Wolfenstein 2: New Colossus is Best in Baby Mode

Machine Game’s second Wolfenstein game, The New Colossus, is in many ways a subtle departure from their first. Once again, we take on the role of B.J. Blazkowicz in an alternate timeline where the Nazis won World War 2.

The game starts when B.J. wakes up from a coma, partially recovered, on a Nazi super submarine that has been commandeered by the Resistance. Plopping his broken butt into a wheelchair, B.J. then proceeds to shuffle around the submarine killing Nazis. In this section, your movement constrained by the wheelchair, and your max health is set at 50 – half of what you would normally have. This makes B.J. very easy to kill as just a few hitscan bullets are enough to lay you out flat on your ass.

The next section is perhaps the most head-scratching premise in the game – and that is saying something. Wondering why the Nazis and the new big baddie – Frau Engel – found the submarine so easily, the crew believes there are still some Nazis hidden on board. These hidden enemies must have been relaying its location to headquarters. Mind you, the resistance has been on this boat for months at this point, and there just happens to be a huge section of the boat – section F – that they just never bothered to search. Because reasons.

Not yet fully recovered, B.J. is still chosen to be the one to eliminate these Nazis. After all, he is Terror Billy, the nightmare of every Nazi on the planet. With the help of a robot suit, B.J. proceeds to clear out the Nazis from the boat once and for all (but not really, because later on we will go back and there are still more on the boat!) Once secure, the Resistance sets forth for the United States of America. Its mission is to find other Resistance groups and start a big damn revolution.

Both games begin with B.J. in an injured state, but The New Colossus takes it further by placing you in a wheelchair and with less max health. This persists to about halfway through the game. B.J. is not an unstoppable force this time. The New Colossus does what the New Order did but takes it farther. Not only is your health bar low for most of the game, the story is even absurder, the tone oscillates between two extremes, and the game is fucking hard.

The New Order wasn’t really a stealth game, but you could sneak around and knife down Nazis and not be seen. In The New Colossus, this feels almost impossible. Enemies can now discover bodies, and react accordingly by becoming alert and setting off alarms. Yet, there is no way to hide or move a corpse. Small things like this make the stealth system feel half-assed.

The guns in your arsenal that can be upgraded to have silencers are not able to pierce armour or metal. Other guns at your disposal can and these are essential for many enemy types. This makes stealth kills really hard when there are drones and super bots patrolling an area. Shooting them with your silenced weapons is not enough to down them, so these enemies will return fire and set off the alarms. This spawns in more enemies from all corners of the map, even in areas you previously cleared.

And if you raise the suspicion of a guard, there is no point to duck behind cover and hide. Robot Nazi skeletons will come alive and run to your exact position. I finished The New Order on I AM DEATH INCARNATE difficulty and it was challenging but doable, so I thought I could do the same in New Colossus. My mistake.

Sadly, I am not death incarnate.

After struggling with a particular section for about an hour – and it was way before the infamous court house scene – I gave up and lowered the difficulty. I didn’t go all the way down, still need those achievements, and I changed my playstyle. No longer would I be the sneaky death looking to eliminate the officers first. Preferrably with a hatchet throw. It didn’t feel right anymore. It just wasn’t fun

It felt like Machine Games made a stealth option because it was expected. After all, the first Castle Wolfenstein game was a stealth game and it kind of worked in The New Order. But I think secretly they didn’t want the game to be played that way. The New Order is a more serious game that doesn’t joke a lot about its subject matter. And that was a good thing.

The New Colossus has a lot of seriousness as well, but these moments are separated by poop jokes, and silly, lighthearted character interactions. It is a game that is serious, but also lets loose, and wants to be optimistic, and a bit more batshit, than its predecessor.

It’s a game where you can dual wield guns, any guns. A triple barrel shotgun in one hand and a rocket launcher in the other. Or a machine gun in your left hand and a pistol that shoots bombs in your right hand. B.J. Blazkowicz is known as Terror Billy. Doesn’t sound like someone sneaking around vents and throwing axes at people’s backs.

Go full mayhem. I did. Start each level shootin’ and grenadin’ and who cares if the officers set off the alarms? I got enough bullets. And yes, the game is going to make fun of you for taking it easy. Like the forced stealth, that is just one more thing to ditch from the series’s past.

The Magic Circle: Review

The Magic Circle is another game in the growing games about games genre. Whereas games like Beginner’s Guide focus on the reception of games, and the Stanley Parable ridicule the illusion of choice that games promise to bring, The Magic Circle is about game development, and the people who make or break it.

