GOTY 2014 - Top Ten - #5

Here it is: our list of the top ten games of 2014. The result of dozens of hours of preparation, discussion and debate, this list represents our consensus on the ten best and most-significant games of the year. Don't miss out on any of our Game of the Year coverage. Check out our full schedule here, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for instant updates.

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Wolfenstein: The New Order

MachineGames | May 20, 2014 | Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One

Being a progenitor of the first-person shooter genre, Wolfenstein 3D is easily recognized by name. For many longtime FPS fans, its mere mention conjures up memories of the square-jawed B.J. Blazkowicz,  chowing down dog food and slaughtering swaths of SS officers on his way to defeat Adolf Hitler. Like those misty-eyed fans, publishers recognize names that carry such history and pedigree—but this has more to do with brand recognition and marketability than it does the content of the games themselves. While the Wolfenstein series hasn't been wrung dry like some other franchises, its modern entries have languished in relative mediocrity. They were fine, sure, but never great.

Given the series' recent history, it's easy to imagine that a new Wolfenstein game would be a flat, simplistic Nazi-stomp, forgotten a few weeks after its release. But Wolfenstein: The New Order breaks from this middling tradition in spectacular fashion, and managed to land (with near-universal approval from our staff) mid-pack in our yearly Top Ten.

There's a lot to enjoy in The New Order, but the magic that makes it work is the game's lucidity. Developers MachineGames chose to recognize that, at its core, the series is a bit goofy, a bit off-kilter. Indeed, the venerable, much-respected Wolftenstein 3D is basically a comedy in many ways — try taking a look at Mecha-Hitler without stifling a laugh. So rather than try to double down, to make the game strictly serious despite its DNA, The New Order leans into its roots and, in doing so, becomes something really special.

The New Order's story–equal parts Half-Life 2 and The Man in the High Castle–sounds like action-movie schlock at first blush. But rather than being mere set dressing, the Nazi-controlled alternate history is used to create a striking, almost alien version of our world, and to populate it with characters who have convincingly endured two decades of suffering and loss. The arsenal looks shockingly generic on paper, but feels solid and plausible in practice — and manages to accommodate everyone from stealth junkies to John Woo-wannabes. Nazis, usually just easily rationalized targets placed down the range of so many first-person shooters, run the gamut from horrifying abominations to recurring characters who are as fascinating as they are unsettling.

The cherry on top of The New Order—a barely concealed easter egg that leads to the first level of Wolfenstein 3D—is a perfect flourish by MachineGames. It seems to say: "We did our homework. We know what we're doing. Enjoy the ride." – Spencer Tordoff