It’s been a busy month for gaming. We’ve had the Loot Wars Battlecrate controversy, we had the DLC for one of the best games of the generation, we had a refreshed (though not nearly enough in my opinion) Assassins Creed game, Call Of Duty, Sonic, Nioh releasing a PC port. The list is long.
What we also had was a sequel to one of the last generations biggest surprise hits. And while the overall game was enjoyable, effective and worth the purchase. A deeper analysis shows it’s also got some serious problems with it’s gameplay, design and particularly with it’s political/ethical message. We’re going to examine each of those issues in that order but first lets quickly get the history out of the way.
In 2009 Bethesda did what Bethesda do. After amazing success buying and rebooting the beloved Fallout series Bethesda went hunting for other famous but dormant IP’s. They eventually reached a deal to acquire gaming royalty in id software. This immediately gave Zenimax/Bethesda Doom, Wolfenstein and Quake.
All 3 games were relics of the past. Fast paced old school shooters that had little or no narrative and instead were famous for pioneering an entire genre. Still that genre,once known as “Doom Clones” (today we call them FPS titles) had changed a lot in the intervening years and those 3 titles had been on a steady and consistent downward trend.
In fact in 2009 Activision/Blizzard published it’s own id developed reboot of Wolfenstein. It was not a success.
Fast forward 5 years and Bethesda releases the first of 3 highly acclaimed games from the developer. To say the critical and commercial success of Wolfenstein: The New Order was a surprise would be an understatement. And much of that praise arose from the sense of surprise at what Wolfenstein did well.
Last years absolutely wonderful Doom reboot succeeded because it did exactly what fans hoped. It took old school stripped down mechanics and tweaked them a tiny bit while still keeping the feel of Doom but with modern graphics. It didn’t try to force a complex narrative into a game that is ultimately about cutting demons in half with a chainsaw. It kept light narrative elements and instead focused on honing and updating Doom to make it feel like a true combination of old school shooter speed with modern bells and whistles.
This is ...not what Wolfenstein the New Order did. I commend id for allowing Machine Games to take chances with Wolfenstein. They should be applauded for resisting the urge to make all 3 of their IP’s clones of each other. It would have been very easy for them to have re-positioned themselves as the “Old School Shooter” developer and done with Wolfenstein what they ended up doing with Doom.
Instead they continued their efforts at giving Wolfenstein a compelling narrative core. Still, we have to acknowledge that id’s previous efforts at this were absurd failures. The simple fact remains that a game about shooting Nazis in a series of boxy corridors leaves only so much room for story. The story was, and to be fair remains: Nazis are extremely bad and they require shooting and dismemberment.
So with the new Wolfenstein it seems that id recognized the limited space for interesting narrative elements and instead leaned hard into the other part of story telling. Strong characters.
If you go back and read reviews of the New Order you’ll notice one thing that was written over and over. Reviewers almost all commented on the games “surprisingly effective story.”
People were neither looking for nor expecting a strong story in that game. But they got it.
This brings us to to the sequel, which this month released to very strong critical reception with an 87 Metacritic score. [I got it on release on PC and was unable to play past the first few minutes because of an Nvidia driver issue. Once again I was forced to play an inferior version of a game because a PC port was sold to me at full price and did not work. I played on the XBox One S mainly because my PS4 hard drive was full.]
Wolfenstein 2 keeps the majority of the mechanics used in the first game and also doesn’t significantly improve on it’s visual presentation. Character models outside of cut-scenes are still a bit dated, textures and environments are adequate. As far as graphics go they don’t get in the way but also don’t particularly add anything to the experience. On the gameplay side it’s still got fun though marginally effective dual wielding, it’s got the light stealth elements in the level commanders and it doesn’t have regenerating health.
On a basic level it’s a perfectly adequate shooter but Doom 2016 and Titanfall 2 raised the bar considerably for what I expect in a great single player shooter campaign and while I enjoyed Wolfenstein 2 the gameplay always felt confused. The early Wolfenstein’s were stealth games, then shooters. Then an rpg. Then a relatively ham fisted narrative shooter. And this trend of genre confusion shows up within the new game itself. Like id/Machine didn’t quite know what they wanted this game to play like and this confusion bleeds all through the gameplay and even into the level design itself.
Lets start with two of the most noteworthy mechanics of the game because the level Commanders and dual wielding are mechanics that seem to want completely different things from the player.
The New Colossus brings back the light stealth elements of the first game. Many levels have Commanders that must be killed to stop them calling in reinforcements. The game also features a cover mechanic with a leaning ability to peak out and scout the area. The problem with this is that I’m sure many players are like me. If there is a stealth aspect to the game they’re going to want to have a chance to ghost the level without being seen. Wolfenstein doesn’t craft levels that work for the stealth it seems to want players to engage in. There’s no feedback to know if you can be seen or not. There’s no attention meter as in most modern stealth games there aren’t any clever ways to navigate the levels. They are basically Doom like corridors and rooms with some boxes and cover scattered about.
