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Polygon's Games of the Year 2014 #2: Wolfenstein: The New Order

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In the wrap-up quote for my review of Wolfenstein: The New Order, I stated that the game's humanity is what makes it something truly memorable, and really, that's what I've continued to come back to over the course of 2014.

It's been a great year for shooters, many of which tried new things for the genre — things that pushed in directions that have left what I think will be a lasting mark on the genre. Wolfenstein didn't do that, though. In many ways, it's almost rebelliously old-school: armor pickups, boss fights, no recharging health, an ever-expanding cornucopia of firearms. It is unabashedly what it is.

But it's more than the games that came before it, that serve as such clear progenitors to The New Order's basic mechanics. There's an unadulterated sense of heart at the center of it — a vision that doesn't feel chopped up or truncated or drawn back on because of budget constraints or development trouble. Machine Games built a world that it's interested in showing you. The studio is confident enough to walk you through as needed, and allow you to explore when necessary.

The New Order succeeds by pulling few punches. It's not the sanitized war of the Call of Duty games or Halo, or even previous Wolfenstein titles. It's not a pure look at duty or camaraderie — it takes the horrifying legacy of the Third Reich, adds the occult elements the Wolfenstein games have always played with and logically follows through with them. The Final Solution isn't a diary entry or audio log reminding players about the Holocaust in an abstract way. It's horrible and awful and disgusting, and somehow it doesn't feel exploitative or unnecessary.

I want games to do that. I did not expect for Wolfenstein to be the game that drew a line between concentration camps and a longer legacy of Western racism and anti-Semitism. I did not expect Wolfenstein to be the first game I played in 2014 to smartly expand on representation in mainstream games with major characters of color, to include characters with disabilities that were nevertheless capable and realized. To include sex as a normal, natural thing that humans do (and to mostly get it right without being overly salacious).

It helps that The New Order's old-school influences find a positive middle ground with modern design sensibilities, and it so rarely seems to run out of things to say or do. It's a fun, often bombastic action game. The veteran developers at Machine Games have made many of those in their long careers, but this is arguably the best, the one that feels the least like a support mechanism for storytelling.

But it's the people in it and their stories that hold everything together and set Wolfenstein: The New Order above so many of its action contemporaries, that place it above so many story-based games in general. It's the stories within that make it one of the best games of the year.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.