(Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks)

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood
Developed by: MachineGames
Published by: Bethesda Softworks
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

The Wolfenstein series long-ago staked out a place in gaming history with its outlandish takes on World War II. The first two 2D titles, “Castle Wolfenstein” (1981) and “Beyond Castle Wolfenstein” (1984) helped grow the stealth-action genre, permitting players to impersonate enemy A.I. and hide dead bodies. The third entry in the series, “Wolfenstein 3D” (1992), left such stealth mechanics on the metaphorical editing-room floor, but set off the first-person shooter (“FPS”) craze that lingers today.

Jaded as I now am towards games that mostly involve shooting, I still recall how, as a young teenager, I gazed in open-mouthed wonder at “Wolfenstein 3D” running on my saxophone-teacher’s PC. As someone weaned on 2D games it struck me with the force of a revelation. The added depth fostered the impression that I was drilling into a virtual world as opposed to gliding over it.

Yet for all of the series’ historical relevance, it’s safe to conjecture that outside of the enthusiast crowd expectations weren’t high when Bethesda Softworks announced, in the spring of 2013, that MachineGames – a Swedish studio based in Uppsala –  was working on a new Wolfenstein. By 2004 and 2007 respectively, other series like Battlefield and Call of Duty had ditched their World War II mythologies, so one could be pardoned for assuming that a FPS premised on shooting Nazis was passé.

(Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks)

But in May, 2015 soon after “Wolfenstein: The New Order” was released, word spread that it was noteworthy. Procrastinating from work one day, I traded in my copy of “Infamous: Second Son” for it, after reading a post on a Eurogamer comments thread by someone who’d acted alike and never looked back.

I remember little about the game’s firefights other than my near-regret for not choosing the normal difficulty (“Bring ‘Em On!”). Instead, I selected hard (“I am Death Incarnate!”)  and when I encountered the final boss, Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, it probably took me a few dozen tries to kill him.

I do, though, keenly recall the game’s cast of interesting NPCs (non-playable characters) such as the ex-Nazi, Klaus Kreutz who looks after the disabled Max Hass, or (my favorite) the cerebral mathematician Tekla, who holds to a deterministic philosophy and –  until you establish a rapport with her – utters deprecations like, “Why are you so close? Your simian shadow is overspreading my thinkings. I’m getting stupider around you.”

Similar to the game for which it serves as a prequel, “Wolfenstein: The Old Blood” marries good writing to quantitatively decent FPS mechanics. It runs at 60 frame-per-second and 1080p on both consoles, and contains plenty of tense encounters which encourage stealth but likewise support all-out assaults.  (In video games, as in life, it’s almost always advisable not to accidentally trip an alarm.)

The game’s story line imagines an alternate outcome to World War II in which the Nazis are on the verge of crushing the Allies in 1946. Divided into two parts,”Rudi Jäger and the Den of Wolves” and “The Dark Secrets of Helga Von Schabbs,” the game follows the series’ hero,  William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, as he impersonates a Nazi from Frankfurt to gain entry into Castle Wolfenstein. His objective is to gather intel on a covert facility churning out superior weapons-grade technology. Leading the program is Deathshead, who was first introduced in “Return to Castle Wolfenstein” (2001), a game whose plotline “The Old Blood” closely tracks.

(Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks)

Deathshead’s lieutenant, Helga Von Schabbs owns Castle Wolfenstein, and runs it as a center for occult research. (In reality, under the direction of the Gestapo’s leader Heinrich Himmler, occult studies were pursued at the infamous Wewelsburg Castle, which inspired the setting for the Wolfenstein games.)

Schabb has documents that disclose Deathshead’s location. But Blazkowicz’s plan goes awry after his cover is blown and an erratic escape attempt delivers him to his enemies.

As a consequence, Blazkowicz gets kicked down into an oubliette by Schabb’s second-in-command, Rudi Jäger,, a torturer who, like Hitler, has a passion for dogs. (Those who follow current affairs may notice how Nazis in the game refer to torture as “enhanced interrogation.”) As in “Return to Castle Wolfenstein,” the American spy must escape prison then, eventually, square off against a battalion of zombies that were unintentionally let loose by S.S. archaeologists led by Schabb. Yes, “Wolfenstein: The Old Blood” is every bit as ludicrous as it sounds and its gameplay is probably nothing that any long-time gamer hasn’t seen in any number of incarnations.

What gives the MachineGames’ Wolfenstein titles their own mojo is the casual way they pair generic gameplay with silver-tongued characters who reflect on their faults, speculate on their fates, and enjoy mundane occurrences like going to a pub and cadging free drinks. In this way the game’s B-movie vibe is evocative of the work of those skilled filmmakers who embrace the silly or even the self-consciously stupid.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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