I'm not going to sit here and make a case for Wolfenstein as high art. It's not. It's alt-history, sci-fi schlock. But you know what? It's the smartest rah-rah-shoot-some-bad-guys schlock since the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. For instance, there's a great running gag about 60s pop music that made me laugh each time it surfaced.
But then in amongst the dumb there are also a lot of moment-to-moment interactions that hammer home life under occupation. Wolfenstein has a habit of contrasting your best accomplishments with the worst of humanity's evils. It's enough to give you whiplash sometimes, and thus is all the more effective. Listening to a grandma frenziedly explaining how the resistance has been wiped out, or hearing a man sing a lullaby to another grown man whose lost half his brain in the fighting—there's a lot of tragedy to address if you choose to dig past the breakneck tour across Europe and stand still a few seconds. Some of Wolfenstein's best moments are the quiet interludes.
It's hard to stand still too long though because you always want to see what's next. The game is masterfully paced, the dialogue sounds like the stuff Stallone writes while watching himself flex in the mirror, and there's (I swear) a lot of cleverness hidden underneath the explosions.
There's a weird mix of old and new in Wolfenstein. In the "New" column you have heavily cinematic storytelling, linear environments, light roleplaying-esque elements, and recharging health. In the "Old" column there's medkits and body armor, an infinite supply of guns and ammo, ridiculous robot enemies, hidden rooms, and an irreverence that's far too uncommon in shooters these days.
There's a strange tension in Wolfenstein brought about by mixing two completely different eras of game design. For instance, your health recharges but only up to the next-highest 20%—go down to 49 health, and you'll recharge to 60. The rest must be restored with medkits.
It's a completely insane way to try and reconcile old Wolfenstein fans with modern game design, and it doesn't work at all except it doesn't even matter because you're too busy just shooting everything in the face to even pay attention to health. Plus, on the game's "Normal" difficulty the entire game is a Nazi-filled cakewalk where BJ Blazkowicz is more god than soldier.
And he only gets more powerful as you unlock perks. Yes, Blazkowicz has a perk tree. No, I don't know why, but I like it. You gain more skills by accomplishing certain feats—basically, it's an in-game award for unlocking achievements. Take down five commanders with stealth kills? Now they show up on the map. Kill five guys with throwing knives? Now you can carry an extra knife.
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