Review: Wolfenstein II - The New Colossus
“Your voice, Anya,” muses the BJ Blazkowicz, as he fights his way towards his inevitable death. “Every second, a glory.” He’s thinking of his wife, pregnant with twins, as he shreds a path through a swath of Nazis. His thoughts are presented as a monologue, lyrical and dark as the viscera on his hatchet. Another Nazi goes down as BJ buries the blade in the back of his knee, dragging the corpse across the floor.
Every second, a glory, indeed - at least when it comes to the writing in this first person shooter from the celebrated Bethesda studios. I picked this one up on sale based off a recommendation - and aside from a stellar script and unforgettable cast of characters, I’m not sure that was such a good idea. In fact, I’m not sure it was a good idea at all.
It’s immediately apparent while playing through Wolfenstein II that the writing and voice acting are on an entirely separate level than the vast majority of games. Not since The Last of Us have I seen an opening 10 minutes so effectively harrowing - and what’s perhaps more impressive, is how efficiently these opening minutes tell the story of the original Wolfenstein, bringing the uninitiated up to speed, without trying to make us cry.
I confess - I was enraptured by the game’s opening moments: they felt cinematic and profound, beautiful and brutal, grimy and visually stunning. Had the entire game lived up to the promise of its opening minutes it would have been an all time favorite of mine; as it turned out, however, the rest of the package was so wildly unbalanced that I found myself resenting the game nearly as much as I appreciated it.
“A blessing. To have finished the work I was put on this earth to do. Surrounded by friends that love me, and a great warmth washing over me. I think the sky is on fire. Death at the gates again. Howling my name. Come on in, old buddy. Sorry I made you wait.” - BJ Blazkowicz
I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody that watching someone else play through a triple-A title would be a preferable experience to playing it for themselves…but I honestly think Wolfenstein II is best experienced from a distance. The illusion of a masterpiece can be maintained, so long as you never have to fumble your way through the game’s core mechanics - in this case, doing the normal gamey things like navigating the world and shooting a gun.
I never thought I’d say this about a first person shooter from such a reputable company, but I actively hated the gunplay in Wolfenstein II. I hated it so much, in fact, that I found myself getting a headache whenever I actually had to put my fingers on the triggers and actually, you know, play the game. The cinematic scenes (which were thankfully numerous, and uniformly excellent) were oasis’ in a desert of floaty guns, strangely underwhelming tactical feedback, counterintuitive inventory control, and an inexplicably weak main character. For someone named Terror Billy, I sure died. A lot.
To be clear, dying a lot isn’t always bad. For example: I split my game time on Wolfenstein II with the samurai influenced RPG Nioh, which took one main influence from it’s Soulsborne roots: the damn thing can be brutally difficult. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve died in Nioh to date - it’s certainly right up there with my proud death counts from Dark Souls 2 and 3. No, dying doesn’t bother me. Dying because my character is made of glass, has nearly 0 damage output, the guns are hard to aim, and you have to physically stop to pick up most armor and ammunition in the heat of a firefight bothers me. I hated playing as BJ Blazkowicz. This is a shame, because I loved BJ and his wife, Anya, as well as (most of) his bumbling friends.
Level designs don’t help these gameplay issues. Levels are big and sprawling, yet relatively linear in terms of how you can approach a problem. The game punishes you ferociously for triggering an alarm but doesn’t give you organic ways to avoid doing so - stealth mechanics are barely there, and being seen by any enemy NPC for more than three seconds or so will trigger a floor wide alarm that not only sets all present NPCs on alert, but actually calls in bigger and tougher reinforcements that will hunt you down with relentless accuracy. I don’t mind stealth in games - I loved playing Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and Dishonored. What I mind - no, hate - is when a game punishes you for “going loud” after making “going quiet” physically impossible.
Finally, I’d be willing to look past the terrible gameplay for great character writing and a great plot. Unfortunately, the end of the game was so unbelievably underwhelming I found myself staring at the screen once I’d reached it, convinced that there was no way in hell that I’d actually completed the campaign. Multiple story threads which start out promising end…strangely, or off camera, or not at all. One of the most emotional threads - the story of BJ’s ring, a family heirloom passed down to him by his mother - only finds its resolution if the player sits through the credits. Even then, it’s barely a payoff at all - just one little character moment that, while sweet, hardly qualifies as a well executed ending for one of Wolfenstein’s longest running subplots.
There are shocking scenes, of course - this is a Wolfenstein game, after all - and they are tremendously effective. I won’t go into details here on the off chance somebody reads this someday and doesn’t want to be spoiled, but suffice it to say the violence is sadistic and creative, and the story - while lacking a strong ending (indeed, while lacking any real ending at all) does have some real humdingers for chapter climaxes. These story beats, when they arrived, felt fantastic and often left me physically shaking. It’s too bad, then, that they never seemed to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
“And if you still copy, this is the conclusion I’ve reached. Whatever happens…she can’t know she’ll be rearing our babies alone. It’s my burden to bear until it’s hers. So here’s what I’ll do. Keep away from her. Let nothing show. Caroline…this dying is making me a liar.” - BJ Blazkowicz
Ultimately, I’m glad I tried out Wolfenstein II if only because now I know I don’t really need to play another game in this franchise. That isn’t to say I don’t care about where the franchise goes from here - I do. I want to know what happens to BJ and Anya, Wyatt and Set, Horton and the Professor. I want to know if the revolution ever takes hold, if the Americans overthrow the Nazis, and what sacrifices must be made along the way to accomplish the dream of freedom. I want to know all of these things - but can learn them by watching my favorite YouTubers play through future campaigns, sparing myself the headache of having to do it myself. What a strange thing to say about a game, is it not?
But then, who knows.
Maybe by Wolfenstein III, Bethesda will have learned a thing or two, and I’ll be prepared to give it another shot.
Only time will tell.
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-A & R, Intercoastals