In the surprisingly, refreshingly excellent 2014 shooter reboot-o-sequel Wolfenstein: The New Order, it was the eyes that captivated me. The sad, aged eyes of BJ Blazkowicz, a war-weary he-man forced to take up arms yet again - tirelessly heroic, sure, but those windows to his haunted soul revealed his longing for an end to all this suffering. I could not look away from those eyes, even as he battled Mecha-Nazis and Moon-Nazis and Soul-Transplanted Ultra-Nazis and whatever else this unrepentantly preposterous game threw at him.
First things first: here's 45 minutes of me playing this thing, at a Bethesda-hosted press event a couple of weeks ago. Everything I talk about below is based on impressions formed during that session, but you don't need to watch it to follow what I'm on about. I mean, who has time to watch a 45 minute video? Jeez!
Though The New Colossus (TNC) is a direct sequel to 2014's The New Order (TNO) and shares the Nazis-rule-the-world-in-the-60s conceit, it seems to continue this venerable series trend to slightly reimagine its all-American beefcake hero for each installment. Though TNO was the first to pin much of a personality on BJ, it also restored him to his blond-Arnie roots visually: he was a hurtin' hulk.
TNC might star the same guy, but he's noticeably trimmer now - a less steroidal physique, and with it a little younger. There's a new swagger in his step too, either because the combination of scoring a meaningful victory and finding himself a lover in TNO has removed some of the pain from those eyes, or because those things have made him cocky. Dangerously cocky, I might gamble to suggest.
Then there's the jacket. Hornet-hued black and yellow, a halfway house between biker's leathers and baseball colours - very much the garb of a younger man, not the weary 40-something we saw in TNO. Someone with a new lease on life after his near-death in the last game and perhaps because, as this early section of the game soon reveals, he is soon to become a father. Virile and ready for tomorrow, not the last gasp of yesterday. Arrogant. With a young punk's jacket. The net effect is of someone I'd expect to see grinning mischievously over Biff Tannen's shoulder. Think, McNazi, think!
Later snatches of hyper-detailed cutscene reveal a man pathologically committed to his cause, thumping tables and snarling with contempt for weakness as he tries to recruit reluctant new blood to the American resistance. It's not as if TNO BJ was low-energy, but this time around he seems to burn with the intensity of a teenage protester rather than the stolid commitment of his older, older self. Maybe it's the jacket. Takes twenty years off him.
I say all this as though this is the story the cutscenes told me but, to be honest, I gleaned this sense of a younger, leaner, more self-believing BJ Blazkowicz despite the cacophonous, weirdly-paced and rather inhuman between-mission story beats, not because of them. TNO was alternately reflective and manic in that regard too, and featured a rather tone-deaf mech-assisted concentration camp escape sequence, but this seems far more hyper-caffeinated.
I appreciate, for instance, what it's going for in a sequence that has BJ and a reluctant rebel drunkenly debate the worth of standing up to their apparently invincible oppressors while soundtracked by both parpy live jazz and a hail of bullets, and in delicate directional hands that could have worked well. Here, though, it seems contrived and hyper-compressed, played for plastic laughs by unbelievable characters.
See also a sex scene involving a handsome young man and a character whose appearance is that of a plus-sized German schoolmarm. There's a lot that's very positive about this - it's inter-racial, both are unashamed when caught in the act, none of the four people who witness it are at all disapproving - but it's also played for broad laughs with sneery undertones. "Isn't it funny that this awesome-cool guy would have public doggy-style sex with this screaming matron twice his size?"
In another section, BJ's partner announces to him over an open voice channel that her pregnancy is making her feel horny - right after he's slaughtered a few dozen men, and right before he slaughters a few dozen more. It's trying to go for "this is how lovers really talk", and perhaps this is all supporting material for the idea that BJ is a youthful figure in a world of randy young people, rather than an aged sad sack, but again the pacing is crazy - and so TNC's attempts at humanity are strangely inhuman.
I have concerns that the TNO's unexpected heart has not been successfully transplanted into The New Colossus, despite clear attempts to do so. It's the weird, ping-ponging tone of TNC's cutscenes that I struggled with: I just can't tell what it's trying to be. Serious war message, ludicrous sci-fi romp or Austin Powers? All of the above, I guess. There's real and rare nobility in this game showing the kind of world that its heroes are fighting for, as opposed to simply "kill all the Nazis because they are Nazis", but I worry that it's far too heavy-handed; but perhaps seeing all these scenes in wider context, rather than in an hour-long slice of the full game, will make them less blunt and broad.
Of course, it's really the action that The New Colossus lives or dies on, and this I found to be far more reliable. Another surprise in TNO was a weapon upgrade system which effectively enabled a choice between onslaught or stealth (or a bit of both), and my sense in TNC was of a game even more built for varied styles of play. Maps offered more stealth pathways, more weapons had optional silencer upgrades - and, conversely, I seemed to be able to acquire something preposterously large and explosive whenever I felt like it. Or, at the very least, dual wield pretty much anything.
Where TNO was a game in which one of those giant metal Panzer-mechs usually meant a frightening, intense encounter and often required outright evasion, this is one in which you can cheerfully expend an entire cartridge of your massive laser rifle on taking the robo-mauler out with a single ubercharged shot. Presuming you get the chance to line up and power up the shot, of course.
And, in what to lesser minds is headline news far above and beyond what jacket the lead character is wearing, this is also a game in which you get to ride on one of those giant metal Panzer-mechs. Tank sections aren't new to the Wolf series, let alone to the shooter market in general, but the clanking, lolloping movement of an enormous, fire-breathing robo-hound is nonetheless an absolute treat.
It'll stomp right over anyone unlucky enough to get in its way, the flamethrowers can take out towering, ironclad super-soldiers with ease and you get a better view of BJ's cool-kid jacket as his sleeved arms pull the steering levers on the beast's back. It's a good time for sure, even if I was a little conscious of the general 'it's like the last game but MORE SO!' vibe.
The maps seemed large and twisty and multi-route too. Clearly, we've not exactly gone immersive sim here, but there was a real sense of figuring things out and noticing roads not taken. The flipside of that was that I felt briefly lost or stuck a few times, unable to discern the one path to the next section amid the warren of doors and walkways and trenches, which can hamper the sense of momentum - but I would take having to explore and deduct over a straightforward stomp forwards any day.
The pained eyes and the stealth undercurrent had me connecting to the last game far more than I'd expected to, but it was the sheer generosity of scale that made me love it. Large levels, sudden shifts into dramatically new environments (to the mooooon), a sense of stakes changing and new weapons opening up new navigational as well as combative possibilities: TNO was spectacular.
TNC's challenge, then, is to meet and then outdo that high standard, and the arguable concern amongst those of us who played 2015's standalone expansion pack The Old Blood was that familiarity could only breed gentle contempt.
Clearly I can't speak to scale with only an hour of context, but it certainly seems to be striving for real pomp and verve so far, rather than simply going through established motions. Dramatic cityscapes, intense firefights, range of playstyles, plus there's upgrades I barely scratched the surface of, such as BJ's go-go-gadget pneumatic stilt legs that enable him to peek (or shoot) over high walls, or meet giangto-enemies eye-to-eye: it all comes across as big, and I pray it holds that line as its predecessor did.
Even the idea of this new one trying to go bigger than a trip to a mecha-Nazi-occupied moon has me excited. Whatever does it have up those impossibly cool sleek leather sleeves? Let's just hope the swivel-eyed lunacy of the storytelling works better in what will hopefully be long and substantial context.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is due for release on 27 October 2017.