BJ Blakzowicz gets to the top of the Empire State building and meets the New York branch of the American resistance, which is every bit as important and successful as the Antarctic branch of Ben & Jerrys. Don’t get me wrong. I like these characters in terms of their overall design. Leader Grace Walker is an interesting re-imagining of the idea of a Black Liberation Army leaderYes, it’s about a decade early for the BLA, but the Nazis invaded America so…. Super Spesh is a fun bit of comic relief as an alien conspiracy nut in a world that’s already overflowing with crazy. But as vibrant as they are from a character design standpoint, it doesn’t change the fact that these two are stuck at the top of a crumbling irradiated ruin, surrounded by Nazi troops, and they don’t seem to have a plan to change any of that, much less “liberate the United States”.
They do turn out to be useful laterWell, as useful as any of the other quest dispensers in the story. Obviously BJ does all the shooting., but wouldn’t this sequence be more interesting if these characters had something concrete that we needed? As it stands, our motivation is, “Caroline wanted to make contact with these people and none of us is capable of forming plans so let’s just do that and hope something good happens”. It’s not strictly wrong, but it could be better. If the game wants to give us vague orders like, “Go here to make the plot happen” that’s fine. But if that’s all the more the writer cares about framing and motivation then they shouldn’t waste our time with so many non-interactive cutscenes.
After BJ meets Grace and Super Spesh the Nazis attack. BJ must hold off waves of Nazis while the resistance escapes. The cutscene makes it look like Grace and Spesh live alone at the top of the tower, but then Grace starts shouting to “her people” and we realize there were actually a bunch of other people in the room that the cameraman has been ignoring. These people are resistance fighters living in a sea of Nazis but I guess none of them can fight for themselves. BJ has to hold off the Nazis while the entire group escapes.
All of that is fine, but couldn’t the writer find the time to give us some of this context in the previous six minutes of cutscenes? “Hey Player Character, we’ve got a lot of people up here. Our fighters are all dead. The only folks we got left is my signals intel crew. They’re the best in the business, but they can’t do us any good if we can’t keep them alive.” Yes, you can sort of extrapolate that this must be the case based on what we see later, but we shouldn’t need to extrapolate answers to basic questions like, “Why should I care about these people?” Particularly after a long cutscene full of dialog.
Instead of doing the business of the plot, we get a digression where Grace goes on a rant about how it doesn’t make any sense to compliment a brave person for having “balls”, since balls are soft and fragile. I don’t have a problem with this as a way of characterizing her, but I do have a problem with spending screen time on this instead of giving us exposition and context.
A lot of scenes in the game are like this, which makes the story feel self indulgent on the part of the writer. They obviously have a bunch of monologues and scenes they wanted to put in the game, and that stuff took priority over putting in a few lines of dialog to give us a sense of why we came here and what we’re getting out of it.
Let’s compare the next defensive section to the defensive scenarios of Half-Life 2…
Note that whenever you need to defend a room in the Half-Life series, the designer always gives you time to familiarize yourself with the battlefield beforehand. Where will the enemies enter the room? Where are the good defensive positions? Where are the environmental hazardsLike exploding barrels. so I can use them strategically instead of blundering into them? Where are the ammunition and health items located? Where are the useful bottlenecks? The dialog made it sound like I’m supposed to be covering everyone’s escape, but is there a specific choke point I’m supposed to hold or do I just need to hold off waves of dudes?
If you don’t allow the player to map this out on their own, then they have to figure it out during the sound & fury of a gunfight while dying repeatedly. Letting them explore the space allows them to make plans and execute them instead of just shooting dudes chaotically. Unplanned chaos is what regular gameplay is like, and defensive scenarios are supposed to offer a contrast to that.
But this section doesn’t give the player this opportunity. The mooks start pouring in as soon as the cutscene ends, before the player has a chance to get their bearings.
This isn’t an unreasonable thing to ask for! BJ clearly had the opportunity to explore this space before the fight. Presumably, he knows his way around by now. The player doesn’t. Giving them thirty seconds to explore the room before the siege begins would give them a chance to close the gap between what they know and what their character knows.
I’ve seen a lot of people complain about this brutal difficulty spike on the forums and social media. I felt the same way on my first couple of attempts. Going strictly by player deathsAccording to my admittedly small sample size., this is one of the most brutal fights in the game, even though it’s just against the usual assortment of mooks.
Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe the designers really did intend this first-act gunfight to be overall more difficult than the final showdown on the Ausmerzer at the end, but I doubt it. What I think actually happened is that they tweaked this fight so that it provided a “tough but fair” challenge to the playtesters who already knew the layout, which made it very frustrating for first-time players. The way it is now, you have to learn the layout under fire and maybe die a couple of times before you can make a plan and act on it.
After the Siege, BJ and Grace have a conversation that makes no sense. BJ talks about how they want to liberate America. Grace argues that white America is a lost cause because they’ve already settled into Nazi rule. Then BJ says some platitudes about freedom and suddenly Grace starts agreeing with him.
This is wrong twice. One, what was she fighting for if she already thought this was a lost cause? I thought we were teaming up with her because mumble mumble something about revolution. But now she’s not even aligned with our cause? What was her plan then?
Secondly, BJ never says anything to convince her. She spells out reasons why the citizens of the US are a lost cause, and BJ doesn’t say anything to counter this. But she changes her mind anyway because there’s a musical swell while he makes his dumb arguments and that makes this feel inspirational.
This is one of those moments that really depends on trust in the storyteller. This scene could totally work if I was engaged with the story, if I liked the characters, and if I was having fun in the cutscenes. A Wolfenstein game is a fine place for cheesy dialog, broad characters, and scenes that sell themselves on style more than substance.
But by this point in the story I was getting restless in the cutscenes because they ran long while doing very little to entertain me, explain things, or move the plot forward.
I don’t want to make it sound like the entire plot is dross. The next section has a couple of really good scenes. There’s a running plot where BJ is convinced he’s dying. He won’t take off the power armor because he’s afraid it’s the only thing keeping him alive. Anya, his girlfriend from the first game, is six months pregnant and wondering why he’s suddenly so distant. There are a few cute moments with some of the side characters and it’s all broken by segments where BJ runs around the submarine, doing errands. It’s all fine, and some of it is pretty good.
The plan is for BJ to sneak into the Nazi base at Area 52 in Roswell and nuke the place. He dresses up like a fireman, with the nuke stowed in the fire extinguisher he’s carrying around. He’s supposed to meet up with a contact in New Mexico. When he gets there, he ends up in a diner where he bumps into a Nazi officer. The Nazi orders a strawberry milkshake, and then begins questioning BJ and asking to see his papers.
This scene is was actually used in some of the pre-release trailers. Which makes sense. It’s a really solid scene. The writer is no Quentin Tarantino, but this scene has a lot of the hallmarks of his style and does a good job of creating some tension. You’ve got characters doing some trivial banter, while at the same time you’re doing a little worldbuilding, while at the same time gradually turning up the heat on a volatile situation.
The scene also has some humorous dramatic irony. The Nazi keeps saying BJ looks familiar, and right behind the Nazi are wanted posters with BJ’s face on them. These scene bears a slight resemblance to a scene in The New Order. In both scenes, a Nazi asks BJ for his papers and he has to remain calm in the face of a deadly threat. They’re both good scenes, but once again I have to say The New Order did it better.
In Order, the scene introduces us to Frau Engel and her sidekick Bubi, who will be recurring villains going forward. In Colossus, we meet a nameless Nazi who likes Milkshakes and who will be dead by the end of the scene.
In Order, the scene is interactive. Frau Engel has this test designed to discover if you’re a Jew or not. She shows you some cards and you have to pick one without knowing what the result will be. Meanwhile, there’s a pistol on the table and you might be tempted to shoot your way out. The choices create uncertainty, which creates suspense. In Colossus, the cutscene is linear and there are no decisions to be made.
In Order, BJ is unarmed and surrounded by a lot of Nazis, making him powerless. In Colossus, he’s got an axe, which gameplay has already taught us is a one-hit kill.
In Order, the Nazis have observed that BJ is carrying two cups of coffee and have deduced that he’s traveling with someone. This ups the stakes for BJ, since being outed will also place Anya in danger. In Colossus, there’s no such threat. The player might even reason to themselves, “I can axe this guy in the face, take his weapon, and shoot my way out of here.” Therefore the tension can’t build because the player doesn’t feel like they’ve lost control of the situation.
This scene is good enough to be in the trailer, but Wolfenstein: The New Order still did it better.
We visit several locations in the United States during the course of the game, but most locations are ruins, Nazi military bases, or war zones. This section is the only time we see the civilian areas of the country and see what’s become of the country we’re trying to liberate.
We learn that the Nazis are letting the KKK run the south, and during our walk downtown we see KKK guys casually chatting with Nazi stormtroopers.
This is interesting because the war ended 14 years ago. At this point in history, we would have the first generation of adults who had little or no meaningful memories of the old USA. The men signing up for military duty now were raised in Nazi America. They’ve spent their entire lives attending Nazi public schools, watching Nazi television, and reading Nazi books. They would all speak German as a second language, and for people working with the Nazis on a daily basis it might gradually become their primary language.
Certainly there would be a few holdouts, keeping the old ideals alive and hiding the occasional book from the censors, but for the coming generation this will be the only world they’ve ever known.
And if you think about it, this would suggest that most of the faceless troopers you’ve been blowing away were probably more likely to be from Houston than Hamburg. The Nazis won the war, but unless they invented a cloning machine then they wouldn’t have the numbers to occupy the entire planet like this. Certainly some of their forces would need to be locally sourced. Perhaps they would have German officers in charge of native conscripts, with all of the really good hardware (the mech suits, the power armor, and the zap guns) reserved for guys from the Fatherland.
I have to wonder: What is the KKK at this point? The Nazis have put them “in charge”, but what does that mean? Are they a political party? A government agency? Are mayors, sheriffs, and city councils elected by the people, or are they appointed by the Nazi leadership? Because directly vetting and assigning a mayor for every pissant little city in the US would require an enormous bureaucracy.
To be absolutely clear: I’m not suggesting that Wolfenstein II would be a better game if the writer explained all of this. I wouldn’t want a scene where BJ has to go through a bunch of anguish because he realizes he’s been gunning down conscripted Tennessee farm boys. Like Star Wars, a big appeal of this series – indeed, maybe the entire point – is to have an unambiguously evil force to oppose so that we can do our first-person manshoots without worrying that our main character has gone too far.
Still, I find it hard not to look around this small town and wonder what the place would really look like after all this time, and how it all works.
Anyway, once BJ deals with Herr Milkshake, he goes through a secret tunnel to the Nazi base. This involves a lot of sneaking, so next time we’ll talk about what the developer did with stealth gameplay this time around.
 Yes, it’s about a decade early for the BLA, but the Nazis invaded America so…
 Well, as useful as any of the other quest dispensers in the story. Obviously BJ does all the shooting.
 Like exploding barrels.
 According to my admittedly small sample size.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
Silent Hill Turbo HD II
I was trying to make fun of how Silent Hill had lost its way but I ended up making fun of fighting games. Whatever.
Why Google sucks, and what made me switch to crowdfunding for this site.
A programming project where I set out to make a gigantic and complex world from simple data.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.