Wolfenstein – A Narrative Jubilee with a Serviceable Gameplay
Ah, Wolfenstein. How much respect is automatically generated for a title that stems from the “granddaddy of FPS”? Does the fact that Wolfenstein 3D (1992) often received credit for being a genre-template for FPS moving forward provide extra oomph to this new, 2017, Wolfenstein?
Well…. Yes and no. I never played Wolfenstein 3D beyond a couple missions here and there, and I never played the New Order (2014), or The Old Blood (2015) as Wolfie titles in recent years.
Instead, I paid some respects to the games lineage and found whimsical fascination in The New Colossus due to the trailer depiction of character-driven momentum and vivid world-building.
So let’s start with the praise.
**Narrative Importance and Investment:**
Right off the bat, the game hits exactly where I want it to. It throws down from the get go with a narrative and character motivations that are simply alluring.
After a 5ish minute recap of the game, the story displays its need to invest heavily into our main characters. Starting with a flashback and some properly repulsive racist dialogue, the narrative sets out to have us experiencing a sort of vicarious oppression from the get. While not exactly original, the “abusive father” trope fits well here in the context of this nazi-infested universe. Shit like “it’s on us to straighten out the queer. It’s ON YOU” are at the forefront of the ideologies we’re bludgeoned with through this story. Our protagonist comes from bile, and his upbringing, as well as the story’s infatuation with exploring his childhood and “nurturing” environment immediately intrigue me.
For me, it’s important when games recognize that character is where narrative shines. Not only does the new Wolfie feature excellent cutscenes to expand on these character moments, it’s also not afraid to play a little long and really let the emotional impact linger.
Throughout the game, we’re led through a variety of missions surrounded by an ensemble of characters, a very hate-able villain, and enough cerebral musings to propel me forward without any real drag.
While the overarching plot is about what you’d expect from a pseudo-World-war-nazi type videogame story (AKA, kill generals, decipher secret codes, collect leads for the resistance), the real glamor in this story lies in the presentation.
**Characters, Cutscenes, and Presentation:**
The dialogue is so great here. There is a layer of liquid gold poured over the production values when it comes to presenting the story here. The ensemble cast is racially and dialectically diverse, leading to interesting side-stories and small character highlights. The way that BJ monologues his experiences and connects himself to a higher power is both endearing and a head-scratching juxtaposition over his relentless killing (even if they are Nazis).
There were multiple times I reloaded a checkpoint just to hear BJ or a character’s voice again. When BJ chimes in “I hate to ask, but can I keep your wings a lil longer?”, I had to replay that scene just to hear it. And the cutscenes… oh man. They are carefully crafted and use the POV often necessary in videogames to great effect. When it’s a scene, the editing and cinematography frame subtle hand motions and character’s faces in interesting ways.
Meanwhile, the main story holds up as well. In the U-boat that acts as the game’s HUB world, I found myself spending longer than I usually would exploring the rooms, talking with the locals, and seeing if I could foster stronger relationships with my crew.
I really can’t stress enough just how incredible some of the cutscenes are. The party scene, Wyatt’s dialogue during his lil “adventure”, and Bombat’s displeasure with Maxx’s expressions of sorrow are some highlights that elevate the story well, well, well beyond common videogames.
Some of our characters have some incredible resolutions, and are well utilized for encouraging emotional reactions.
One of the flashback scenes at BJ’s childhood home legitimately had me almost tearing up. The last time I felt the desire to praise a videogame for having strong narrative like this was with Andrew Ryan’s final dialogue in Bioshock.
**World Building and Atmosphere:**
This game is both ruthlessly dark and lightheartedly silly all at once. It bounces back and forth between sadistic decapitation and seeing Nazis playfully jog through an invisible incinerator beam, vaporizing them while two main characters shoot the shit in the foreground.
It has slower moments between the rampant bullets that fly where BJ explores his environment and lets the audience show just how much the world has changed. Hearing a Nazi officer chastise a woman for accidentally insulting Austrians and pouncing on her for “forgetting the fuhrer is an Austrian” all act to make the world feel well-designed, if not actually alive.
I say “designed” because there are some missteps. While praising the writing and attempt at world building in that sad interaction with woman and officer, we see very videogamey animations and a lack of facial expression or even body language. Minor nitpicks, but for a game that’s main draw is its world and narrative, these small gaps remind me how even a polished title may fail to animate extra characters.
