04th Jul2018

‘Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

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The last time we saw William “BJ” Blazkowicz, in 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, he was in a pretty rough state. For this sequel, ported to Switch by Doom geniuses Panic Button, we get a prologue bringing the player up to date, and then the game kicks off from the moment of Blazkowicz’s resurrection.

Since its announcement, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has been held up as the defining example of whether a truly AAA, current-gen third-party game could run on Nintendo’s relatively underpowered architecture. The answer is yes, but with significant compromises.

Low PC settings is the acceptable target here; and, being generous, it gives a stylised, Dishonored-type appearance. Generally, the right cutbacks have been made to achieve a mostly solid 30 FPS. Some textures are shockingly low – check out the graffiti on the helicopter – but when it’s all in motion, it’s perfectly playable. Handheld is the best way to play, its smaller screen less prone to highlighting the numerous visual compromises. It means the game comes in at a passable 21GB – less than half the size of the download file on the big boy consoles. With heavy pixellation and artifacts, the compression of cutscenes is particularly evident. Cutscenes are also frequently distractingly jerky as a result of the game’s admirable, though perhaps unwise, resistance to loading screens.

Regardless of visual fidelity, how does the game play? Very much like the original. It is a fairly linear, story-driven quest through various facilities and crumbling cityscapes, set in a Nazi-infested alt-history 1960s America. Along the way you will be shooting said Nazis in the face, whether they are regular soldiers, power-armoured mini-bosses, or giant robot dogs.

Wolfenstein 2 wears its FPS influences on its sleeve. The New York and New Orleans sequences are pure City 17; a late-game research base is a dead ringer for Perfect Dark’s laboratory levels; and there are strong overtones of Killzone throughout, particularly in the black-clad design of the soldiers. Meanwhile, the alt-period setting is even more anachronistic than that of the Fallout games. Expect computers, robots, lasers, a heli-fortress, and even space stations.

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The guns at your disposal are the standard set of shotguns, assault rifles and pistols, which can be modded by finding upgrade packs. I made the error of adding a silencer to my machine pistol – a ridiculous decision, as the sneaking approach is a lost cause in this game. The laser cutter also makes a return, only this time the tedium of precision cutting is removed – you simply blast relevant panels away. In a nice design touch, your objective isn’t constantly shown on the HUD. Rather, you can hold down on the d-pad to get directions. It’s a pity that sometimes the marker can get confused with itself, making navigation a bit of a chore. However, getting lost has its bonuses, as you’ll find a trove of treasures in the form of newspapers, concept art, personal letters and, indeed, actual gold. There are also some baffling design choices. For a start, big ol’ Blazkowicz can carry six hulking guns and all their ammo, but he can only manage three grenades, bless him. Also, what is the value in having a separate button to pick up health and ammo? When would the player not want the maximum? It means you end up spamming the Y button as you wade through corpses, and then inevitably pick up a gun you never wanted.

You will notice that I have not yet mentioned the story, which is a bit of a trainwreck. It’s clear that the levels have been designed first, and then story beats Frankensteined afterwards to sew it all together. There are at least three moments where Blazkowicz is captured and/or knocked unconscious, which is always a sign of screenwriting desperation. It’s like the writers made up a line and then emailed it on to a colleague. The basic story sees the Kreisau Circle (Blazkowicz’s gang of increasingly diverse buddies) intent on starting a revolution and winning their country back from the Nazis. Their enemy is personified by the truly monstrous Frau Engel, a sadistic “ubercommander” who has done the group a very great and specific harm. Their journey will take them from a u-boat, to Manhattan, Texas, Washington, New Orleans and… well, let’s just say, “further afield”.

The haphazard storytelling, delivered through lengthy yet well-acted cutscenes, never coheres, resulting in a bunny-hopping narrative which kills the pace. Moreover, the tone is all over the place. One minute you’re weeping in your dead mother’s arms, the next you’re having bionic legs fitted.

It’s a pity because the chief subplot, where Blazkowicz recalls his abusive childhood, is potentially interesting. In 1919, Blazkowicz was sweet on a black girl, and his vile father was having none of it. The purpose of this backstory is to show that fascism isn’t some mysterious alien force, but a perspective that begins with individuals. But the very grounded power of this message is wholly undermined by the superhero antics immediately following it. But then, should we care? The story is merely there to provide an ever-escalating series of reasons for Blazkowicz to keep shooting Nazis. (Like we needed a reason.) In the inevitable sequel, I’m not sure how they plan to top the cruelty in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Cooking and eating babies, perhaps?

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While the story might be shambolic, many of the sub-characters are well fleshed-out. I particularly enjoyed Fergus’s wayward robotic arm, which is almost certainly a reference to Dr Strangelove. The very verbose character digressions – Super Spesh’s conspiracy theory rant seems to go on for about ten minutes – might have no bearing on the story as a whole, but they give the game a sense of place, and they remind us that humans are flawed and we all yearn for acceptance and belonging.

Blazkowicz himself becomes highly politically motivated this time around, making grand speeches about the nature of freedom and fighting back. Tiresomely, he also mutters incessantly to himself about impending death and rising on the wings of salvation – “This dying of mine,” he groans, like he’s just been watching The Thin Red Line back at the base – and it makes you long for a silent protagonist. The fact that Blazkowicz is an “iron man” makes practically no difference to gameplay, other than some amendments to the health/armour balance. Oh, you do get to choose an augmentation later on. I chose poorly – my stretchy legs were unreliable in the environment and no fun to use. Rarely does this sequel mix up the gameplay beyond what the original game offered. In one sequence, you jump on a cool, futuristic unicycle, but it’s confined to a cutscene.

There are bugs to speak of, though none of them are critical. Like many people, upon first booting the game my pad wouldn’t function beyond the lettered buttons, but a system restart fixed the issue and it never arose again. Throughout the game I had an issue with one of the weapons where it would fail to remember that I’d fitted a scope, so I kept having to switch it out and back in again to reactivate it. And worst of all, the original Wolfenstein 3D, available in all its pixellated glory on an arcade machine, runs at half speed! Truly criminal.

Patches will fix these niggles, and may even boost the framerate in the busier later levels. But they won’t change the design of the game in general. It’s a decent shooter, satisfying in its combat and often impressive in its scale, its art design, and in its commitment to character. But it’s also a storytelling war crime, and the gameplay lacks variety to the point of monotony. Wolfenstein 2 is the best-looking handheld FPS ever made, but it’s also an exhausting and flawed experience.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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