Not really played anything worth writing about in the last two weeks. I’d like to keep up some sort of momentum, though, and so went back and finished off this review of Wolfenstein 2, which was mostly written at the end of October last year but which I never got around to putting up on the blog.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus strikes me as an exceedingly confused game.
I say this because it seems to have lost its way after the rip-roaring reboot that was 2014’s The New Order. After over a decade of Call of Duty and other assorted military shooter knockoffs, TNO successfully resurrected the older, arcade style of FPS and updated it for the modern era. Other games had previously tried to do the same thing — most notably Bulletstorm and RAGE — but neither of them were as effective as Wolfenstein at bottling the spirit of the old first-person classics and infusing it into something that felt fast, fluid, and modern. The fact that it also had a surprisingly well thought-out take on a Man In The High Castle-esque alternate history where the Nazis won the Second World War was simply the icing on the cake, and any flaws could be excused on the basis that Machine Games naturally weren’t going to get everything right the first time around.
Which is why New Colossus comes across as both baffling and baffled itself, in almost equal measure; it has arguably regressed in some aspects from New Order, with level design that’s nowhere near as tight and encounter design that seems tailored to engender frustration rather than fun. At best it hasn’t progressed at all from what New Order accomplished, and it appears to have focused its efforts on doubling down on all of the wrong stuff. And at its heart it can’t appear to decide what it really wants to be, which is the most puzzling thing. New Order had a relatively focused mission statement, and where it departed from this into the realms of the truly absurd (the Moon base segment, for example) it always did so in service of the gameplay. New Colossus by contrast feels like a Nazi Dystopia Tourism Simulator at times, throwing ridiculous settings at you that it can’t figure out how to turn into interesting gameplay, so instead it gives you an almost entirely non-interactive tour of a Nazi-occupied US town and then stuffs you into a tiny tunnel to blast some Nazis in some restrictive, boring corridor shooter gameplay.
The fact that I am even mentioning the words “corridor shooter” in a Wolfenstein review is a pretty solid indicator of just how badly things have gone wrong here. Wolfenstein is at its best when the player is sprinting around with an assault rifle in one hand and an automatic shotgun in the other, running and diving to do slide-by executions of Nazis that can’t pivot quickly enough to track you. Of course you need somewhat open level design to facilitate this sort of gameplay, and it’s something that the Doom reboot absolutely nailed with its wave-based combat arenas. And to be fair, there are plenty of bits in New Colossus that satisfy this requirement, and when they game actually gives you the space to move around properly it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play. The big problem New Colossus has, unfortunately, is that these fun bits are mostly located towards the end of the game, when you’ve unlocked special abilities called Contraptions and Machine Games have had to put together levels that let you use them. For the first half of the game the levels consist of the following:
- A submarine, which is all narrow corridors with no room to maneuver,
- An airship, which is all narrow corridors with no room to maneuver.
- The submarine again, which is all narrow corridors with no room to maneuver.
- The bombed-out ruins of New York, which is… well no, I can’t really complain about this one aside from it looking exactly like Fallout 3.
- A train, which is all narrow corridors with no room to maneuver.
So that’s four out of five levels which stick you inside a dreary, constricted interior environment filled with pipes and metal and exactly one way to run. For the opening level you can’t even run; you’re stuck wheeling yourself around in a wheelchair, which I would have accepted as a way to contrast the power fantasy of picking up the magic power armour in the next level if they actually let you do anything interesting with that power armour that wasn’t running straight into enemy gunfire and dying.
This makes the opening four hours of New Colossus a curiously miserable experience, and one which teaches you to play the game in precisely the wrong kind of way. It turns out that standing in one place in New Colossus is an excellent way to get yourself killed, but thanks to the level layout that’s all you really can do. Because there’s so many corridors, and because the weight of incoming gunfire is so overwhelming, and because you have precisely no chance of dodging it because you don’t have any freedom of movement, the only way you can make any kind of progress is by playing the fucking thing exactly like Call Of Duty: hiding behind cover, peeking out for a few seconds to fire off half a magazine and kill one Nazi, and then ducking back in to reload while approximately five thousand bullets whizz past. To add insult to injury the lean command is a weird toggle (in that you hold down another button to turn your left/right strafe commands into lean ones) which is a bad port of a control scheme designed for control pads and not at all usable in the heat of the moment.
