Even the perfect storm of relevance is no match for BJ's cheese-dipped sophomore slump.
Much of the time I spent with the third iteration of Machine Games’ revival of the Wolfenstein series was in a state of incredulous disappointment. From the user interface to the straight-to-video plot and bland cinematography, this game suffers a massive sophomore slump despite the entirety of the gaming public rooting for it’s success. The anti-Fascist message couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time, and it turns out it was too good of a coincidence to be true. Judging by E3 and the sales of The New Order after this game was announced, folks were excited for a sequel. The New Order was -the- game that revived Wolfenstein a notch above the tired goofiness of the previous generation and brought back solid old school first person shooting mechanics in a fresh way. The story of The New Colossus is self-sabotaging drivel, as it resembles the pilot season of a Hulu or Netflix live action Venture Bros. or Thunderbirds Are Go but hella edgy and full of gore porn. I don’t take such huge issue with comic book level characterizations, yet too much of the writing leans on cliche Marvel Superhero style departures from what made the main characters so interesting in The New Order. While most all of the characters survive, the direction and visual style went from Mr. Robot does Inglorious Basterds to… Michael Bay’s film school remake of Danger 5.
I’d pine over the plot failings even more if the game ever gave me a moment to sit and feel the hits and misses at all. The story is wildly unfocused and too fast-paced to dwell on the severity of it’s own content. As ten year old BJ’s father makes him shoot his pet dog for hanging out with a black girl the flashbacks are strangely told in reverse order. While this might seem like a smart storytelling device each flashback occurs between entirely unrelated story sequences and levels. It does climax with confrontation and closure with his father, but not in a satisfying way. These windows into BJ’s soul are narrated by BJ himself as he hillbilly-mumbles his Texan ass throughout the game, sometimes murmuring his conscience to himself and all too often speaking posthumously to their former leader Caroline who is killed early in the game. How many storytelling devices does a fucking video game need to get its comic book story across? Hint: Not this many.
While we’re learning about BJ’s parents and his life as an american very little detail slips out about life in the United States under fascist rule as we find new confrontation around every corner. The rag-tag underground resistance says life is bad, and they look worse for it, but it takes the decimation of Manhattan, and later the declension of New Orleans, make it clear that shit really went down and shit really is going down. The small slice of american life under Nazi rule we’re given is basically two small diners and some Ku Klux Klan members outside of Roswell, New Mexico. All of which basically begin gunning you down the moment you walk in front of them. Seeing previews and demos of the game I had expected to see more of the United States in turmoil and oppression, expecting some very destroyed locales alongside something akin to a suburb of Nazis I could be shooting down while hopping through their pools and picket fences. I know this game wasn’t meant to be Homefront or Far Cry 5, but I feel like they overlooked a real opportunity that will only really be addressed in the DLC pass. I will almost definitely skip the DLC unless it gets glowing reviews.
So don’t listen to all of those video game sites out there telling you that the storytelling in this game is it’s best asset because while it is good pulp fiction it isn’t -that- good at conveying an incredibly basic, unimaginative graphic novel miniseries. But wait! Everyone said there are like, a million “WTF!?” moments in this game? They’re all gory, cringe-inducing splatter moments. A skull gets stomped, a severed head attached, a naked pregnant woman dual-wields assault rifles and mows down thirty Nazis. It is all blood and ‘n-words’ and cowboy nonsense. It is the subtler moments where the The New Order style storytelling peeks its head, like when Frau Engel’s daughter is revealed as a bisexual and joins your team, later she highlights the endgame storytelling by slappin’ a bitch and telling her she ain’t no Nazi. It is a shame that moments like meeting paranoid and very sickly Hitler and watching him vomit blood and mercilessly murder actors without reason fall relatively flat because they are neither particularly hilarious or scary. BJ is the sadistic cartoon character they portray him as in the Nazi propaganda films they’re creating (as a major plot point) and that ends up being almost as disappointing as his portrayal as the straight family man willing to do anything for the survival of his children. To be clear my issue isn’t with defending one’s principles with one’s life, rather I don’t believe a second of his motivation or the cocky bastards feigned self-doubt in the face of adversity. BJ’s internal dialogue about family relies too heavily on your memory of his and Anya’s relationship in the first game that it falls flat.
A story addressing the rise of fascism on United States soil alongside the possible outcomes and repercussions is made cheap without examples of daily life and made cartoonish with jokes and a cast full of terrible stereotypes on a u-boat that may as well be BJ’s Noah’s Ark of halfway inclusive diversity, sans any LGBT or non-hilarious disabled folks represented. But for all of the tonal failings and missed opportunities nothing, absolutely nothing, about this game is more self-defeating than it’s ending. Spoken to the lens of a television camera by the cast of characters as they proclaim they’re going to win this fight with genocidal retribution. Right or wrong, it plays so cheesy I felt like I was watching Alex Jones do an SNL skit. This is almost as confusing as the final chapter of The New Order, which sought some kind of narrative minimization of efforts up to that point of “You haven’t done shit, we won.” This time it seems like the fight is over and the admittedly block-headed crew reveal themselves as revolutionary slaughterers ready to take over the world with their bloodshed. Rightly so, though it falls somewhat flat for me as an ending and to make things even worse a nu-metal version of Twisted Sister‘s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” begins to play as the credits roll. While I am being slightly reductive in taking a look at the story as a whole, I feel like as a game we are far too easily pleased if the cringey, gore-fueled story is the best part of this game. It is not up to par with their previous Wolfenstein games.