That could be fine, if the game wanted you to only stay in stealth for a few easy kills before devolving into a run and gun type experience. But the game doesn’t seem to want that either because you die VERY FAST in Wolfenstein 2. Enemies are very spongy and shoot hyper accurate hit-scan weapons and once you are spotted you’re movement speed and options don’t allow you to play this game like you would doom.
The dual wielding weapons only makes sense if the game wanted you constantly dealing damage but BJ Blazkowitz is a ridiculous glass cannon. You cannot take damage for even a short amount of time before you die. And those deaths will often be frustrating because the game does an absolutely abysmal job at communicating to the player. There’s little to no noticeable feedback that lets the player know he is nearing critical health levels. Most deaths feel sudden and frustrating because you can be taking damage without knowing it. This lack of player feedback even extends to level navigation. It’s just a core fact that the game does a pretty crappy job of giving the player the information she needs to make the gameplay flow. And it does an abysmal job telling the player how much damage they are taking.
Even this would be fine. Ok so the game wants me to play carefully and use cover. But the game doesn’t really give you the tools to do that effectively either. Only one weapon actually has any effective range at all. And the dual wielding of shotguns is screaming to players that the game wants to be played like Doom. This leaves two options for the player. Slow way down and play this game like a cover based shooter. Or turn the difficulty down (and I mean WAY down to Don’t hurt Me) and play it like Doom. This is a real problem because at the higher difficulties the game is frustrating at best and at the easier levels it offers absolutely zero challenge.
I ended up choosing the zero challenge path because ultimately the gameplay the title offered wasn’t really engaging enough to justify playing levels over and over. Doom had me playing on the highest difficulty because the challenge there felt fair and fun. The challenge here feels arbitrary and annoying. That said you’re mileage may vary. You might be one of the people who enjoys the way this game handles it’s combat. Ultimately I became convinced I was here for the characters and to a lesser extent the story and just turned the difficulty down.
This whole issue with the gameplay is also compounded by the shear amount of times you will be holding X to pick up health. Not having regenerating health is a perfectly understandable choice because the id reboots were clearly designed to feel like the shooters of the past. Doom 2016 absolutely nailed it. The Glory Kill mechanic was a perfect way to incentivize fast paced play by making killing the only way to regenerate health in combat. Frankly Wolfenstein should have just straight stolen that mechanic. It would make as much sense here as it did there and as I’ve said before. When faced with a choice between realism and fun developers should choose fun every time. Barring just implementing that mechanic going forward they at least need to make ALL health, armor and ammo pickups completely automatic and drastically increase the range on the pickups. You will spend an awful lot of time slowly hoovering over levels and corpses to either walk directly over an ammo pickup (the range is so small that you often have to go back and forth until you’ve gotten it) or holding X to pickup health and armor.
I can’t overstate just how immersion breaking this is. It slows the game to an absolute crawl and completely destroys any momentum within the levels themselves.
The core loop here is enter an area. Start making your way to a Commander by killing one to 4 guards while in stealth before being spotted by the AI from across a room when you thought you were in cover. You then scramble to kill the commander and slowly pick off enemies. After the fight you make your way all through the area holding X for 2 seconds at a time to pick up health and repeat.
It’s not a small issue. At times it made me put the game down because the post fight scavenging is so boring and repetitive and annoying. These decisions could easily have led to me putting the game down for good and frankly I would have if not for one very surprising (at least for me) thing.
The cut-scenes are truly great. The New Colossus’ story isn’t anything particularly interesting. It’s basically a vengeance fantasy. BJ’s vengeance for lost friends and America’s vengeance for Germany dropping a Nuclear weapon on New York (we’ll get to that story beat and what it means for the overall games message in a bit).
But, like in any work of fiction, there is nothing new under the Sun when it comes to story and what differentiates a great work from a piece of action schlok is characters. And the New Colossus has fantastic characters. If we need a point of reference the game probably most resembles the work of Quentin Tarantino. It’s explosively over the top hyper violence, it’s loving recreation of late 1960's fashion and it’s nod to the Blaxploitation films of that era all shine through.
I won’t spend much time spoiling the characters themselves because their introduction, story beats and interactions are the best parts of this game. The cut-scenes are well paced, perfectly acted, expertly directed and spaced out almost perfectly.
In fact the only thing I’ll mention is it has the most interesting representation of a pregnant character in a game to date.
Alright. SO the gameplay is somewhere between adequate and frustrating but the characters and cut-scenes (not something I’m know to care much about in games) are top notch and riveting.
This leaves the story itself. The story mirrors the gameplay in one important way. It’s completely confused about what it wants to be.
The game, again, is extremely violent. You’ll be hacking off arms and splitting skulls. After upgrades you’ll literally be running through enemies and exploding them into bits of flying meat. The aforementioned pregnancy scene literally features raining blood. ALL games have to contextualize their violence and most of them do a very very bad job at it.
The New Colossus has, seemingly, the easiest enemy in the world to use as cannon fodder. Nazi’s.
We’ve gotten so far away from the events of WWII that Nazi brutality is actually under appreciated (I recommend reading the Rise and Fall of The Third Reich if you haven’t).
