I love Wolfenstein 2’s wonky, unforgiving stealth

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It’s taking me a long, long time to play through Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. The reason for that is because I’m playing it as a stealth game – a claim about a Wolfenstein game that would have sounded absurd a couple of years ago, but is now taken for granted as a result of 2014’s The New Order offering a limited sneaky-stabby path. Both of the latter-day Wolfs are designed primarily to be played as spray’n’play mass murder sims, and they’ve got a ton of wonderful toys with which to achieve that, but, for my part, I’ve been there, done that far too many times, and so the idea of treating W2TNC’s missions as a quieter, tenser, almost puzzle-like affair is far more appealing.

Thing is, Wolf 2’s stealth is all kinds of messed up. There are entirely legitimate reasons to despise it. Me, though? I can’t resist it.

The main lure is simply that it makes the core Wolfenstein experience far more unpredictable. Wolf 2 is fairly adept at using a combination of setpiece and level geometry to keep the loop of shoot’n’move ambiently remixed throughout, but it’s nonetheless pretty much always about running around frantically and lobbing bullets until everyone else has stopped shouting. The sneaking route, by contrast, inherently involves not knowing exactly what will happen when you round the next corner and takes you to parts of the levels that you otherwise would not see.

Appropriately, Wolf 2 is only a stealth game surreptitiously – it carries itself as if it were a straight-up shooter when, in fact, it is not. So it won’t ever direct you to to its various dark corners, mansize pipes and overhead walkways, but if you’re a career sneak, you will recognise and exploit them almost unconsciously. Of course, there aren’t anything like as many of these alternate paths as there are in, say, a Dishonored game, but there are enough of ’em to conjure an intermittent illusion that you are creating your own route through what are, in truth, linear maps.

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Here comes the big proviso, though: despite having sunk getting on for a dozen hours into Wolf 2 so far, I’m nowhere near completing it. (This is because stealth=extremely slow play, which I’ll say a bit more about below). Some of the missions I’ve played thus far have been extremely well-suited to stealth play, others have not, and m’colleague Adam, who handled our Wolfenstein 2 review, tells me that later levels did not, in his experience, seem quite so setup for sneaking.

Even in my comparatively limited experience, the game has an unfortunate habit of defaulting back to faintly tedious metal corridors immediately after a relatively bravura section, and if that continues, sooner or later the urge to just blow through samey levels PDQ is going to overwhelm the urge to ghost them.

Even if that does happen within the next few hours, I’m still going to have an average-length game’s worth of sneakery, and won’t feel entirely dissatisfied with that. A potentially divisive aspect of Wolf 2’s stealth is that, much of the time, if you get seen once, that’s it. All hell will break loose, all other enemies can spot you instantly from half a mile away, and running off to hide in a corner for five minutes rarely leads to a “must have been rats” enemy alert reset. In other words, there’s no way to (forgive me) take back control of a situation gone wrong – other than revert to traditional FPS deathmachine behaviour. Finding a way out of trouble is often one of the most satisfying parts of ‘true’ stealth games, and I can understand entirely why it’s frustrating that Wolf 2 is devoid of it.

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But I am onboard entirely with this game being so inflexible about stealth. In a planet ruled by the iron fist of high-tech Nazis, you’re a world-famous ‘terrorist’ – martial law abides, you’re the single greatest threat to the Reich and there is simply no way that, if you were spotted, the enemy is simply going to shrug a few minutes later and presume you’ve disappeared. They would hunt you until the ends of the Earth – and that is exactly what they do here.

As such, Wolf 2 is a game of absolute stealth. If you’re seen even once, your cover is blown and it becomes all-out war. Somehow, this little cause and effect loop has remained endlessly entertaining to me, because it more naturally evokes the ebb and flow of cinematic or comicbook war story far more than does repeatedly running into a room and shooting everyone. The secret agent sneaks in then has to fight his way out: we all know that story well.

More than that though, it has me playing with extreme caution, and almost comically slowly. This is a game in which most people will murder everyone in a room within about four seconds, whereas each kill (a hatchet in the spine, a silenced pistol shot to the back of the head; later, a silenced machine gun that spits nails) or outright evasion might well take a full minute, and in some cases much more.