Hold the fuckin’ phone bro-ham! How’s the shooting? Bruh, aiming and weapon feel is kinda loosey-goosey worse this time with intense feedback and poor sights from most weapons. Precision aiming never feels good and the AI seems trained to bob and weave under sights but not when you’re no-scoping. None of the weapons feel great this time besides the shotgun and the rifle. Replacing knives with emergency axes was a great idea in theory, but aiming and throwing a wobbly axe with severe windfall was never satisfying. Don’t let anyone tell you to play this game on Easy difficulty because you won’t get any challenge or fun out of the game! Not only is there a ton of ammo and health packs around the game (learn to break barrels and run away more often) but the gameplay now depends on Doom(2016)’s rush-around in a circle mechanics to avoid dying and this becomes maddening in the later half of the game as you face waves of thirty or forty enemies in a row. Rushing enemies and stabbing them is safer than shooting them most of the time even though you’re no longer invincible while doing stealth kill moves. Being forced to run around the maps highlights the game’s biggest real issue beyond the story: Terrible level design! The areas are nowhere near as good as they were in the previous two games. The Old Blood, a DLC prequel to The New Order had amazing level design and these slightly more open worlds actually feel like tiny claustrophobic set pieces with sections that funnel you forward without any truly interesting twists, surprises, shortcuts or gimmickry. The level design is almost all futuristic Nazi corridors or busted buildings straight out of Fallout 3 and none of them truly give the option of stealth gameplay.
The biggest draw of Wolfenstein: The New Order was the ability to replay through chapters down two paths that involve choosing between sparing one life or another and they ask you to recreate your choice at the start of The New Colossus as well. I accidentally chose to save Fergus, meaning I wanted to have him killed because I hate him, and there was no real way to redo my choice without restarting so I slogged through his bland contributions to the story in the form of a malfunctioning robotic arm. Instead of replaying missions in The New Colossus for collectibles and a different plot you get Enigma Codes from commanders you kill that they act as currency for an Enigma machine which reveals the locations of Uberkommanders who drop death cards. You replay the fifteen or so segmented locations of the game to do these tasks after deciphering the Enigma codes. This gives a chance to get missed collectibles but not only is the map the worst thing since the diarrhea-fest that was Infamous: Second Son’s map with it’s windowed zoom and fog of war but you won’t get to see the collectibles that maps reveal until you’ve beaten all of the commanders in a zone. Good luck not replaying each level four to five times to find all of the hilariously hard to see collectibles, some of which don’t flash or are buried to high hell in the awkward level geometry. I will say that I will never use an IGN collectibles guide ever again. Pure garbage job they did with those descriptions and zoomed in photos. A collectibles guide shouldn’t be more of a puzzle than the fucking game I’m playing.
Truth be told I don’t mind achievement scumming and searching for collectibles but I found replaying the levels highlighted not only how easy combat encounters were but how imprecise and lazy I could be beating them. I played several levels simply charging down enemies using the Ram Shackles armor upgrade that damages or kills most enemies when dashing. It is one of three body upgrades that come with BJ’s replacement body including one that lets you squeeze through small ducts and another than doubles your height to reach higher places and remove the danger of fall damage at the cost of movement speed. These upgrades are the best innovations in the game but the half-assed level design never uses them in interesting metroidvania ways because the designers were forced to cater to all three upgrade choices. You progress in the story by choosing just one of the three upgrades while having to find the other two on side-quests, along with their respective enhancements. So, just when I thought I’d get to Deus Ex my way through a few levels using stealth, the game makes it clear that I’d never get the chance. In fact there is no real possibility of playing this game stealthily because of the map system, no indication of vision cones or enemy locations and no way of truly reversing an alarm by hiding. It is a short, linear game without a lot of options for exploration or diverse gameplay tactics.
Maybe I’d just come off a great time with Prey but I felt the lack of mantling and general movement initially lead to odd invisible barriers all around me, especially in the jagged concrete mess of Manhattan. The issue could simply be that I expected too much and spent so much time with The New Order and The Old Blood that the numerous changes made to the formula didn’t improve my experience. I took my time working towards the platinum trophy for this game, dedicated to finding the ‘fun’ within the awkward mess that is The New Colossus and even though I did jet through the story twice in full it never became more endearing or honestly worth the $59.99 that I paid for it, especially considering it sold for $30 during Black Friday sales. So I can’t recommend this game unless you absolutely need the end of The New Order resolved. The game is incredibly rote, the level design is uninspired and linear, the story is ham-fisted and misses the most incredible chance for serious real world pulpit-smashing… and it just isn’t fun to deal with the shitty UI and the wobbly aiming when using a controller.
Originally posted on grizzlybutts.com (12/11/17)