Wolfenstein II: Level Density

We’re largely finished with the moment to moment analysis now – I’m going to be moving on to some larger structural questions about Wolfenstein II. First on the list, possibly the most obvious question: in the wide view, how does Wolfenstein II arrange its narrative? Maybe the better first question – how does New Order?

This is all going to be a pretty crude overview – I’ll just give you a quick sense of the levels in New Order, and then we’ll talk about New Colossus. In New Order, you’ve got the Baltic Coast level, fighting Deathshead, and then – actually let’s list them.

  1. Baltic Coast
  2. Psychiatric Hospital
  3. Anya’s Grandparents (interlude)
  4. Nazi Checkpoint
  5. Train (interlude)
  6. Eisenwald Prison
  7. Resistance HQ (interlude)
  8. London Nautica
  9. Camp Belica
  10. Berlin Catacombs
  11. Eva’s Hammer
  12. Da’at Yichud Cave (interlude)
  13. Gibraltar Bridge
  14. Lunar Base
  15. London Nautica, again
  16. HQ, again
  17. Deathshead’s Compound, again

That’s the list. I’ve skipped a few of the returning levels – you go back to the HQ between most missions and have your little wander round miniquest. But those are all the locations you go to, more or less. Let’s compare New Colossus:

  1. Eva’s Hammer
  2. Ausmerzer
  3. Manhattan
  4. Roswell
  5. Mesquite (and the prison, courthouse, etc)
  6. New Orleans
  7. Venus
  8. Ausmerzer, again (and the Jimmy Carver show)

There’s only really half as many locations, if you discard the double-ups. You could be petty about the different locations on the Eva’s Hammer if you wanted – for instance, there’s the opening level, which you never explore again, the main HQ, and the Section F level. But there’s actually a broader point in there. It might be the case that each level in New Colossus is longer, in the sense that there might be three or four different locations in each area.

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In Manhattan, for instance, there’s the initial starting area, and then the police station and subway, uh, then the area after the train where you climb up the building and drop down to fight the giant robot fucker (the Zitadelle), and then the actual resistance base up at the top of the Empire State Building. That’s potentially a pretty long level, especially compared to something like the checkpoint before you’re on the train to Eisenwald – specifically that bit where you’re in the car with Anya’s parents. That’s not very long – and it’s certainly not as interesting from a narrative perspective. Very little happens to move the story forwards. By contrast, the levels in New Colossus are generally more interesting. They’re all stuffed to the brim with background detail about the fictional world. In many ways, New Order was often a relatively empty game, in the sense that the levels weren’t always that busy. In the Nazi checkpoint, for instance, it’s sort of a bit of a construction site, meaning there’s some pipes and shit, and then there’s a barracks, and it’s just a barracks with shoes and gloves and dinners and shit, and, ah, yeah, that’s about it. There’s not much beyond that first glance. New Colossus is a whole new ball game. It’s not something that’s been very clear from my focus, which is much more on interpersonal relationships and major story beats, but the environments of New Colossus are staggeringly full. Just an obscene amount of detail, all of which says something about the fictional world. I mean, these fuckers made up a gameshow, ‘German Or Else’, and you can find posters, advertisements, a newspaper interview with the game’s loser after she got released from a re-education camp – I mean holy shit, New Colossus, buy me a drink first.

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At the same time, New Colossus does have a pretty tiny set of locations. You hit the Ausmerzer, and then four main locations, plus the Mesquite interlude, the Ausmerzer again, and curtain. That’s not a lot of scope for the storytelling – especially given that you’ve really only got one (pretty basic) mission in each location. On the Ausmerzer, you have to release the cable. In Manhattan, find Grace. In Roswell, nuke the Nazis. Arguably New Order had equally basic missions for each area, but also New Order had a fuck of a lot of different areas. The story felt like it had a lot more going on. Let’s repeat those lists from before, but add the main goal for each location:

  1. Kill Deathshead
  2. Save Anya
  3. Interrogate the Nazi captain
  4. Get to the train
  5. Get to Eisenwald
  6. Save Fergus/Wyatt
  7. Do little sidequests
  8. Steal the choppers
  9. Save Set Roth
  10. Get to the Eva’s Hammer
  11. Steal the Eva’s Hammer
  12. Get your scary magic death ball
  13. Use scary magic death ball
  14. Steal nuclear codes for Eva’s Hammer
  15. Escape the moon
  16. Save some buddies
  17. Kill Deathshead, again

By contrast, the major goals with New Colossus:

  1. Find Anya
  2. Release clamps
  3. Find Grace
  4. Nuke Nazis
  5. Find mother’s ring
  6. Find Horton
  7. Find codes to steal the Ausmerzer
  8. Steal Ausmerzer

There’s not really a fuck of a lot going on in there. Each level gets a stunning amount of detail, but there’s a tiny number of levels, which means a tiny amount of mission goals. By the end of it, it feels like you haven’t achieved much, especially when you put it in the context of New Order. It’s also painfully obvious how many levels and missions were directly lifted from New Order, giving further credibility to the ‘BJ is Actually Dead’ theory. I’ll tell you what, I’m really looking forward to Youngblood. Either MachineGames have been playing a really fucking long game, and BJ has been dead since halfway through New Colossus, or we’re all going to realise that New Colossus has some major design and narrative flaws and is in some regards actually very lazy. It’s some high stakes shit, and I love it.

Anyway: New Colossus ends up feeling like a very short game. If you count it just in terms of major narrative missions, it’s easily half the length of New Order. Each level in New Colossus might be longer, maybe, but it still feels shorter overall. There’s also not as much opportunity to run around the Eva’s Hammer, get to know the crew, have those little interlude bits where characters get developed just for the sake of telling an interesting story. New Colossus is better than New Order, undoubtedly, but it’s also easily much worse.

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