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The reason why a single encounter can wind up taking aaaages is something that anyone who’s felt dissatisfied by Wolf 2’s stealth might have picked up on – sometimes, enemies seem almost supernaturally aware of you, even when you have not yet been caught red-handed. I have felt this frustration: the deep sense of unfairness that some guy three streets away caught sight of you even though you only leaned your head out for a split second, and suddenly all your work that level is lost. (For the sake of argument, let’s just pretend quickloading doesn’t exist, eh?)

Thing is, there’s a reason for this, and it’s not just a conceptual one that exists only in my head. Wolf 2 semi-silently features a mid-alert state for its enemy AI – the kind of thing you’ll have seen in plenty of other stealth games, where your foes become suspicious as a result of a noise or finding a body, and as such are actively looking to see if anyone naughty is lurking. In that state, they can see you the moment you move out of cover. Traditionally, we see icons over their heads or a coloured bar on the UI somewhere to let us know that this has happened, but Wolf 2 lacks any stealth bobbins on its interface. Sometimes the music will crank up to something more anxiety inducing, sometimes it won’t; sometimes enemies will bark to reveal their suspicion, sometimes they won’t.

There’s also no clarity about just how far the paranoia spreads when someone catches a brief glimpse of your heels, hears you land with a thump onto an iron platform below them or stumbles across the cooling corpse of one their allies. Is it just to NPCs in the immediate vicinity, is it to everyone on the map, does it vary from case-to-case? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve encountered all sorts of inconsistencies, and I’m still figuring it out. There’s also the frankly bizarre feature whereby you get a small window even if spotted to silence a Nazi commander before he can tell the world you’re there, but if a lowly grunt sees you then everyone else magically knows about it straightaway.

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Oh, how I have sworn at this game. I have thought, several times, “balls to this – I’m going weapons-free”. But when I do do that, it never feels as satisfying as it does to complete a level silently. It’s shorter, it’s sillier, it feels more routine, there’s nothing like the same tension, and it doesn’t feel like I played the game my way. Sometimes, I have to really work to succeed at stealth, less in terms of being really, really super-stealthy but more in terms of closely following the game’s rules and limitations, and there are moments when I want to scream. How did that guy possibly spot me?

Well, it’s because I made one noise three minutes ago, but there was no obvious reaction to it and nor did my foes’ behaviour seem to change, so I erroneously thought the coast was clear. This means I’m exercising extreme in any situation, watching and waiting for any slight clue that an enemy might be already triggered.

If I see a clue, I can wait it out, the enemies will reset from this state (they’ll announce it too), and I become relatively free to skulk about carrying out my silent takedowns again. Wolfenstein 2 could do this stuff so much better: I wish it telegraphed that mid-alert state more openly, I wish the rules about who can sound the alert if you’re spotted were more consistent, I wish that more of the weapons and gadgets had stealth-related alt-modes.

But I like that everything turns into a ceaseless warzone once the enemy knows I’m there. I wouldn’t that to be any different. That’s the game! That is literally the situation that BJ Blazkowicz is in. Hiding in a corner for five minutes so that the Nazi army can forget that the world’s most wanted man is walking among them wouldn’t make a lick of sense. I love that absolute challenge: don’t get seen at all, or live with the ultra-violent consequences.

I haven’t even mentioned the (optionally) silenced pistol, which is by far the game’s best weapon. Wolf 2’s stealth is as skew-whiff as a thatched roof after a three-day storm, but it’s absolutely the way to play as far as I’m concerned.

32 Comments

  1. causticnl says:

    I loved stealth in the previous two Wolfensteins, havent play the new one yet. But the silenced pistol was ridiculous op, enemies could withstand several shots to the head, but could be oneshotted with the silenced pistol.

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    • percydaman says:

      It’s OP again here. I’m playing pretty much exactly like the author is, and treating it like a stealth game. If ANY alarm is thrown, then it’s reload. And I use the pistol with suppressor like 75% of the time. I’m doing it a bit less because yeah in the later game it does indeed seem less a game that encourages stealth.

  2. April March says:

    Alec Meer Admits He Prefers Not To Kill Nazis

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      Earl-Grey says:

      If only he could talk to the Nazis.
      -they’d probably tell him how all lives matter and that there are people to blame on both sides…

  3. Zenicetus says:

    Eh, I’m not enjoying it, although I did enjoy a mixed stealth/guns blazing approach in the previous game. The levels are way too linear, not enough options for approach. And the game recycles the same tired “sneak-kill the commanders, then arena battle” format over and over, without showing us anything new.

