Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus successfully places a lot of bets on people wanting to fuck up Nazi’s. Players are given a wealth of options to dismember, disfigure, and destroy every Nazi you come in contact with, from hatchets and lasers to an arsenal of bullet dripping firearms — the only problem is the shooting is the worst part of the game.
Wolfenstein II shines on a number of fronts, most of which revolve around its utterly shocking narrative. Taking place in the 1960’s, players are tasked with liberating the United States after it has fallen to Nazi Germany following the destruction of New York with an atomic bomb. Spoiling the specific story moments that make the game so unbelievable and memorable would be doing it a disservice — just trust me when I say it gets batshit crazy. Or better yet play through it yourself. Or, maybe even the best option, catch the cutscenes on Youtube because everything in between ends up being a slog.
There is definitely something special about a concise, story-driven first-person shooter in 2017. When every publisher is seemingly grabbing at straws for various monetization ideas (some even ruining their game in the process), it’s hard not to applaud developer Machine Games on creating something entirely unique in the FPS space. The campaign is roughly 8-10 hours to mainline, with additional content to explore if you so choose. There are various assassination missions in which you embark through old areas to kill specific Nazi leaders, and you can revisit previous zones to seek out secrets and collectibles that are scattered throughout. In my case, when I saw the credits roll I was plenty satisfied and even a little relieved.
To put it bluntly, the gameplay of Wolfenstein II isn’t that great. It’s not that the controls aren’t sharp — it’s just boring. Moving along one linear pathway to the next, killing the exact same soldiers again and again left me unsatisfied after nearly every firefight. Additional units are introduced, but only a handful and they too quickly wear out thanks to their overuse. Without having more unique enemies to disembowel, every battle felt tired and disappointing, in the midst of such a wonderful story.
Players can choose two major ways to approach combat. Inch forward, silently eliminating Nazi’s with a hatchet one by one without trigger alarms, or viciously run and gun down the foe. Both ways have drawbacks, and after experimenting with both I never really found a groove to settle into, though I chose to take most fights head on — the stealth approach proved too slow. BJ Blazkowicz, Wolfenstein II’s protagonist, can dual wield all standard firearms, from pistols to assault rifles and even shotguns. The lack of accuracy when doing so, however, feels like I was wasting ammunition hand over fist. The game all but forces players to use the heavy unit’s weaponry after they have been killed, repeatedly. You wouldn’t think melting Nazi’s with a laser cannon could result in boredom, but after doing it countless times it does.
Ironically, it may be Wolfenstein II’s incredible story moments that exacerbate the feeling of tedium from the gunplay. Every awesome moment in the game is succeeded by a shootout of some kind. This shooting just serves as a vessel to get the player to the next awesome moment. My excitement to see what Machine Games would do next with their neon-colored cast of characters is what kept me trudging onward — not my excitement to actually play the game.
This style of experience, where the story is served as the main course with gameplay as a side dish, is in direct opposition to the game I completed previously — Super Mario Odyssey. Comparing the two is nearly impossible, apples and oranges as they say, but it’s hard not to feel a little empty while playing Wolfenstein II. Super Mario Odyssey’s gameplay is so rich and rewarding, whereas The New Colossus feels cold and uninspired. I’ll be the first to gladly whip a tomahawk across the room and into a Nazi’s face — but after doing it two dozen times the appeal unfortunately withers. The juxtaposition of types of enjoyment I derived from both games was jarring. Even with Super Mario Odyssey completely emancipated from my mind, Wolfenstein II still wouldn’t be an especially “fun” game to play.
The poor level design also doesn’t do the game any favors — I got lost more times than I could keep track of thanks to an overly simple map and labyrinthine corridors. Nothing is less climactic than killing everything but a single Nazi captain and running around the same set of rooms repeatedly to find and unceremoniously gun him down, all to the boom of a triumphant score. This happened at least a dozen times, leaving me feeling impatient and annoyed. Seeing Wolfenstein II though to the end is imperative to the experience, but it isn’t easy, and not because of the game’s difficulty.
Changing difficulties didn’t provide a solution. Play the game on hard and you’re constantly dying and reattempting the levels until you finally squeeze through to the next checkpoint. Play it on easy and the Reich quivers at your feet, making every encounter an unthreatening yawn-fest. There is no sweet spot — each difficulty setting fails to feel worthwhile or rewarding for different reasons.
Wolfenstein II’s gameplay dulls the player into a sense of ennui by the end of the game. That’s a god damn shame too because the story being told is one of the most unique in modern gaming — it’s just not fun. The series will undoubtedly feature a final chapter to conclude the trilogy, and it’s a game I’m excited to check out; I just hope Machine Games receive critical feedback about the way this entry plays, and craft a more interesting finale while maintaining all the story elements are as unpredictable and bizarre as The New Colossus is. A conclusion that isn’t comparable to the magnitude of Wolfenstein II’s story wouldn’t be a conclusion at all.