And this critique only comes sparingly, as other animations like Super Spesh’s jovial disbelief that the U-boat has working toilets is incredibly well done and uplifting.
The game also has a pretty strong, to say the least, messages around oppression, racism, gore, and twisted ideologies. It’s not perfect, but its glean but far outshines its blemish.
Interestingly, this world doesn’t have a gender discrimination in its leadership, but classically omits women from enemy battlefield positions. It highlights weight and bodily health almost more prominently than racial discussions, yet it doesn’t aim to say all that much about it other than by having us feel empathy as a result of how vile the insults are. These glazed over vocal points can be argued to allow more thought-provocation rather than handing us our answers on a silver platter, but it’s an interesting comparison given just how obtuse the anti-race and anti-abuse the other messages are.
I did mention that there are plenty of small tidbits that really elevate the writing that aren’t at the pulse of our main story. Moments like when Sigran stands up for herself, or Bombat’s inability to handle a negative vibe had me stopping to ponder the complexity and strength of those characters. And a great many characters on our U-boat are given snippets and chances to shine just like this.
Narratively, this shit is better written than most blockbuster films… all while being a blockbuster videogame.
**This Game is a Videogame… Right?:**
Yes. This is a videogame. There is gameplay. And the gameplay is pretty damn serviceable. It never made me feel a sense of awe like the cutscenes or character moments did, but it’s relatively fun nonetheless.
In my mind, this traditional “run and gun” style to gameplay feels very classic and pretty safe. It’s clearly respecting the roots of Wolfenstein and doing focusing on finessing a lot of gunplay into its 12-ish hours or so of campaign.
Immediately as I started playing, I actually wasn’t stoked on how the guns felt. Headshots felt minuscule and puny, and it was hard to get a feel of strength with the weapons. The stealth and melee was much more punchey than the guns, so early on I found myself leveraging those bits.
Once I ran through some weapon upgrades (found via collectibles on the map) and beefed up some of my perks/stats (beef-able via simply completing kills using that skill), gameplay started to click a bit more.
Before I knew it, I was running fast and dual-wielding shotguns with a grin on my face. This was because I found the gameplay to be most well-suited for high octane movement and in-your-face gunplay. The game is challenging sometimes and requires a bit of weeding out troops via stealth, but these moments simply aren’t that much fun.
Once you get enough upgrades and weapon boosts to make your movement align with your bloodlust, you kind of unlock a flow that feels pretty fun.
**Simple Yet Uninspired…. Is Still Uninspired?:**
If playing the game at the level that the above clip presents, it can be pretty fun and visceral. It just… didn’t do all that much for me. This is primarily because of the tone it strives for yet doesn’t quite nail. In the narrative, the story is pulpy, juicy, and often gross. It’s graphic and it aims to hit you in the aorta with its visuals or context.
In the actual game, it has flares of that same tone, yet comes across as a sterilized comic. Some of the game is really gory and limbs fly off in bloody bits, or Nazis are gibbed beyond belief after a super-sprint charge, but it never elevated beyond cartoony for me.
A large problem may be that in keeping with the spirit of past Wolfenstein games, it may have felt a need to remain grounded and relatively simply in how it plays. This would have, perhaps, been a breath of fresh air… had DOOM 2016 not come out a year prior and absolutely blew all other run-n-gunnin’ type FPS simply out of the water. Covered heavily in my full review, DOOM succeeded for me because it amped up the speed, gore, and gameplay to hit a delightful sense of flow at every turn. Constantly amping up the combat and challenge, stimulation, and enemy types, the game backpacked Narrative so hard that all of its value came in the form of gameplay.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is a bit better-rounded as a package, but this results in my main praise being the excellent Narrative… while the gameplay is merely serviceable. It’s fast, it’s sometime gory, and it’s sometimes really nice to create one’s own dynamic constellations with how many bullets we let fly. Now if it took the gameplay as far as it takes its narrative… we’d be looking at shooter of the year material here.
**Gameplay Design of Note**
The game does have a couple of design focuses that I really love seeing in games, and a couple that don’t appeal to me but act as important longevity boosters for some players.