    I’m only partway through the game, nearing the end of the NYC level so maybe it gets better, but I might shelve it for a while. Maybe pick up the new AssCreed game instead. Right now, boring recycled gameplay in a more open environment feels more appealing than a stale corridor shooter format like this. I’ll come back to it eventually, but I’m disappointed they didn’t bother to do more with the setting.

    • Daymare says:

      IIRC the first felt more open; both less corridor-ish levels overall and more combat in actual wide open spaces.

      I also miss unique bosses. I know some people hate bosses, and those giant robots serve as bosses in TNC; but I wish there were actual boss fights.

  4. Faldrath says:

    Wolf2 is such a good game, isn’t it? I haven’t had any of the technical problems so many Steam users are reporting (on an i5-2500 and a 970), and I honestly thought the stealth was the worst part.

    But the story manages to be both batshit insane and very thought-provoking, the voice acting is sublime, the shooting is good… a very necessary game, I’d say, without spoiling anything.

  5. nld says:

    In my experience, the alarm countdown starts the moment an enemy starts shooting or otherwise makes a loud noise (for example, a drone blows up).

    Another frustrating thing for me was how you can sometimes kill one commander silently, but there’s no apparent way to get to the second one without all hell breaking loose.

    • Zenicetus says:

      There is always a way to get a silent kill on the second commander after the first one. But there’s usually only *one* way laid out by the developers, and you have to find it by pure chance the first time, or multiple frustrating trial-and-error attempts, or looking it up online in a playthrough. Not my kind of stealth game.

    • percydaman says:

      That has not been my experience at all. I’m stealthing my way through the entire game, and I haven’t seen that happen once.

  6. MattM says:

    “enemies seem almost supernaturally aware of you, even when you have not yet been caught red-handed”
    Most stealth games make enemies incredibly unaware. They can’t see you in the open at a distance where you can easily see them, they have vision cones less than half a of real persons, and they can’t hear me shooting a silenced pistol or hacking someone with a machete a few meters away in a quiet environment. Its probably for the best gameplay wise, but it does make me interested in what it would be like to play a stealth game with fewer but much more perceptive enemies.
    After all the games where night-time is a blue-filtered day, it was cool to play STALKER with the Complete mod where it was realistically dark. In real-life, if you don’t have city-glow, you cannot make out forest ground by moonlight even right at your own feet.

    (Heck the dumb AIs don’t even use their third person camera to look around corners)

    • Marclev says:

      Basically this. In this game, if you can see the enemy, they can see you. Sometimes they may not notice you before you go back into hiding, but don’t count on it.

      If you peek out from around a corner and someone is facing you, they don’t shrug you off as “Probably nothing”, they go on high alert because they just saw the enemies head peaking around the corner at them (duh)!

      Similarly if you try to hide for 5 minutes, people don’t just assume that the massive firefight just now was caused by a rat, they hunt you down with extreme prejudice.

      If you hack someone down a few feet away from someone else, even if they’re back is turned, they turn around to see what the fuss is about.

      In those terms, it’s one of the most realistic games I’ve ever played when it comes to stealth. I’d actually say it doesn’t go far enough, in that there are still invisible barriers beyond which an alert will not spread and the guards are all relaxed even though you loudly killed all their colleagues in the previous section.

      And the “Rambo-mode” battles when things go wrong (which is often) are always fun.

      • percydaman says:

        That’s not been true for me at all. More times than I can count I’ve been gobsmacked that an enemy standing 15 feet from me and looking right in my direction hasn’t even blinked.

  7. Daymare says:

    I’m playing it as a stealth game as well, only that I just reload whenever I’m spotted. Once the Commander is dead, I’m shooting everything on sight.

    I’m nearing the end and there were ~3 places where I felt stealth up to the Commander was impossible, for what it’s worth.

    Since I also play on the highest difficulty (not the permadeath one) being spotted is almost synonymous with being dead anyway …
    … and TNC really doesn’t feel balanced around I Am Death Incarnate. I’ve played through TNO/TOB and nu-Doom on whatever were the hardest settings there and they felt much fairer. I swear I took far less damage even in TNO on the same difficulty.
    I know part of being weak is for narrative reasons, but there’s quite a few things that make it harder than it should be. No hit direction indicators while you wear armor, wonky pick-up mechanics, and much lower HP for most of the game, these three feel most consistently frustrating.

    The story, world, gfx and actual shooting are supergreat and gloriously insane though. Loving those and somehow can’t force myself to dial the difficulty back.