As a play-tester, you are thrown into a barely completed game that has been abandoned by all except the lead creator and those who he forces to remain. It looks like it to, with incomplete assets, sections of the game world clashing both in style and completeness, and random assets and objects thrown about. It doesn’t always look good, but that is the point.

Within this world, you find another entity, some…thing that has been trapped within this game because it has never been finished in the ten years of development. What this entity was never really made sense to me. A rogue code? Another play-tester trapped in the game from a previous time? This entity directs you to sabotage the game so they can escape. What follows is a half-puzzle, half-sandbox experience, where your job is to help bring the game to completion in one form or another.

Within the half-finished game, the game’s developers float around with giant eye avatars. They bicker and snap at each other and don’t seem to get anything done. Sprinkled among the broken world, you will also stumble upon notes left by the former employees, often complaining about missing features of the lack of proper project management.

The core mechanic of the game is finding objects and absorbing their “classes.” For anyone who has tinkered with game editors or scripting, the coding layer of the game will feel familiar. You can then assign these classes, or attributes, to any other objects you find in the game.

Want a mushroom that can fly? Give it the flying attribute. Want your hell hound to be immune from fire? Give it fire immunity. Half of the puzzles center around finding and gaining the attributes, which you gather from items and creatures in game. Following the sandbox nature of the game, most puzzles seem to have multiple solutions. While this section of the game works well, it is short and I feel more could have been done to explore the game’s core mechanics, before proceeding to the second half of The Magic Circle.

The last act is weaker than the first because it focuses on the narrative. Gone are the code experiments and the exploration, and we are instead given a front seat to exposition and narrative. Save for one, slightly humorous use of the game’s code mechanics, the last sections heavy narration feels jarring. You go from this wonderful sandbox to what is essentially a long cut scene with one unclear puzzle.

Can The Magic Circle teach us about game development?

…the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

Among a lot of “gamers”, there are many incorrect assumptions about how game development works. Every year, we see this play out in Twitter rants and on Steam forums. Just fix that bug, just add this feature, how hard can it be? Despite journalistic pieces on the developmental history of games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and The Bureau: X-Com Declassified detailing the challenges and managerial mistakes that resulted in a poor release, game development still seems like magic.

The Magic Circle tries to pierce the veil and give some insights into some of the worst aspects and challenges of software development. However, without any related experience, I am not sure the game is able to educate a player. The conversations between the developers are too humorous, losing any lesson they may contain. It doesn’t help that the characters are caricatures. We have the auteur who will give anything and everything to create a masterpiece. He is haunted by the success of his first game and doesn’t have the confidence in his follow up, which of course needs to be a bigger succes. Then we have the pro gamer who has been intimidated and manipulated to work on the game, but which wants to see it fail due to being forced to work on it. Finally, we have the super fan who wants to help the auteur complete their work but secretly wants ownership of it.

There are metaphors here for sure, but its never clear what the essential message is supposed to be, except games are hard, which isn’t really enough. After breaking the game, the auteur goes on a long rant about the impossibility of pleasing the fans, the super fan takes control of the game and opens it up to the modding community, which promptly takes the whole game apart because there is no direction. Is the answer somewhere in between?

Presenting these two extremes as methods of game creation, and having both of them ending in disaster, doesn’t tell us much about what good game development looks like. Is the ownership of the game in the auteur, who has no single vision and is crumbling under the pressure to create a masterpiece? No. Without a definite vision, a game (or any project) can’t be completed and be successful. This doesn’t mean the vision needs to come from one singular source, but some decisions need to be made and stuck to. Does the game belong to the players and modders? No, they will rip the game apart and use the bits and bobs for their own end, lacking a similar direction and structure for their work.

Does this play out in real life? Sometimes, but there are examples of games under a single auteur vision that gain critical acclaim and economic success. On the other side, there are plenty of games that have also received critical acclaim and economic success as a result of dedicated modding efforts.

This is my biggest gripe of the game. While its amusing to see the bickering and jabs at game development, fans, crowdfunding, and other areas of game development, the entire arc of the game is completely negative. I couldn’t decide if the game was being sarcastic or pessimistic. Any lessons of how games are made will most likely be lost to those who may need them the most.

Despite of this, the first part of the game is clever, entertaining, and allows the player great freedom in expressing themselves through the game’s mechanics.

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