It’s lovely to see a game have more than just 3 difficulty settings. This game came packed with 6 up-front, and one that you can unlock after beating it on the harder difficulty. Customization, and informative descriptions on what they change, are welcome to any game.
It’s mostly nice that perk upgrades are boosted by ways of simply getting kills with that method of killing… but it’s also a little too basic. DOOM utilized the same principle but with slightly different amplified, so instead of getting 150 Headshots, it was 150 Headshots from 40meters away, or 150 Headshots while jumping in the air.
There are a TON of collectables in this game. Some are interesting concept art pieces, and some are little trading card style depictions of the Dev team, and there are many more… and I didn’t feel compelled to look for any of them, really. These are easily the most ignorable thing for me in most games, especially in games that have high movement mechanics and aren’t rewarding you to break whatever flow you’ve worked up towards.
And finally, there is sort of side-mission quest log where players can continue beyond the main campaign to eradicate Uber-Commanders… and this feels like a weak version of just replaying the missions. A similar complaint is often leveraged about “tacked on” multiplayer, but I’ll be honest in saying that I wish this game had some sort of MP. The speed and weapons are fun enough that MP is often fun for a handful of hours.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is narratively excellent through and through. It’s captivatingly well-acted, shockingly graphic, full of twists, some turns, and a couple of decent “gotchya” moments. When I think about the value of this game, it’s the narrative that beams in my memories. The gameplay fits the tone the story sets forth, even though it ain’t exactly anything to write home to your game-loving mama about.
**Gameplay Design Worth Advocating For:**
- Cinematic cutscenes that focus on character faces, revel in the voice acting, and take time to flesh out the character motivations are often going to hit home and be much more memorable than focusing on plot or having templatized characters.
- Adult themes, gore, and provocative visuals can go a long way when the game/medium recognizes there must be room to discuss those themes. Be it through character dialogue, the way characters react to the violence/oppression, or how much screen time is given to certain events can entice audiences to ponder what the message may be saying.
- A chit-chatting protagonist during gameplay, either through monologues or discussions via a mic to other characters, is a good way to continue developing our hero without over-utilizing cutscenes. Even something as small as how our hero remarks on the brutality of the world can build rapport.
- Flashbacks and showing our hero’s childhood seems to be a pretty effective, if not somewhat tropy, way of building rapport.
- For games that focus heavily on world-building, small gaps in the NPC behavior or animations can quickly break the illusion that the world is lush and alive.
- Run-n-gun games that allow dual wielding are pretty fun. If the game tries to be over-the-top, why limit itself in how outrageous if becomes? If a game is trying to be gory and excuse its gratuitous violence with a “killing Nazi’s is A-ok” mentality, then why not up the gore even more to “Soldier of Fortune” levels.
- When creating perks and upgrades that boost character stats, tying said challenges directly to the upgrade is a good move. Having the challenges be uninteresting or too simple like “get 150 dual wield kills” can feel phoned in. The goal is to get the player to adopt new gameplay styles they may not have tried before. Even tying them to diverse weapons can accomplish that, which DOOM did with success.
**Recommended for fans of this genre?** Yes, absolutely. Any gamer that likes FPS should try this bad boi out and they will likely have a blast rolling around and murdering Nazis. Anyone that appreciates narrative driven titles and has decent gameplay handling (or doesn’t mind playing on easy) will also find a kick out of this title.
**Recommended for non-fans of this genre?** Mostly yes. The gameplay is heavily one-note in its FPS approach. Even the minimal stealth focus will have players completing the same actions over and over, so there’s that. The narrative is so good, however, that it’s worth persevering and hitting a golden path.
**Recommend for non-gamers?** No. Not really. It’s a tough sell, primarily because the gameplay is hard enough that it requires lots of reflexes. It’s also incredibly violent and intense. I think that a non-gamer who loves satire or alt-history might love the story just for the story alone, but that feels more like watching a “Let’s Play”.
Semi-arbitrary score: 8.4/10
- All Wolfenstein 2 images screenshotted from a Let’s Play of the videogame. https://youtu.be/SvbU423NR5k
- Wolfenstein 3D Image: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/OYgozk0RjRg/hqdefault.jpg
- Video clip gathered by the reviewer during his playthrough.