Running Down The History Of Wolfenstein, The World’s First First-Person Shooter

Raising The Stakes
In 2009, several key members from Starbreeze Games, best known for developing The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Darkness, left to form their own development studio, MachineGames. After negotiations with Bethesda, who now owned the license for Wolfenstein, MachineGames set out to build their own unique interpretation of the classic franchise, one that tried to do justice by 3D’s frenzied violence while also introducing a heartfelt story about finding hope in a world filled with despair.

The result was Wolfenstein: The New Order, a game confusingly billed as a reboot but which was actually a continuation of the story that began with Return To Castle Wolfenstein. However, The New Order was a radical departure in everything but chronology. The rogueish verison of B.J. Blazkowicz was gone, replaced with the familiar blonde-haired, strong-chinned and bulky figure from Wolfenstein 3D. The occult powers and kooky tone of the Raven Software’s stab at the series were tossed to the wayside, with this entry focusing on a bleak alternate future where the Nazis won the war and B.J. ended up in a coma. Waking in 1961, Blazkowicz teams up with the remnants of the Kresiau circle to try and free the world from the iron grip of the Nazis.

Despite an early lukewarm response to previews of the game, The New Order released to strong reviews and sales. While on paper the game’s pitch might sound thematically close to the rest of the series’ goofy mixture of fantasy and history, MachineGames’ debut is noteworthy because it approaches its subject matter with a surprising amount of solemn respect. The resistance fighters in The New Order are not jovial caricatures who recite prose from Marx or the Declaration of Independence but instead actual characters who have broken by the world around them, separated from their families and homes, forced into servitude or worse because the regime doesn’t see them as people. B.J. himself, so often presented as a silent action movie hero type or a pluckish rogueboy, seems weary and half-ready for the long sleep.

The run and gun action mechanics of the series also received an overhaul, with an RPG-lite system letting you unlock buffs (like more health) and increased ammo for your weapons, while also removing some of the modifications that other entries in the series had made. Gone was the duck-and-cover regenerating health, instead replaced by a health mere that regenerated in 20 HP segments. For most areas in the campaign, you’re also allowed a fair amount of flexibility with stealth – getting back to the infiltration foundation of the series – with B.J. able to sneak around environments and pick off enemies with knife and silenced pistol before the firefights begin in earnest.

With The New Order, Wolfenstein (for the first time since 1992) was a game that people were talking about, showering its handling of serious themes with both praise and rebuke. A stealth infiltration level drew particular ire for how some thought it gamefied the holocaust while others, like myself, were drawn to the soul-baring monologues of Set Roth regarding faith and moral imperatives. In the end, perhaps the best that can be said about The New Order is that it is an ambitious, messy game that ultimately succeeds because it makes its home in the hearts of the desperate.

Less than a year after The New Order’s release, MachineGames followed up with a standalone expansion pack called The Old Blood. The Old Blood, a remake of Return To Castle Wolfenstein, is an enjoyable, if forgettable experience that embraced the occult, pitting BJ against both Nazis and the undead as he searches Castle Wolfenstein for a folder that ultimately sets the happenings of The New Order into motion.

If nothing else, The Old Blood proved that going forward, this new Wolfenstein would need its brand of deadly seriousness to remain interesting.