Speaking of terrible control schemes, let’s take a not-so-short paragraph to talk about the weapon wheels. New Colossus has made the decision to expand the original game’s dual-wielding capabilities so that you can now dual-wield any pair of weapons that you desire. This is great! Being able to have both an assault rifle and autoshotgun equipped at the same time means you don’t have to switch between them for short/long range enemies and makes the combat flow far more effectively — when it’s given room to flow, that is. God help you if you ever want to switch away from this combo, though, because you’ll have to interact with not one but two weapon wheels. Pushing the weapon wheel button brings up both, but with the wheel for your right weapon active. To change the left weapon you have to wheel left to switch over to the left weapon wheel and make your selection. This probably makes a bit more sense on a controller’s analogue sticks as you can just hold left, but the PC substitute of using the mouse to rotate through the wheel is hugely clumsy at the best of times and not at all practical in the middle of a massive gunfight. Of course if you’re playing an FPS on the PC you’re probably wondering why you’re using the weapon wheels at all when the standard 1-9 keys are sitting right above WSAD, but these only work with the right hand weapon. To get the left hand weapon changed you have to go through the wheels, and likely get yourself shot into the bargain1.
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if New Colossus had actually done what literally every single FPS has been doing for the last decade and activated slow-time when you had the weapon wheel open. This is the developers acknowledging that the player is having to interface with an imprecise control system in a high-risk environment, and so they take the risk away and give you the time to pick the right gun. Not New Colossus, though; its gunfights keep right on truckin’ at full speed while you have this doubly-complicated atrocity of a control scheme open, and so if you ever have to change weapons you can kiss goodbye to any combat flow you’ve actually managed to achieve because you’ll have to find somewhere safe to hide first. The final insult here is that weapon switching in and of itself is painfully slow as protagonist BJ deploys stocks and yanks back on charging handles every single time he brings up a new gun, costing you precious seconds in a firefight where every second is supposed to count. Contrast that to the Doom reboot, where they recognise that anything that gets in the way of shooting demons is a waste of your time and so made weapon switching practically instantaneous, and it’s easy to see why this is such a misstep.
All of this UI and control jankiness absolutely pales in comparison to the number one sin New Colossus commits, however: its player damage feedback mechanics are practically non-existent. In most FPSes when you get hit by an incoming round the game will do something appropriate to surface the fact you are being riddled with gunfire, usually by making the screen flash red. Modern games usually have more directional indicators like a red arrow indicating the general direction you’re being shot from, and in most of them the sound design is usually good enough that you can trace incoming fire back to its source from the sound of the shots and bullet whine alone. Some FPSes have the player character grunting and growling as bullets tear through their flesh, alerting the player to the fact that painful things are happening to them. You don’t need to have all of these systems, but having something in place to tell you that you’re being shot is kind of necessary given that this is a video game and we (thankfully) cannot experience the protagonist’s gunshot trauma first-hand.
New Colossus disagrees with this genre standard, however. New Colossus has extremely weak visual feedback for getting shot (the screen goes a little blurry) and enemy gunshots always sound like they’re coming from far end of a very long tunnel even if they’re right next to you in the same room pouring the bullets directly into your earhole. Your best indicator that something is awry in New Colossus will likely be the actual health and armour totals at the bottom of the screen; if you wander into an ambush the first you’ll know of it will be one or both of these numbers decreasing precipitously, with no other feedback worth the name to indicate you’re about to die. It is absolutely ridiculous that one of the top-tier FPS titles released in 2017 forces you to keep an eye on a pair of tiny readouts to see if you’re being shot instead of actively surfacing that fact to you in some way — especially so given that there’s no recharging health in this game and enemy gunfire can easily reduce you from full health to half health in less than a second.
(Here’s the absolutely crazy thing about the damage feedback systems in New Colossus. In the Resistance’s submarine hub area that you go back to after every mission there is an arcade cabinet that you can use to play a full, in-universe version of the original Wolfenstein 3D. This has been altered somewhat to play to the world’s alternate-history in that the Nazis are now all Soviets who scream “Mother Russia!” instead of “Mein leben!” when you gun them down, but it’s in all other respects identical to the version of Wolfenstein 3D that was released back in 1992. This 25 year-old game — which, let us remember, had to invent most of the standard FPS concepts because there wasn’t really any such thing as an FPS before Wolfenstein 3D – has better damage feedback than New Colossus. The screen flashes red when BJ gets hit and you can see the little animated portrait of his face grimace. If that’s not a damning indictment of New Colossus’s UI I don’t know what is.)
