There's a rule on the Internet called Godwin's Law, which dictates that in any debate someone will eventually get frustrated and compare someone else to Hitler. This will happen regardless of whether that debate revolves around video games, snack foods, or even grown men discussing My Little Ponies. (Actually, it's probably most likely to happen when grown men discuss My Little Ponies.)
The idea goes something like: Hitler was the greatest villain of the 20th century; Nazis are just the worst; ergo, by invoking their name, you're basically telling someone, "The fact that you like Fluttershy more than Rainbow Dash means you are as odious as the man responsible for the murder of more than six million people because of their race or sexual orientation."
The Wolfenstein series has been gaming's original Godwin for about 30 years now. First appearing on the Apple II computer, Castle Wolfenstein sent players into a Nazi fortress on a mission for the Allies, inventing a primitive sort of stealth action gameplay in the process. A decade later, it sequel Wolfenstein 3D helped codify the first-person shooter genre and laid down the template for DOOM. Various publishers have had a crack at Wolfenstein over the years, but one thing always remains the same: It's always about killing Nazis.
The latest entry in the series, Machine Games and Bethesda's Wolfenstein: The New Order, maintains the tradition of shooting Nazis in the face. This time, however, it puts a Harry Turtledove-like twist on things: What if the Nazis had won World War II after all? This is the alternate reality an older, wearier B.J. Blaskowitz finds himself confronted with as he awakens in a world that's been dominated by the Third Reich for years.
First-person shooters have been ripping off Half-Life 2 for years now, but The New Order is the first I've seen to focus more on that game's poignant sense of defeat than on its mechanics or narrative design. Taking a familiar world and saying, "Nope, the bad guys won after all" is a bold, point-of-no-return creative choice that can irrevocably change a long-running franchise. Chances are good that Blaskowitz will set things right by the end and get history back on the right track, but there's always the intriguing possibility the scenario writers will opt out of using the cosmic reset button and this will become the franchise's new status quo. And in any case, playing virtual tourist through a world far worse than our own is always interesting, if only to see what might have been.
It's an especially bold gambit in light of the fact that The New Order lacks any form of multiplayer. Few FPS publishers are willing to stand on the strength of their single-player campaign alone, and Bethesda's making a clear statement here: "This story is good enough that we don't need to hedge our bets."
I hope they're right. I still prefer a good story-driven campaign FPS to any number of multiplayer options, and I appreciate a good alternate reality storyline, too. The new Wolfenstein has a solid, old-school shooter feel to it, with slower movement than dictated by Call of Duty, and a balance of weapon types both familiar and creative. (The Half-Life 2 comparison is particularly hard to avoid thanks to the presence of The New Order's "gimmick" weapon, a laser cutter whose ability to slice through walls is reminiscent in a spiritual sense of the older game's gravity gun.)
At the same time, I find myself a little uncertain about the game's story after playing through the E3 demo build. It's certainly bleak and unsettling in the manner of a good alternate reality tale, but the specifics fall a little flat. It leans on stereotypes of Nazis, falling back on clichés rather than exploring new territory. The New Order's eponymous new order seems to be dominated by sadists and madmen, transforming the ruling army into easy-to-hate caricatures. The demo begins with an older woman playing mind games with Blaskowitz, ostensibly to test his racial purity, as her sex kitten boy toy companion squirms with delight at the cruelty of it all.
It's very evil, yes, but it rings false -- or if not exactly false, then certainly trite. As Blaskowitz makes his way through the demo, he encounters signs of Nazi genius: Advanced science, anachronistic technology, a moon landing in the '50s, signs of racial pogroms, and so forth. Any shock these revelations were intended to impart has been largely blunted by decades of speculative fiction that have already explored these concepts. Meanwhile, Blaskowitz quips about his satisfaction at the murder of and revenge against the Nazis, which makes him come off as cold-blooded at times as the minions of the new order.
I realize that there's not much sense in hoping for a first-person shooter -- never the most cerebral of genres -- to bring some form of subtlety or nuance to the topic of killing Nazis, but as much as I like the concept behind The New Order's story I find myself unmoved by its execution. There's more to the history of Naziism than horrifying experiments and mass murder, and working on the assumption that they'd have exported those things wholesale to the world beyond Auschwitz in the event of victory in WWII seems awfully one-dimensional.
This isn't to say, "Those Nazis were pretty swell guys! Can't we get along?" Far from it. Rather, I simply think it's important to remember that there was more to their regime than racism, twisted science, and Der Fuhrer's supposed obsession with mystical artifacts. One of Germany's most significant overall traits in World War II was its tendency to overextend itself; not content with spreading across Europe, Germany also expanded into Africa, then got itself bogged down in (and lost the war in large part because of) the Russian front. This aspect of Nazi Germany tends to go unexplored in alternate histories in which the Axis bosses somehow run roughshod over the rest of the world and maintain an iron grip around the globe by maintaining occupation forces in countless nations much larger than itself. It's always a cut-and-dried victory for Germany, which is much less interesting at this point than tackling a more nuanced perspective.
One of the few instances I've seen of a more realistic look at a dominant WWII Germany came from, of all things, the Star Trek: Enterprise "Storm Front" story arc. There, the Nazis -- even abetted by time-traveling alien advisors who had an axe to grind with humanity -- found themselves spread entirely too thin upon extending their war to the American continent to maintain their grip on things. The idea of an occupation force clinging desperately to its hard-fought gains isn't a terribly common trope in video games, which tend to go with the patently evil oppressive empire (inevitably toppled by a single brave man with many guns, or a party of four people wielding an alarming amount of magic). Making the hero's odds a little less impossible and demonstrating some vulnerability on the bad guys' part goes a long way toward making the villains more compelling and the hero's triumph more reasonable -- a fact that few game scenarists seem to realize.
While I've found a lot to like about The New Order's premise and its old-school feel (not to mention its old-school willingness to double down on the campaign mode), I find the predictability of the "Nazis win!" storyline could sour the overall experience. Hopefully there's more to the game than Bethesda has revealed so far, and that New Order's campaign has sufficient substance to justify its solo focus. Nazis may have been every bit as repugnant as Godwin's Law suggests, but the best stories are rarely the ones rendered in stark black and white -- even when that black and white takes the shape of a swastika.