    Game also runs on High/Ultra video settings on my ancient i5-2500k and trusty GTX 970. Except that I’ve had about 8-12 game crashes and about the same number of minute-long freezes; which were frustrating but not that big of a deal. Quicksaves and SSD make that less problematic than in other games.

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    Thulsa Hex says:

    I’m glad that it’s so unforgiving/wonky, just so that it encourages me to play it as a bombastic action game. We’ve had so many excellent stealth games over the past few years, and it just feels wonderfully cathartic to go guns blazing again. It used to be the opposite way ’round, back when we had Raven shooters up the wazoo.

  9. Giftmacher says:

    I think the stealth system is great, and the instant fliperoo from super stealth to “kill everyone NOW” is a great game device. BUT, I’ve noticed that the level design in W2 is much more opaque and confusing than New Order’s with regards to stealth. The previous game was extremely good at setting up stealth sections in a clear way so that you had a basic grasp of the environment and opposition before you made your move. W2’s sprawling, multi-floor arenas often require you to blunder about before you can even figure out where the commander is located, and by then you’ve probably been seen by eight Nazis whose line of sight you weren’t aware of. One could argue that it’s a deeper, more uncompromising stealth experience that requires more observation and patience, but I think most of the time it just ends up being confusing and opaque, whereas the previous game was breezy but intuitive and satisfying.

  10. Mouse_of_Dunwall says:

    I usually used stealth when it was an option in the previous Wolfenstein and I will probably be doing the same in this one. I wish there were more first-person stealth games.

  11. DEspresso says:

    Those first few screenshots make you wonder.. is Blaskowicz a lizard?

    • Zenicetus says:

      It’s the magic scale armor BJ gets right away, referenced from the previous game. And it still makes no sense that you pick up discarded helmets and armor bits, and slap it on. Penny Arcade had a fun take on it with the last game:
      link to penny-arcade.com

  12. ShadowF68 says:

    Waste of talent, waste of cent invested!!!! The worst game ever created, stop writing about it!!!

  13. woodsey says:

    I played The Old Blood for the first time recently and found the stealth infuriating for much pretty much all the reasons listed here. I appreciate that it’s not a game I’m going to be able to ghost but you literally get one second to react before everything fucking explodes. The whole shebang just became really annoying. I remember TNO being pretty inflexible but nowhere near so punishing.

    I was going to buy W2 soon but with this info I might wait for a price drop.

  14. vast_anusse103 says:

    Not sure if he likes it or he doesn’t. Anyway, logged in to say goodbye. No way I’m clicking the ad-blocker shit every time. Bye.

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    Henke says:

    I’m playing it as a stealth game – a claim about a Wolfenstein game that would have sounded absurd a couple of years ago

    It wouldn’t have sounded absurd 35 years ago though! link to en.wikipedia.org

  16. Agnosticus says:

    I just wanted to point out, how smoothly the game runs:

    My Spec: i5-4950, RX 480, 16 gig DDR3
    Result: 1440p, settings on high, 90-100fps, fame times 12-15ms

    Vulkan API ftw!

    Some rare CTD though, may get fixed

  17. elroyscout says:

    I like the stealth as well, but for different reasons. I think of it as the opening moves of the battle, where you get a chance to whittle down the enemy into something you can take down with a few shots. My strategy is be completely quiet once you see the enemy commanders signal indicators, and staying so untill you kill the last of them or you have the last of them in your sights with a large weapon, then, you go loud and are basically gaurenteed to take the rest of the arena with full ammo, health and armor after gleefully poping everyone in a still fun firefight. And if you get spotted, the fight is still fun and still winable, but with reinforcements coming in unknown quantites, you’re a lot more likely to be short on a crucial supply or die and have to restart. So I like the diet-stealth here, as for me, its only a prelude to the much more developed combat, not the entire game’s focus, and thus can be forgiven for its immediate transition into the fun combat at the slightest mistake.

    • percydaman says:

      I like to stealth kill everything until the hero says something that’s generally an indicator that everybody is dead. Then I sprint around looking for and grabbing all the secret bits.

  18. Ragnar says:

    I really enjoyed a similar approach in The New Order. I actually think the transition from stealth to all out shooting works better here than in more stealth oriented games like Dishonored – in Dishonored, being spotted feels like failure, while in Wolfenstein it feels like the natural progression of things.

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