Before I start picking at Wolfenstein II, I should point out that I don’t think it’s a terrible gameAside from the PC technology problems I talked about last time, obviously.. A lot of these things might seem trivial or nitpicky. “Hey, if the game is good then who cares?” But this is less about griping about a terrible game and more about chastising a series that seems to be settling into some bad habits. Let me repeat my main points one last time:
- I think this game doesn’t really deserve to be rated so much higher than its predecessors.
- We’re now on the third entry in this series, and so a lot of this stuff should have been solved by now.
- While the story isn’t terrible, it’s also not nearly interesting enough to justify the length of these self-indulgent cutscenes.
So when I mention a problem, it’s not because it’s some unforgivable sin against game design. It’s because I think there are things that could have been better. Please try to keep this in mind while reading this series, because I’m not going to put one of these “I didn’t hate the game” disclaimers around every piece of criticism.
Cool? Cool. Let’s do this.
The Old New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order ended with BJ in the heart of the enemy base. After defeating Nazi scientist Death’s Head, a cutscene shows BJ approach his enemy, who surprises him with a grenade to the face. BJ, mortally wounded, crawls to the window to see his friends getting onto the escape helicopter. He gives them the go-ahead to nuke the base and we watch his friends fly away, leaving him to die in the explosion.
When this happened, I wasn’t sad that they killed off my hero. I was irritated that they painted themselves into a corner. My reaction was, “Hey idiots. Aren’t you planning on making more of these?”
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood was a prequel that took place before New Order, so it didn’t have to deal with the fact that the writer foolishly killed the main character at the end of the firstUnless you count Wolfenstein 2009 as the first of this particular continuity. Whatever. game. That worked, inasmuch as it let them kick the problem down the road, but it also saddled them with all the drawbacks of a prequel. The audience knows the future, so you don’t have a lot of room for twists and new characters. If someone on the team comes up with a brilliant game mechanic built around the idea of BJ having a robo-arm, you can’t do that because we’ve already established he doesn’t have a robo-arm in the future. He can’t find love, because we already know he was single and not grieving the loss of anyone in his past. Anything you do needs to be un-done before you roll the credits, which isn’t a fun proposition for a writer.
So now we come to New Colossus and we finally have to un-kill our protagonist. BJ was at the heart of the enemy base, cut off from escape by a broken elevator, a nuke was coming, and his friends had just left. New Colossus walks this back by having his friends somehow show up anyway and drag him to the chopper. They perform emergency surgery as they fly away from the explosion.
It’s an awkward kludge, but the blame for this mess mostly goes to New Order, not New Colossus. No matter how they fixed this, it was going to feel like a cheat.
The Cost of Favors
BJ is taken back to their submarine base and they sew him back together. And here the writer does something really important: They make this miraculous rescue cost him something. When he wakes from his coma, he discovers that he’s paralyzed from the waist down. This doesn’t change the fact that the writer needed to bend time and space to facilitate his rescue, but it does make it feel less cheap. If BJ had stood up after the surgery and went back to Nazi-killing without losing anything, it would have made it clear that the writer was only interested in wish-fulfillment and that BJ would never face any real hardship. Yes, he’s got plot armor because he’s the main character of an empowerment shooter, but it’s usually a bad idea to make that armor obvious to the audience. Maybe his rescue doesn’t work from the standpoint of logic, but it works in terms of the karmic accounting we all understand to be part of stories: Great favors must be paid for.
During his recovery, we cut away to re-live some of BJ’s childhood memories. I’ll talk more about his parents later in the series, but for now I just want to note how long this introduction is. This cutscene had to recap the events of The New Order, retcon the ending, show his escape and surgery, do the childhood flashback, and then finally cut back to the present and show BJ waking up with paralyzed legs and mild confusion / memory loss.
All told, it’s about thirteen minutes from the moment you start a new game to the moment you begin playing it. For comparison, The New Order takes less than a minute before it hands you control of your character. This is one of the reasons I’m comfortable doing a story analysis of The New Colossus. The designer put a huge focus on the story here. You can’t use the excuse that “The story doesn’t matter”, because they clearly spent a fortune on it. The New Order had roughly an hour and 47 minutes of cutscenes while The New Colossus clocks in at about three hoursI’m basing this on the length of their respective movies on YouTube, which is not an exact comparison. Some people include a bit of gameplay, or loading screens, or pause for interactive moments.. This is in addition to the fact that Colossus is overall a shorter game in terms of gameplay. It’s a shorter game with double the cutscenes, which means the cutscenes are a much larger percent of the overall runtime.
