After the halfway point of Mesquite, Wolfenstein II has this thing where you can go back and replay through the areas that you’ve already explored. Ostensibly you’re supposed to be killing Nazi commanders who are hanging around in those areas. It’s also an opportunity to collect Max’s toys, which are inexplicably scattered around all the different levels but only after you’ve already been to those areas. I assume BJ had all of Max’s toys in his pocket and was just losing them along the way – it’s the only vaguely plausible explanation. Anyway let’s talk about replaying missions.
The replay function is an example of one of those good ideas in theory that turns out to be awful in practice. The basic idea is that you can replay through an area and pick up some of the stuff you missed – so you don’t have to go through the rest of the game missing it. That’s fair enough – there’s 200 collectibles across Wolfenstein as a whole, and you’re probably not going to get all of them first time through. That’s a pretty good reason to have a replay function.
That said, there’s also a bunch of weird knock-on effects stemming from that decision that are bad and awkward. For one, it can rip any sense of pacing right out of the heart of the game. Wolfenstein II is, like New Order, a powerful narrative experience, and pulling the player out of that narrative momentum to spend three and a half hours exploring all the levels that you’ve already been through is just… ugh. It was cute in New Order where you could go and have a nap up in the tech room and play through a level of Return to Castle Wolfenstein. That was a cute throwback. In New Colossus, it’s different, because you’re having to play through levels that you’ve already been through, only without all the interesting dialogue and narrative events that make the game so compelling in the first place. So you take a level, strip it of all of its emotional significance and position within the narrative, and let the player just wander around looking for fucking collectibles. Yeah, nah.
There is technically a really loose narrative framework thrown around the replay function, but it almost makes the situation worse. The idea is that you’re meant to be destabilizing the Nazi regime in America by returning to all these locations and killing Nazi officers. That’s not a bad bit of fiction in itself, but it kinda just highlights the problem around representing Americans that we’ve talked about before. What’s the effect of your actions? Do we ever see the American people becoming more restless or antsy because of these assassinations? Short answer, no. It actually again struck me as similar to XCOM 2, where you can run off and do a bunch of side missions for a variety of different reasons. Again, though, XCOM 2 is actually superior in how it conceptualises those side missions. Sometimes XCOM‘s side missions are about getting extra staff, extra supplies – maybe extra intel or something too. They aren’t major interventions – they’re just supplementary. They help keep the lights on. In Wolfenstein, on the other hand, these supposed side missions are a major blow against the Nazi leadership.
Put it this way: you can only access these missions after Mesquite, after the farmhouse and that whole weird episode with BJ’s death-not-death. That means that in story terms, from that point on, your main direct acts against the Nazis are 1) stealing the Ausmerzer, 2) killing General Engel, and 3) killing the other Nazi commanders. Both the Ausmerzer and General Engel are included in the final level of the game – which means that from Mesquite right up to the game’s finale, your only direct acts of resistance against the Nazis are when you go into these side missions to murder the commanders. There’s a bunch of other stuff that happens in between those points, but most of it is either building up grassroots support (Horton and the communists), or preparing to attack the Ausmerzer (Venus). The only direct offensive missions against the Nazi regime are these side missions. They’re super optional, and again, you never see any of the results. We never see the American people becoming more unruly or considering violent resistance as a result of these actions. They’re optional missions that are presented as major offensive movements but aren’t contextualised in terms of their effects on the American people. By contrast, in XCOM, you’re effectively just going to the dairy to pick up milk and bread. It’s largely unremarkable grunt work, and subsequently it’s not given much weight in the overarching narrative. Wolfenstein II has it all backwards: the major offensive acts are optional side missions, and the major story missions are unremarkable grunt work. Go to Venus, pick up some codes. Go to New Orleans, save some rebels to build the resistance. And then if you’ve got a bit of spare time, if you’re free at any point, just nip out and murder fifteen high ranking Nazi officers to destabilize the Nazi government of America and stir up a revolution. Just if you’re free though – don’t worry if you’re busy, you’ll never see the results and the revolution will still kick off at the end of the game regardless.
The one nice thing I will say about the replay missions is that the developers clearly got creative with some of the contexts. For instance, it doesn’t make a fuck of a lot of sense for there to be Nazis all over your farmhouse. The developers need a reason to have them all there so it’s not just you wandering around looking gormless. And the reason they come up with is pretty cool: there’s a film being made of your life, and they’re filming the bits about your childhood on location. They probably remade the house or something, because General Engel kinda tore it out of the ground and dropped it from a couple miles up, but don’t worry about that. The idea of a film about your life is fascinating, and we’ll talk more about it when we get to the Venus level. In the meantime – actually, can I just complain about that second farmhouse level a bit? It’s fucking dark, you can’t see two feet in front of you, and then a Klan member fucking wandering around in the dark spots you from sixty feet away and sets the alarm off but fuck knows where he is because it’s still pitch black and he shouldn’t have been able to see you because you can’t see him but he’s still shooting at you and tearing your health up but you can’t duck into cover because a) you can’t see the cover and b) you’re not sure which way he’s shooting from, because, as mentioned, it’s black as Satan’s fucking asshole and then you die and have to start over. Maybe I’m an idiot and there’s a flashlight function that I haven’t found. I hope that’s the case. I hope I’m embarrassing myself by not understanding how to play the game. I hope it’s not actually intentionally that fucking dark.
Anyway, the farmhouse idea is interesting because it adds a little bit of extra narrative into the game. Again though, the good idea in theory is upset by the practical details of everything else. You can go back to the farmhouse, sure, but you can also go back to Venus – not sure how, given that you originally snuck in disguised as an actor – and back to Roswell’s underground bunker – you know, the one where you set off a nuke. Acceptable premise, botched execution.