Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
On PC, this is one of the worst releases I’ve experienced. I stayed up on release day, hitting blue screens and corrupted configurations. At that time, nobody had worked out how to get past these issues. So for the love of god, don’t buy Bethesda games on release. Anyway, this is still a positive review. Once I got the game working, it turned out to be a successful followup to the last game.
Just about everything is better in this than last game. It plays exactly the same, but with sharper execution. Wolfenstein The New Order had decent, but kind of simplistic combat. What elevated it above mediocrity was the story and mood. None of those strengths have been lost in The New Colossus. This still isn't quite perfect, but it's a promising step in the right direction.
In The New Colossus, relations between Blazkowicz and other resistance fighters are presented in an unusually warm, human and sentimental manner. Relationships from the previous game have advanced, so people are having babies. They're fighting for the next generation, not just to avenge their lost friends and families. For the first time in Wolfenstein history, the game explores the backstory of B.J. Blazkowicz. I liked how it was handled, as they had this subplot work double duty. It's not just about B.J., it also explains in more depth how the Americans felt when the nazis took over, and how some collaborated with them for their own benefit. These were people who worked hard, didn't see much for their efforts, and were willing to blame their misfortune on the same people as the nazis. For the price of their souls, they could now get ahead. A lot of people, including Bethesda PR, have tried to tie this story to current events. To me it doesn’t feel like the story was conceived with current events in mind. Instead, this feels like a logical continuation of everything that happened last time. And as such, I'm happy with how it turned out. But if you're expecting this to delve deep into how America would accept a nazi dictatorship, this isn't it. I think it worked, but I can see the missed opportunity here. But the way it ends leaves it wide open to a sequel. So maybe next time?
Combat in the last game could be kind of a mess as if the result of poor communication in the team. You can tell from how levels are designed how you’re supposed to play a game. In The New Order, combat arenas could either be a series of office corridors where enemies clustered in rows to be mowed down. Or the arenas would be more open like a stealth game, with multiple ways to approach and room to run around and experiment. The problem with the more open arenas was that enemies used hit scan weapons. This was coupled with mediocre sound design, that made all guns sound kind of soft and vague, especially at a distance. This made it easy to lose a lot of health without knowing where the damage was coming from. It encouraged a kind of play where you sat in one spot and waited for enemies to run at you so you could pick them off as they rounded the corner. I’m not sure if I missed something about how you were supposed to play the game. To me, it felt more like I tried to engage with the levels like how they looked like they were supposed to be played, and the game rewarded me with instant death, so I reverted to cheesing the enemy so I could just get on with the story.
Now in the sequel, most of my problems with combat have been fixed. For the majority of the game, I felt like I could play it the way it was “supposed” to be played. Or at least it felt like I was able to understand some kind of designer intent, act on that, and not be smacked across the face. What they’ve done in this game is add more delay between when an enemy sees you, and how quickly they can raise their guns and start shooting. This is especially true for bigger enemies, which were particularly dubious in design last time. The movement in the game emphasizes forward momentum. You move MUCH faster straight ahead than you do side to side or backward. Clear emphasis is put on aggressively moving toward the enemy and blasting them with everything you got. And if things go bad, you can move in the opposite direction at probably 2x the speed enemies run.
I replayed a bit of The New Order a few weeks ago and was reminded of how weak and diffuse the sound design was. None of the weapons packed a proper punch, almost as if it was the explicit intent of the sound designers to make it kind and gentle on the ears. This soft character made it a non-fatiguing game to play for long stretches because nothing grated at your senses. But it felt wrong. It needed more edge and intensity. The soft character is still present in The New Colossus, but they’ve made significant improvements across the board. To hear everything this game has to offer, you’ll need to crank up the volume quite a bit. Then you’ll notice it has a nice multilayered ambient sound design, with tons of attention to detail in each environment. Guns sound more convincing now, and the wide dynamic range allows the game to retain a great sense of clarity and airiness even during the most chaotic mayhem. It isn’t perfect, as guns still drop in volume too fast when they’re a distance away from you. This makes it possible for enemies to be hitting you without you being able to tell where they’re coming from. But overall, this is a big improvement.
The only problem they’ve introduced in this sequel is that it’s often hard to tell where to go once you’ve won a combat encounter. Over and over again I found myself running around empty combat arenas trying to figure out where I was supposed to go. The game has a waypoint marker system, but you need to enable it manually. Ever since waypoint markers were introduced in games it’s been a worry that designers would stop designing levels properly and rely on the UI to direct players in the intended direction. And that’s how it feels here. I’m glad you have to activate the waypoint marker yourself each time. This makes the UI unusually decluttered for a modern game and made my eyes scan environments differently. Waypoint markers cause tunnel vision, and because it’s an overlay, it directly obscures the graphics beneath it. But they somehow managed to make a game here with the worst of both worlds. Level design that requires waypoint markers, and then disabling them by default.
It’s refreshing how old school The New Colossus feels. It's like the developers were allowed to shut the door to the rest of the world and only focus on improving the last game, with no compromises for the sake of modernity. But I wish they had been more ambitious. It's an iterative sequel, with meaningful improvements across the board. But it's not a benchmark title. There are so few good singleplayer FPS made these days. This might be the only one released in all of 2017? That makes Wolfenstein II an easy recommendation, despite my reservations. Do you want to play a new FPS that isn’t multiplayer focused? This is it. It’s good. And it’s all we got.