So it might surprise you that I feel that the level of violence here works against the message of hope that id was clearly going for. The game is set in a fictionalized universe where Nazi Germany won WWII. They’ve taken over the US and much of the populace is now, defacto collaborators. If you’re going to tackle something like this you’ve got to make sure you examine the theme of responsibility.
Even in WWII we’ve never come to grips with what the responsibility of the average, conscripted German soldier is for the atrocities of his government. The sheer amount of soldiers you’re killing brutally means that inevitably some of them are just dudes. You’re operating in the United States where millions of people have capitulated. And in many instances they’ve capitulated because of their inherent racism and biases.
A setting like this demands that NAZI brutality be shown. It demands that you acknowledge and examine American responses to the ideology. Especially in the current political climate it requires examining the people who collaborate.
The New Orleans level needed to show citizens living under NAZI rule.
But more than that the game needs to examine its own seeming statement that hatred can be defeated by lopping off arms.
The game wants to handle serious issues like this but without taking the time to dwell on them. It would be really really great if you could shoot racism to death or hack off it’s arms with a machete. The world would be excellent if you could end tyranny and manipulation with a shotgun. Because humans are truly excellent at directing violence at other humans.
But we don’t live in that world. Wars and racism and tyranny are complex issues with complex causes and effects. I don’t want to kill the game for this but I think it’s important to note because all throughout the game something was nagging at me. I kept dwelling on the violence in a way here that I did not with Doom 2016. It took weeks to finally come into focus. And what did it was replaying the New York Level.
The New York level suffers from all the gameplay problems mentioned. It’s difficult and confusing to navigate and traverse. Visibility is bad. Stealth options are limited and run and gun doesn’t work because enemies are all around you and you often die without even realizing you’re being damaged.
And when it comes to story? We’ve got a serious problem. The bombing of New York with a nuclear weapon is rightly presented as an unforgivable tragedy. Nazi Germany is responsible for killing millions of non combatant civilians to force the surrender of the government. Sadly citizens even in western democracies have very little say on foreign policy and basically zero say on the conduct of wars done in their names. Any government that would do something like this is unforgivably evil and any and all of it’s agents deserve every one of those hacked off limbs and split skulls you’re going to give them right?
But only one nation in history has done that. They did it twice in fact. And it was US who did it. And it wasn’t unforgivably evil. It was a ridiculously complex decision informed by all sorts of factors. Those bombs were dropped on completely civilian targets. And the suffering of the people was unimaginable. This strangely goes basically unexamined. Are ALL the Nazi soldiers you brutalize within that level responsible? Just the commanders? None of them?
13 million Germans served in the Army alone in WW2 with almost all of them serving by conscription. And many of them were probably viciously anti-Semitic and/or racist. Most probably fell for the propaganda that the Nazi party was so expert at creating. But after the defeat of Germany almost all of those people went home. They went back to work. And over time their biases lessened enough to build one of the most progressive nations on Earth and one that makes hate speech a criminal offense.
So while killing those soldiers in war time was a necessity reveling in hacking off their limbs feels off somehow. And using a nuclear blast zone as a morality tale about the evils of prejudice feels particularly off. I’m not saying every FPS needs to be a complex examination of real world politics.
But Wolfenstein 2's cut-scenes are fantastic, the characters feel real. Their banter and environment feel authentic. It also is clearly trying to present very heavy themes on racism, tyranny, antisemitism and hope in the face of terror. It makes a very real effort to examine the “one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter” principle by having the enemies refer to BJ as Terror Billy. It even, if very briefly, gives us the occasional text log making a token effort at fleshing out it’s nameless soon to be piles of giblets enemies.
What it doesn’t examine in any meaningful way is HOW to combat racism. It clearly shows that many American’s have accepted Nazi rule and adopted the racial ideology but it doesn’t really make any kind of statement about that beyond just noting it’s existence. It doesn’t even try to conceptualize why Nazi ideology worked in America and perhaps most importantly what the effect of this amount of extreme and intimate violence does to BJ himself.
So in total we’re left with a game with confused and uneven gameplay riddled with lots of small annoyances, a story that leaves at least me, feeling somewhere between slightly uneasy and disturbed and music, characters and cut-scenes so good I kept going to get to the next one.
I haven’t played a game that left me so unsure of how I felt about it and so confused by the almost universal praise it received. If I had to give it a score I’d say it ends up being much more than the sum of it’s parts. A solidly above average 6.5 out of 10 that with some gameplay tweaks (simply making pickups automatic would have added a point for me) could have been an 8. But it’s confused politics and ethics mean it can’t approach the levels of some of the generations best games. Doom proves that a story isn’t needed. Horizon Zero Dawn proves that story depth can add a ton to a game and Wolfenstein 2 proves that if you’re going to take on some of the most important ethical questions we face you’ve got to do everything you can to make sure it’s not as shallow and confused as this.
See you soon and Old Pliny greatly appreciates people who watch his videos and follow him on twitter. For those he can convince to watch his videos (visual aids make these very long analyses so much more pleasant) he very much enjoys subscriptions, likes, comments, Pastrami sandwiches, and low fives. High fives are played out bro.
Original doom footage acquired from:
Hirosima picture downloaded from: