Wolfenstein: A Dying Colossus?

Wolfenstein is a series that has transcended several generations due to a subject matter that seems more relevant now than at any time in the recent past. However, If you remove the subject matter, you're left with a franchise struggling with bland level design & continually degrading writing. Wolfenstein has survived almost 38 years of change within the industry, but perhaps it's time to for the series to end. Let's look at how it started, how it's changed & why I'm concerned for its future.
Wolfenstein: A dying colossus?

Wolfenstein: A dying colossus?

As the credits rolled on Wolfenstein: Youngblood, I began to reflect on the game; its positives & negatives. The overall package was enjoyable and being reunited with characters you’ve come to like, plus the introduction of new ones, is always a satisfying experience. Despite this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was ready for this long-running franchise to end.

Wolfenstein is one of the oldest franchises in gaming; the seventh-oldest, to be specific. Starting life in 1981, Castle Wolfenstein offered some of the earliest gamers one of the first stealth-based shooters. The gameplay may seem rudimentary to modern gamers, lucky enough to have grown-up with HD graphics & open worlds, but for the time, it was exciting stuff. You played a nameless WW2 soldier, tasked with evading and, if necessary, killing the guards of the castle.

Wolfenstein: A dying colossus?

Wolfenstein 3D is often credited with creating the FPS genre

It would take eleven years for the series to make the move to 3D in the aptly named Wolfenstein 3D. Though id Software chose to drop the castle from the title, it added a real protagonist: the burly, Nazi-killing machine, BJ Blazkowicz. Id Software also made the decision to switch genres from stealth to something that hadn’t really been seen before… a first-person shooter. Wolfenstein 3D is credited by many as the game that invented the FPS genre & although technically not true, its part in promoting the genre to a wider audience can’t be understated.

An attempted reboot of the franchise was released in 2009 but was met with mixed reviews, possibly due to the strives that had been made in the genre over the years, best represented by the outstanding success & impact of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Around 2010, id Software handed the IP to Machine Games, who immediately began developing a sequel to Wolfenstein (2009) that would retain its protagonist but be set post-war in a world where the allies lost. Four years later, Machine Games, with the publishing power of Bethesda, released a new Wolfenstein game that would redefine the series, for better or worse.

Wolfenstein: A dying colossus

BJ Blazkowicz

By 2014, the success of the Call of Duty was waning. The innovation that the multiplayer shooter brought to the genre had been replaced by bland campaigns & unwelcoming, overly monetised multiplayer, ruled by a select few. The genre was hungry for an FPS with a strong story & engaging characters; Wolfenstein: The New Order filled that need. Though not revolutionary, Wolfenstein: The New Order managed to weigh cinematic action with tender, emotional moments, in almost perfect balance. The Nazis remained the enemy but everything that represented the horror of the third reich was embodied in the games two main villains – Frau Engle & Wilhelm Strasse. The story doesn’t shy away from the deplorable actions of the Nazis, featuring a death camp that the protagonist has to escape & allusions to an increased euthanasia program, practised by the Nazis during the war.

The New Order left an impression on me; I quickly became attached to the characters and eagerly awaited a sequel, though it would be take three years to get it. Wolfenstein: The New Colossus released in 2017 into a world rocked by political controversy. The issue of race in the United States was (and remains) a hot topic, so the move from post-war Europe to a Nazified North America was controversial. Seeing the Swastika flying outside a small town diner was an uncomfortable experience, as was observing citizens in full KKK regalia; but those sights only made the story of re-establishing democracy more compelling. My enthusiasm for the campaign didn’t extend to the gameplay, which I found bland & linear. Gunplay was as good as ever, but the lack of diversity in environments was disappointing. Apart from one scene that involve BJ Blazkowicz walking through a sunny New Mexico town, observing the melding of American culture with Nazi ideology, much of the game is limited to empty corridors, office buildings & tunnels. 

Wolfenstein: A dying colossus?

Catching a milkshake with a Nazi officer in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

I enjoyed Wolfenstein: The New Colossus overall, but some missions had felt like more of a slog than engaging gameplay. The game ends with a rousing speech about reclaiming the world from the clutches of the Nazis, so I was willing to put aside the disappointing gameplay in hope that the third instalment would improve on the disappointments of The New Colossus. That third instalment hasn’t materialised just yet, but to fill the time, Machine Games developed Wolfenstein: Youngblood, a spin-off set in the ’80s and sees the Blazkowicz children all grown up & ready to continue in their father’s bloodstained footprints.

Unfortunately, Youngblood fails to fix the issues of its predecessor; a failure that I see as two-fold. Youngblood retains the bland mission locations found in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus; tight uniformed corridors that offer little variation. It would be dishonest of me to claim that there are no redeeming features, where game design is concerned; they’re some beautiful views of Paris, but these moments of fresh air soon give way to the oppressive claustrophobia of endless corridors & tunnel systems.

Wolfenstein: A dying colossus?

BJ Blazkowicz’s two daughters take the staring role in Wolfenstein: Youngblood

My second concern is the lack of compelling side characters & in the worrying case of Wolfenstein: Youngblood, protagonists. I’ve always enjoyed the duality of BJ Blazkowicz; on the surface, a grizzled lump of Nazi-killing muscle, but beneath that tough exterior lies the heart & soul of a philosopher. This stands in stark contrast to his two daughters, who through subpar, cringe-inducing dialogue, appear more like one-dimensional caricatures, instead of fleshed-out protagonists. 

Youngblood’s story also hurts the overall timeline of the franchise. I mentioned above that at the end of WolfensteinThe New Colossus, Blazkowicz & his comrades give a speech about freeing the world from the Nazi scourge. Wolfenstein: Youngblood sees an almost 20 year leap into the future, only to show that much of the world remains under Nazi oppression, making much of what you achieved in the previous two games seem pointless.

Wolfenstein: A dying colossus

Frau Engle, the truly evil antagonist of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein has been around for almost 38 years. The franchise has managed to continuously evolve with the changing hardware & gameplay standards of the time, but without creative design, well-written dialogue & convincing characters, a game has no soul. Wolfenstein wouldn’t be the first franchise to suffer this fate & it won’t be the last; This would be a sad ending to a gaming institution. Can Wolfenstein be fixed? Yes. Will fixing it save the franchise? Only time will tell.

I may have my misgivings about Wolfenstein: The New Colossus & Wolfenstein: Youngblood, but if you’re a fan of the franchise, you will enjoy both games, even if it’s just for the gunplay alone. Both are available on PS4, Xbox One & PC.

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