Most importantly, New Order used many short cutscenes while New Colossus tends to deliver cutscenes in huge blocks. The bulk payload cutscenes are a greater disruption to gameplay and thus it’s worth seeing if the story they tell is worth the cost.
While it might not be fair to blame the shorter playtime entirely on the cutscenes, it’s clear that there was a major shift in focus and priorities here and I think it’s worth looking to see if it was worth the tradeoff.
BJ wakes up to find his legs are atrophied. I realize Wolfenstein runs on silly science and you’re not supposed to notice stuff like this, but this detail drives me crazy. See, back in The New Order BJ was catatonic for 14 years. He was struck in the head by shrapnel in 1946 and woke up in 1960 to find the Nazis had won the war. For those 14 years people in the asylum pushed him around in a wheelchair and fed him, because he was completely non-responsive. And yet somehow he retained the physique of a linebacker instead of wasting away.
This bugged me, but I got over it. Fine. I guess muscle atrophy isn’t a thing in this universe? But then we get to New Colossus and BJ’s legs have withered away to nothing after just a few months of coma. Look, if I’m not supposed to think about it, then don’t draw attention to it. And if I am supposed to think about it then establish rules and stick with them. I’ll go along with any silly premise you want, but pick something for crying out loud.
Gameplay starts with BJ rolling around in a wheelchair, shooting Nazis. This is the kind of fun, far-out premise I look for in these games. I’m here to kill Nazis in interesting ways, and this is exactly that. Wheelchair BJ doesn’t handle like a standard FPS character. You can’t go up stairs. You roll uncontrollably down staircases and slopes. Your movements have an awkward heft to them. It’s kind of strange that our initial gameplay tutorial is this one-off. This is basically a very unusual vehicle section. Imagine if Half-Life 2 opened with the airboat. That would be odd.
This should not be taken as a complaint. While this is an unusual idea from a gameplay perspective, it’s actually in service of the story. BJ is broken and he’s not going to shake this one off. Again, this reinforces the idea that cheating death has cost him something.
Fergus or Wyatt?
Once BJ kills his quota of tutorial Nazis he reaches the main deck of the submarine, where they’re under assault from Frau Engel’s Nazi airship of doomIt’s actually called the “Ausmerzer”, which I think roughly translates to “Eradicator”.. Engel is our main villain this time around. She was introduced back in The New Order. She spent a good part of that game terrorizing BJ and giving the audience lots of reasons to hate her. In return, BJ killed her lover and horribly disfigured her. So these characters have a personal rivalry that transcends the Nazis vs. Resistance thing going on around them.
Engel has already captured a couple of BJ’s friends, and she’s offering to let them go if he’ll surrender. Dutifully, he trundles over in his wheelchair and turns himself in. He doesn’t have much choice. The airship has grasped the submarine, so they couldn’t escape even if they were willing to leave their friends behind.
Back in Mass Effect 1, there was a scene where the player would have to choose which of their companions would survive a difficult situation: Kaiden, or Ashley. This choice carried forward into the sequels, so the player always had either Kaiden or Ashley as the survivor. The fans came up with the name Kashley as a shorthand for “whoever survived in your game”. The New Order had a similar branching decision. At the start you could either save Fergus Reid or Probst Wyatt III. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a nice portmanteau of Fergus and Wyatt that will let us talk about both characters without collapsing the waveform. Feratt? Wyrgus? No. Those just don’t work.
Whatever. In this writeup I’ll refer to Fergus/Wyatt as simply Wyatt, because that’s who I’ve got screenshots of. I’ve played through both timelines in both games. Both characters are good and I don’t really have a favorite.
So BJ is captured and the villain gets to cackle over him and kill and maim his friends. This mirrors a similar scene in The New Order where BJ is captured by Deaths Head. This establishes our villain and gives us a reason to want to oppose them. The difference is that the scene in The New Order is eight minutes long and has several bits where the cutscenes stop so you can do some brief interactive stuff. Meanwhile, the scene here in New Colossus is a whopping 11 minutes long, and there’s no interactivity at all. You just sit and watch events play out. Not only is New Colossus spending more time in cutscenes, but it’s doing a worse job of integrating cutscenes and gameplay.
So are these new longer cutscenes worth it? You can probably see where I’m going with this, but for the purposes of creating anticipation let’s pretend I haven’t already tipped my hand. I’ll reveal my shocking opinion next week.
 Aside from the PC technology problems I talked about last time, obviously.
 Unless you count Wolfenstein 2009 as the first of this particular continuity. Whatever.
 I’m basing this on the length of their respective movies on YouTube, which is not an exact comparison. Some people include a bit of gameplay, or loading screens, or pause for interactive moments.
 It’s actually called the “Ausmerzer”, which I think roughly translates to “Eradicator”.
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