Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is Not What I Want to Talk About

Warning: This article contains some plot spoilers for ‘Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’. I’ve tried to keep them pretty small, but they are there. It also gets quite heavy towards the end… sorry, it just went that way when I was writing it… 

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope whatever you were up to was relaxing and that you’re still picking through the last of the Quality Street looking for that one type that you like knowing full well that you polished off the final one for breakfast. I mentioned in my December Editorial that I had picked up ‘Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’ in the last Steam Sale, and although we’re currently in the midst of another Steam sale, don’t be confused they’re not the same, although at this point differentiating between them is barely possible given their frequency and mess of awards, cards, offers, and … erm.. theming… but back to Wolfenstein II. 

… and before I begin I’m going to skip over the title ‘Wolfenstein II’ because it’s yet another series in the grip of nonsensical sequel numbering or titling. Wolfenstein 3D had a sequel, ‘Spear of Destiny’, but even Wolfenstein 3D (commonly just Wolfenstein) was a successor to some earlier 2D titles, and also had a rebirth in the early 2000’s with ‘Return to Castle Wolfenstein’… In this case Wolfenstein II is the sequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order…

I was pleasantly surprised by ‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’ (TNO), it’s a game that drew me in with the alternative history aspect, was beautifully far fetched taking the player to some unexpected places, had a twisting, turning, and engaging plot as well as dealing surprisingly sensitively with the horrors of the Nazi regime whilst managing to paint the antagonists deeply evil to the level of comic-book villain absurdity. As you can imagine, I was instantly on-board when I saw a direct sequel announced and released earlier this year featuring a teaser advertising campaign involving a Nazi controlled U.S. Sadly this dystopian setting only really comes in to play in one fairly non-interactive walking section which left me with a slight sense of disappointment carried through many facets of this game.

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… but I’m jumping ahead there; first on the agenda is to kick about the nuts and bolts of the gameplay. This is essentially unchanged from its predecessor and is solid; it draws heavily from that early 90’s FPS feel including health & armour pickups rather than the more common regenerative health (or the continuous spawning drops of DOOM). The game’s difficulty has drawn some criticism from some commentators, but having played it I don’t really see what all the fuss is about; if it’s too hard then turn the difficulty down, if you want the challenge then ramp it up. It’s true that compared to some FPS titles BJ relinquishes his health with relatively little persuasion, but it is a game that makes little secret of encouraging a certain amount of cautious movement. Likewise, stealthing or fighting at bottlenecks is as much of a part of it as charging in guns blazing. As with TNO, it’s refreshing to see an FPS single player title where the player is actually asked to make this decision on how to engage. Gun combat feels solid, although within the limited arsenal I found myself almost exclusively using the rifle. I also couldn’t tell you if TNO had the option to dual wield because my own playstyle of ironsighting 90% of shots just doesn’t agree with being able to shoot with both hands … so dual-wielding may or may not have been a new feature… Aside from this, there’s really not that much to say; everything works fine. Maybe BJ is a little sluggish to amble about and the gun/equipment upgrade system feels superfluously jammed in there because at this point it’s expected rather than required, but nothing in the gameplay is bad.

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Sadly this section was short and fairly non-interactive

So if the gameplay is ‘fine’ then where is my sense of disappointment coming from? The plot and character motivation has to take the brunt of the blame (and from this point onwards things get spoilery). BJ himself is the first weak link; in the previous title he’d been a blank canvas, but one that was Brighton Rock cored with the words “I hate Nazis”. He wasn’t complicated, but it worked; he’s good, they’re bad, let’s begin shooting things. In Wolfenstein II the game kicks off by awkwardly stuffing him full of back story about an overbearing racist father and Jewish mother, as though he needed more of a reason to hate Nazis. I found myself even ‘judging’ him more as a character if he needed the personal motivation to hate this oppressive regime rather than simply fighting for what was right. I stuck with it though, assuming that they were going to work some intricate plot magic in there involving his parents, but it didn’t really materialise in any sort of meaningful way. The confrontation with BJ’s father seems to be mostly included add shock value and adds little more than to put BJ in further peril. The supporting characters at least add a little variety and do something to bring back some of that fun comic-book vibe from the previous game, although the game desperately tried and failed to get me emotionally engaged with any of them and their often overly comedic exploits felt incongruous at times given some somber moments.

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This brings me neatly on to point number two, the tone; it leaps about excessively between extremes, but never more noticeably than between the first and second halves of the game (‘separated’ by a pretty startling moment that I won’t spoil). The opening is decidedly dark, BJ is a dying man held together with sticky-tape & paper, gradually deteriorating, and fearful of abandoning his heavily pregnant partner. It’s a direction I was on-board with and beginning to brace myself for some deepening tragedy and dismay. This never materialises and the renewed BJ in the second half seems to conveniently forget the suffering existential crisis he was facing during the opening, particularly the gruesome demise of a mentor figure over whom he obsesses in his inner monologue and then rarely mentions again following the halfway point. So stark was the contrast that I was pretty convinced that the second half of the game would turn out to be a dream/simulation/delusion of a fevered BJ… it’s even hinted at in a moment when BJ says “Am I in Heaven?”…but this is just left hanging like so many of the plot points, including a frustratingly over-emphasised mysterious ancient artifact, presumably lining us up for another sequel. The story is also littered with cutscene moments that are designed to ‘shock’ and surprise due to their content rather than their bearing on events whereas the actual climactic gameplay moments seem to just revolve around slightly more enemies. The final ‘boss-fight’ of the game passing me by without me really taking in any indicators that the game was nearing the end.

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The hub area is very detailed as before…

Having said all of that, there are some good aspects to the game and certainly enough to keep an interested player entertained. The aforementioned dystopia section is unsettling, and coupled with a detailed apocalyptic vision of some U.S. make it visually spectacular to play. The grimy robotic menace of the Nazis has returned and some of the over-the-top scenes involving them ramp them as a foe up to almost nightmarish levels.

So where does this leave me? Well, I played it through and it was solid enough that I was satisfied with the experience but overall it was underwhelming compared to its predecessor mostly due to the weak plot and characters. Slick visuals and solid gameplay make up for some of it, but there was a bad taste left in my mouth from a different aspect to it. I couldn’t help but feel that, unlike my thoughts after playing TNO, it trivialised the Nazi menace… and I can’t even put my finger on why that is. There are horrific and ghoulish moments perpetrated by individuals and the regime is clearly persecuting, torturing, and murdering large chunks of society, but it is so over the top that the grain of truth to it all is almost completely obscured and I worry it has also been ‘forgotten’. Maybe it’s the world that has changed; when TNO was released the idea of Nazi’s was something that most of us had condemned to history, an all-purpose villain that could be wheeled out whenever we need a bad-guy. Real world events of the past 12 months have shown us (maybe the naive ‘us’) that there are still people out there with those same levels of hate that once existed. I have often thought about the German policy of outright banning the use of Nazi imagery. In the past I had questioned its usefulness (and the free-speech implications) in curtailing this broken ideology. I think maybe now I understand that the point was never to silence groups filled with these kinds of warped ideologies, but by banning the use of their imagery it is ensured that they would never be trivialised, never so casually thrown about that the horrors are forgotten, and never made into such a caricature that we forget why they were hated in the first place…

… so here I am, at the end of a review that took a serious (and unexpected) turn, and the end of a year that saw some fundamentally worrying things happen. I enjoyed the game, and maybe you will too, but however you feel about it we can’t forget the atrocities that inspired it. Likewise, as the new year starts I like to think that as gamers we need to make that extra effort to be inclusive, understanding, encouraging to everyone in our community. Whatever little corner of ‘gamer’ you inhabit, it’s a group that encompasses more and more people of different lifestyles, nationalities, and beliefs which is a truly excellent thing. Make 2018 as inclusive as you can.

Happy New Year Everyone… 

10 thoughts on “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is Not What I Want to Talk About

  1. Great writeup! I think that, especially in today’s social climate, this game has themes worth discussing and putting under a microscope. Personally, I think my thoughts on the themes of the game were best summed up in Super Bunnyhop’s video on YouTube, which I’ll paraphrase: the first one resonates because it is written and directed by Europeans and takes place in an alternate Europe, meaning they have first hand experience with the political climate of Europe, whereas they don’t have as firm a grasp on the political and social climate of America, and as such they created a facsimile of what they THINK America was/is like, without going more than skin deep. It creates a dissonance between the two games, as one seems to be handled with a great deal of grace and tonal consistency while the sequel’s tone is all over the place. Still, it’s a game that made me think, and there’s something to be said about that.

    Also, I just have to say, I thought BJ’s characterization was surprisingly deep in the first game. He had a lot of inner monologue going on that was surprisingly poetic and gave a lot of insight into who he was and why he was who he was, and I thought that those themes were deepened by the backstory in the sequel. Whether or not it was handled sensitively, I’m not so sure, though, and I could see why that wouldn’t resonate with some people.

    Thanks for this great piece. I think that this game wanted to stir things up a bit, and in that respect I think it does a pretty good job, albeit not particularly gracefully. I’m eager to see where they go for the sequel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm… I’ll have to check that video out, sounds like a good watch. 🙂

      I have to admit that it’s been a while since I played the first game, so my recollection of the first game may be a ‘off’ – but nevertheless I do remember enjoying it and a good chuck of that was because of the plot and in turn that BJ was a character rather than just a voiceless vehicle.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Do check it out! He provides a lot of really thoughtful commentary and, while I don’t agree with every sentiment he has, he at least does a great deal of research to back up his opinions. I’m a big fan of YouTube gaming “essays” that take a more analytical approach to games.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah that second half nearly killed the game for me. Maybe it was all supposed to represent a turning point from them seeming hopelessly doomed to regaining their hope and will to fight for their country, but it felt more like they just stopped caring half way in and just gave up on the story and threw a bunch of random crap in there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Haha.. yeah, ok, gameplay struggle maybe, but in plot terms the game takes BJ to his absolute low-point and then is kinda like “nope, everything’s pretty much fine now”… I was really waiting for the big twist at the end that never materialised.

    Like

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