the many uninteresting characters shoved down my throat was some sort of strange anti-Nazi Pokemon experiment, as much of his dialogue involved shouting his name and deferring his will to another character I concluded was his trainer).
This is not to say that Wolfenstein fails at every regard. When the pretentious script-writing hacks allow Wolfenstein to go off and play whilst they talk about totalitarianism and the folly of man as sip their coffee with smug self-satisfaction, glimpses of what made the original series so fun surface. Pants-on-head run-and-gun shoot-the-bad-guy game-play is as fun in 2014 as it was in 1992. The classic dumb one-man-army mechanic, when allowed to take main stage, is a blast. Mowing down wave after wave of goose-stepping goons is still satisfying; I just wish I didn’t have to deal with the rest of the game to enjoy it. Speaking of which, when you’re not shooting, you’re stuck in an uninteresting hub rife with tedious fetch quests. BJ echoed my annoyance at these forced missions, mumbling “like I’m a goddamn errand boy” on one stage. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The game struggles with a sense of identity throughout the entirety of the experience. Is it a game that cautions us not to polarize our moral compass, lest we become like that which we fight against? Is it a tale of seeking hope and freedom in an oppressive and heartless world? Is it a story of a man struggling to be relevant and dutiful to his beliefs in a world that has rendered him obsolete? Or is it some person’s half-drunken gaming manifesto after a weekend with too much blow? I mean, this is a game where you’re blowing up dystopian dictators one second and going on underwater stronghold tours for Jewish Freemason superpowers the next. I’m not sure which side of the racism fence you’re on, Machine Games, but I’m sure that devoting an entire level to the gilded headquarters of a Jewish secret order of engineers doesn’t give you points at your Affirmative Action mandated water cooler. Also, Hitler called and thanked you for supporting his paranoid claims on Jewish technological supremacy.
I will end this review with an open letter to the developer. Dear Machine Games, I appreciate that you tried to make a game relevant in today’s market place out of a classic brainless shooter, but I would recommend that you would look closer at your source material. BJ Blazkowicz is a dumb white Aryan American soldier that kills Nazis. Trying to turn the digital equivalent of cavemen beating on each other into a narrative driven art piece makes about as much sense as trying to turn a production of Jackass into Hamlet. Next time, just let the caveman have his club and stop dressing him up like an ethics professor. We’ll all feel less dumb and ashamed for it.