Machine Games’ rebooted Wolfenstein has always felt designed to parallel its protagonist. A fast, brutal, gloriously excessive, but deceptively smart shooter, released out of time and out of place into a world unprepared for its return, 2014’s The New Order mirrored the status of BJ Blazkowicz very keenly indeed. A blunt old war hero thrown forward into a high-tech, Nazi-occupied ‘60s, Blazko didn’t fit, was treated as little more than a gutsy underdog upon his reappearance, and proceeded to tear fascism a well deserved, cavernous new one regardless, with furious gusto. Much like Wolfenstein itself, Blazkowicz just didn’t give a shit for assumptions, caring only that there was important work to do.
Each a cacophonous clash of old and new ways, neither Wolfenstein nor Blazko should have had any right to succeed. The tonal juxtaposition of dual-wielding, sprint-fired shotguns, Nazi robo-pups, and profound, soul-searching, emotional narrative should have made a misfire. But somehow those discordant threads came together to create a rousing symphony of carnage, breaking preconceptions and setting new standards all at the same time.
And now Wolfenstein is back. And once more, neither it nor its hero expresses any care for convention. Both are going all-out, along their own path, and if anything they’re hitting even harder. And based on current play, they’re succeeding once again. The key quality remains: neither of them gives a shit. BJ is even killing Nazis from a wheelchair.
Picking up a few months after the end of the last game, my demo sees BJ coming out of a coma - inflicted at the end of the The New Order - on a commandeered U-boat. Ever the master of poor timing, he’s woken up in the middle of a Nazi attack, and in his temporarily weakened state, can barely stand. Only one thing for it. Time to unleash death on wheels.
You might expect this to bring about a reduction in Wolfenstein’s trademark ferocity, but it really doesn’t. It just changes the pace slightly and, if anything, gives old Blazko a few interesting new tricks. While his firing angle might be lower, making reaction-headshots more of a stretch than usual, it does also gift a handy dash of ‘Oddjob syndrome’, making Blazkowicz a smaller, more nimble target. And on that note of nimbleness, his new steed doesn’t harm his mobility as must as you’d expect. While strafing is obviously hampered, that’s made up for by a nippy, less predictable pace - sprinting now delivers short bursts of accelerated momentum, as BJ briefly downs tools to give the wheels a hard pump. Meanwhile, the tighter new turning circle makes for a great deal of rewarding, ‘Surprise, you’re dead’ moments, as our hero screeches around right-angled corners to blindside Nazis hiding behind cover, entirely unaware of where he’s got to. Blazkowicz might not look as imposing in his current situation, but his deceptive, cat-and-mouse game is now stronger than ever.
And dear lord, does this early submarine level give him plenty of opportunity to make the most of that. Brilliantly constructed to take sympathetic advantage of Blazko’s newly modified movement style, it’s a warren of tightly packed corridors to hurtle down, guns blazing, and intricate, cluttered, multi-leveled maze rooms, where space is tight, but line of sight is easy to break. Thus, quick environmental appraisal and thoughtful improvisation swiftly become the engine that powers a hundred swift, flanking kills and pop-up melee takedowns.
Yeah, sorry, I should have mentioned those above. Rolling Blazkowicz is just as lethal a melee opponent as he ever was. It’s just that now he either drags Nazis down toward him before shooting them up through the chin, or simply (and more satisfyingly) smashes their heads to pulp against his wheels.
Not that it’s all brute force beat-downs. Wolfenstein 2 exhibits the series’ turbo-charged smarts via means beyond its levels’ pure architecture. Mid-way through my journey to the deck, I discover that one of my crew has set up microwave booby-traps throughout the vessel’s corridors and doorways. Suddenly choke-points aren’t really choke-points, so much as they are ‘instantly super-heat marauding fascists so that they explode into a meaty, asshole bisque’-points. From this stage on, I’m free to activate and deactivate these traps at will, as long as I can find their control switches. And ye gods, am I going to profit from doing so.
Sometimes I’ll have to trigger these to move forward. Sometimes, the power box will be hidden away, far from the trap, requiring exploration, detective work, and no small exploitation of canny firing angles - bullets work as well as switches - to manipulate. And many times, I’ll be able to take advantage of cover and patrol routes to gloriously offensive effect. I hide away behind my microwave of choice, fire it back up, and then draw the jerks in with a teasing gunshot, cackling as each one charges arrogantly through to his instant, splashy doom. And I do cackle. Wolfenstein’s winsome loop of delivering bloody, cartoonish rewards for thoughtful play remains as jubilantly infectious as ever.
But, this being modern Wolfenstein, the curious, affecting mix of goofy splatter and touching pathos returns with aplomb toward the end of my demo. Reaching the final elevator up to the deck, I’m suddenly attacked (in a smoothly blended cutscene) by the last stormtrooper standing. He lunges. He grabs Blazko by the shoulders. Blazko struggles to fight back. And then the Nazi’s head explodes. Behind him stands Anya, BJ’s beloved, packing a smoking gun and a furious expression.
The battle isn’t over. There’s more to come, as we reach the deck, and discover that for all the corpses left in my wake - either solid, or those in puddle form - there are many more to make. But for now, there's a moment of surprisingly tender respite. A quite, calm moment of warm, human bliss, as Blazkowicz relaxes for the first time since we became reaquainted, his head resting on Anya’s very pregnant belly, his eyes closing, and sleep seeming near.
Don’t question for a moment whether Wolfenstein can bring the goods for a second time. Strange, off-kilter, and seemingly incongruous its bag of treats may be, but there’s a giddy, gratifying, and deeply affecting value here that you just won’t find in any other action game. And this is just the start. If this is how the game begins, then knowing how Wolfenstein handles escalation, in a few hours that bag will be burst like so many Nazi skulls.
And make no mistake. Many of those will burst.