Combine all this with the startlingly unimaginative level design of the first half of New Colossus and you have a recipe for an intensely frustrating FPS experience. A corridor shooter is not what I bought Wolfenstein for! Especially not a sub-par one that doesn’t even have the standard cover shooter features defined by Call Of Duty; when you can’t even out-design a series that’s famous for being the most creatively bankrupt out there you have a serious problem. Time and again I exchanged shots with Nazis skulking at the other end of a corridor, and time and again I was gunned down because the whole point of Wolfenstein is that you’re supposed to be constantly moving and it wasn’t letting me move. I played on the middle difficulty setting, and while frequent player death is more of an assumption in the Wolfensteins and Dooms of this world I feel like dying 10-20 times per setpiece fight — mostly because of the terrible UI and sound design — really shouldn’t be part of the plan.
Now, as I mentioned a little earlier, it does get better once you get the Contraptions. You get to pick one out of three as part of the story, with the others being picked up in optional missions later on, and they consist of a charging-at-people-and-through-walls ability that kicks in when you sprint, a weird sort of snake ability where BJ contorts his body like Eugene Tooms from the X-Files to fit through tiny ventilation ducts, and a jump-really-high ability. They’re not particularly imaginative in terms of their mechanical effects, but they’re a set of additional mobility abilities that provide an absolutely critical balm for a game that’s been so restrictive up until that point — because as soon as you get that choice to pick one of three, the level designers suddenly have to put together levels that can accommodate all three, and which are consequently a little roomier and actually allow for the run ‘n gun gameplay that a Wolfenstein game should have been doing from the start.
There was definitely a marked shift in my perception of New Colossus pre- and post-Contraption. Pre-Contraption I was more annoyed with the game than anything else, having ragequit on three separate occasions from encounters where I was repeatedly being undone by the level design and the godawful UI issues. Post-Contraption was a much more positive experience, since it turns out that enemy accuracy markedly decreases if you’re sprinting around and you don’t end up losing all of your armour to a single volley of bullets that you didn’t hear coming. It was more or less on-par with the gameplay of New Order, although I was disappointed that it didn’t show that it had learned any lessons from Doom; I felt that Doom benefited greatly from New Order’s existence, and it’s a shame that the converse isn’t true for New Colossus.
This is why I say New Colossus is confused; when it plays to its strengths, as it does in the latter half of the game, it’s just as good as its predecessor. However, to get there you need to slog through 4-5 hours of a very different game; one that seems very content to funnel you down corridors and watch you die over and over and again. The plot and world-building that I quite enjoyed from New Order also seem markedly more disjointed this time around – yes, to a point every single game is built together out of a series of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” ideas from the designers that are stitched together into a coherent whole, but that’s New Colossus’s entire problem. It isn’t coherent. I use the Frankenstein’s monster metaphor a little too often on this blog, but only because there’s rather too many games that end up fitting it perfectly; much like a Call Of Duty game, New Colossus is a collection of disconnected, isolated level ideas that have been bolted together with no regard as to mechanical or narrative flow. BJ is in occupied America! Now he’s on an underground rocket train! Now he’s on Venus! Why is he there? Do these locations introduce any particularly interesting gameplay ideas outside of their CoD-esque minigame segments? The New Colossus designers don’t appear to know, but these locations certainly looked striking in the concept art so I guess they’re going into the game now and we’ll figure out what order to put them in later on.
New Colossus is far from the worst game I played in 2017. Despite all of its missteps, and despite my frequent comparisons, it certainly isn’t anywhere near as creatively bankrupt as so-called genre leaders Call Of Duty and Battlefield, and when it’s firing on all cylinders it’s still a quite literal blast to play. It’s as if Doom tearing back onto the scene gave Wolfenstein a severe case of existential angst, though; just like the original Doom it did a lot of what Wolfenstein did, but better, and now Wolfenstein can’t figure out what its unique selling point is supposed to be. I suppose that in that context New Colossus can be seen as something of an experiment as the series attempts to identify a new reason for existing, and it is not without its successes, but the overwhelming impression I’ve come away with at the end of it is of wandering through a grotesque gallery of its failed specimens while a thousand Nazis shoot at me. I wonder what New Colossus would have looked like if it had had the confidence to acknowledge that it was sufficiently different from Doom to co-exist comfortably alongside it, and had instead doubled down on strengths like its subtle world-building and the dual-wielding while learning from Doom just like the reboot learned from New Order. But that, alas, is one alternate history that we’ll never get to see.
- To be fair to Machine Games, I went back today (03-07-2018) to get some better screenshots and noticed they’d added a toggle for selecting the left-hand weapon with the 1-9 keys. So you don’t have to go through the wheels any more. The rest of this criticism still applies though. ↩