It's strange to look back at Wolfenstein 3D, the pioneering first-person shooter from 1992 that essentially laid the groundwork for a majority of the games from the past 20 years, and realize that one of the most important games of all time ends with you fighting Adolf Hitler as he pilots a giant machine gun-firing robot. How surreal to discuss the legacy of something when it requires you to use the word "Mecha-Hitler" while writing about it.
It'd be easy to try digging underneath that game's surface in an attempt to root out some deeper significance in its design, a dissertation on how Wolfenstein 3D's maze-like levels perfectly symbolize the twisting, unending horror of the Third Reich, but sometimes you just have to embrace the fact that the art is in the inherent silliness of what you're doing. There's some sort of brilliance at work in something that says, "Here, fire some rockets at a robotic Hitler" and your immediate response is, "Yes, that sounds reasonable, I'll do that."
Perhaps kudos are in order, then, for the makers of Wolfenstein: The New Order, who seem to have little hesitation in embracing the goofiness of the past, choosing not to reboot the series with the grim self-importance of a Call of Duty but with the same outlandish spirit of the original. There most likely exists a version of this game that is a brutal, realistic depiction of the horrors of the Second World War: this isn't it. This is a game in which a D-Day-esque beach landing sees giant laser-firing robots stomping across the sand.
Even more impressive is that they've committed so wholeheartedly to this fantastical universe that it never comes across as a tasteless joke. It takes place in an alternate 1960 in which the Nazis won the Second World War and now control the entire planet (and the moon, obviously), yet there is no wink-wink-nudge-nudge irony to any of it. The Nazis remain a cruel threat; they just happen to be a cruel threat that deploys cyborg dogs and giant robots to impose its will on the masses. It hits those same notes as the original Wolfenstein 3D: you're thrown into the oddest of situations and yet you go along with them in the moment as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. It isn't until you've stepped away from the controller that you realize, "Wait a minute, did I just storm a Nazi lunar base?"
It's a tonal tightrope that the game sometimes stumbles on -- cheesiness seeps in, as when the killing of a sleeping Nazi is followed by a "wake up -- you're dead" one-liner -- but it largely succeeds in its sincere depiction of the absurd. Any game in which the appearance of a Nazi-programmed RoboDinosaur is met with fear rather than laughs is doing something right.
Mel Stefaniuk is a freelance writer whose love of both video games and writing have been intertwined since growing up with the text adventures of the '80s. He can be found on Twitter as @DisgracedCop.