Let me start by saying this isn’t really a review. I intended to sit down and write an actual review some time ago, but I’m still trying to catch up on games from 2017 as we wade through more and more incredible releases this year. All while working full time and spending much of the last month working 10-12 hours a day while finishing up a feature documentary. That’s besides the point though, this piece is more of a re-evaluation of my thoughts on one of the first games I played in the calendar year of 2018; Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.
Wolfenstein II was a game I was very much looking forward to playing. I thought the previous game — The New Order — was quite good, and boasted a surprisingly strong story to go alongside solid shooting mechanics and level design that managed to deviate from the overly scripted, “corridor shooter” mentality a lot of games adopted towards the end of the PS3/360 console generation. To be honest, Wolfenstein: The New Order went under my radar when it launched. I didn’t particularly enjoy the demo I played at PAX West some years ago, but I picked up on sale a couple of years later and enjoyed my time with it. So, when The New Colossus was teased at E3 2016 and announced at E3 2017, it was a game I was excited about like a lot of other people. Throw in the late marketing push that capitalized on the currently insane political climate of the United States (and to a degree, the world) to take shots at those lunatics out there still spouting hateful fascist rhetoric, the excitement to go on a virtual Nazi killing spree was amplified.
I didn’t get around to picking up Wolfenstein II until after Christmas, and started the game up shortly after the calendar turned from 2017 to 2018. I devoured the game over the course of about a week. While there were certainly elements of the game that stood out to me, I did walk away from the game feeling somewhat let down. I dismissed those complaints as nitpicky things, and to a degree I do still feel like they are nitpicks. In the two and a half months since however, those nitpicks have become bigger and bigger issues for me. Other people I know had the exact same problems I did, where mechanics felt just the slightest bit off. Things that were so smooth in The New Order felt like they had been changed for the worse in The New Colossus. The movement of your character is very twitchy, feeling imprecise and making it difficult to drop through holes in the floor or climb ladders. The sights on your weapons seem like they’re not entirely accurate, and low level enemies can withstand a lot of damage before going down. Not only do many of the levels feel more linear and restrictive than anything in The New Order, they’re often empty and lacking real reason to explore. These are things that on their own may not necessarily ruin the game. Once they start to pile up and as time has passed, they’ve become the thing that I remember most from the game.
Not the interesting and engaging story that shifts B.J. Blazkowicz from a meathead stand-in for the player to a legitimate character with deeper motivations, or the well-directed cutscenes and villain that you enjoy hating. Not the insane tonal shift that comes two-thirds of the way through the game, or the sheer audacity to do some of the absolutely ridiculous things the game does. It’s just these small nitpicks that build up and have made me realize Wolfenstein II is a game I very much enjoyed watching, but not so much playing.
Maybe most disappointing of all was as I was preparing to write this post, and I finally came to terms with what bugs me most about Wolfenstein II; it feels like we’re missing a chunk of the story. There’s a pay off — and it’s a helluva pay off — but it feels like we’re missing half the build up.
Without delving too far into spoiler territory, the game has a significant and frankly, wild tonal shift about two-thirds of the way through the story. Because of how drastically it alters the game, both in terms of story and in terms of gameplay mechanics, it makes everything prior to it feel like it was the first act. A tutorial to draw you back into the world and this cast of characters, while also introducing new ones. And once we are done with the introductions… The game races to the finish. It’s almost as if the time that would have been spent on additional missions was set aside for underwhelming side missions, which allow the player to explore zones they have already worked through in the story in order to hunt down assassination targets. There is nothing special about these side missions, however. There are few, if any changes to the locations in their side mission form. No unique twist to the encounter, or special way in which to take your target down. You just blast your way through the area and eventually stumble across a random Nazi officer who happens to be your target. The first couple of times I played these assassination missions I completely missed the fact I had killed my target, and had to backtrack to find the item they dropped so I could complete the mission.
While these missions make sense as a part of the story — hunting down the leadership of the Nazi regime one by one — they felt like an afterthought. Filler. Meant to keep people around and pad out a campaign that was missing three or four main story missions. I certainly would have rather had three or four unique missions with engaging combat scenarios (or even just a couple of missions) compared to the 15 assassination missions presented here. Particularly because the game never really emphasizes them until late in the story, and by that point the narrative and the characters are rushing you towards the game’s conclusion.
I do want to take a moment to praise a later section of the game that takes place in a Nazi station built on Venus, because those zones were easily the most memorable and enjoyable sections of the game for me. The levels felt more open, and you could naturally pace yourself as you moved through them. Combat was difficult and engaging, without being frustrating (outside of one particular difficulty spike). The levels were worth exploring because you could find details about life on the station by checking every nook and cranny. Perhaps most notably — in my opinion, of course — was that the visual design of these zones blew me away, often feeling like it directly pulls from 60’s and 70’s science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Oydssey and Alien. It is a look that developers at Creative Assembly (the team that made Alien Isolation, another massively underappreciated game from 2014) referred to as “low-fi sci-fi”.
It’s disappointing because it’s easy to get attached to the colourful cast of characters in Wolfenstein II. Some of the writing offers clever, if not on-the-nose commentary on the current political climate in the world. It deserves praise for having the audacity to reach for some of the story beats and visual moments it goes for, and it does absolutely go for it. Above all it does an incredible job of building its’ hero into a character with a real backstory, with clear beliefs and motivations. It even goes to great lengths to explain why he can take such an incredible amount of physical abuse and still survive. Despite that, when it feels like an entire act of the story is missing and the gameplay has quirks that make it frustrating to deal with at times, those things unfortunately overshadow the great elements that are present in Wolfenstein II. And there are absolutely great elements there, it just feels like some things didn’t get the attention they needed.
Now, I’m not a game developer. I don’t know whether this was the result of a lack of budget, a lack of development time, or just the wrong decisions being made by the development team. I don’t really want to speculate on that either because I get it. I work in film — albeit on much smaller budget projects — and even in my short time in that industry, I’ve seen how creative projects like this can go totally sideways with the slightest push. There’s a good amount of things to like in Wolfenstein II, and I keep going back to the fact that the game deserves all kinds of praise for doing some ridiculous things that were really surprising. In the end though, the quirks and nitpicks and rushed elements of the story are what I remember more than anything. I remember feeling underwhelmed. That sense of disappointment has only really grown with time, to the point that I think I can say I didn’t really like Wolfenstein II that much.
Maybe that’s all about expectations, as reviews for The New Colossus were well above The New Order. I also paid more than the $8 I did when I got The New Order on sale. Expectations do have a significant impact on our overall impressions of a thing, but I found The New Order to be a much more satisfying game and experience. That makes me wonder though; were my expectations for The New Colossus too high, or were my expectations for The New Order just really low?
P.S.: Again, I don’t really view this as a review so I’m not going to assign a score to it. I haven’t gone in depth enough on certain aspects of the game, and could say more if I wanted to really grind away at it. So let’s just leave it at that.