Wolfenstein 2 begins with a surprise: gun-toting Nazi-killing machine B.J. Blazkowicz is blasted to bits, his body a useless husk. The end of MachineGames' eye-catching debut did not go well for poor old B.J. and so, when he's forced awake from a coma on board a resistance submarine that's under attack from the Nazi regime, he can't even stand. He tries and falls down.
And so, B.J., who throughout Wolfenstein: The New Order was about as overpowered a video game hero as you can get, is all of a sudden wheelchair bound. You have a weak automatic pistol to defend yourself with and that's it. One hand creaking your wheelchair forward, the other pulling the trigger. When you "sprint", B.J. puts the gun on his lap and uses both hands to power forward. This is not the way we're used to starting big-budget shooters.
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It's a welcome surprise, and I credit MachineGames with doing something interesting here. Wolfenstein 2's first level is not easy. In fact, it's a bit of a struggle. Nazis are everywhere, and you are, clearly, not at your best. In fact, it feels like you're dying with each push and pull of your wheels, like B.J. is bleeding out from his catheter and each health pick-up is doing no more than delaying the inevitable. I like that.
It's the little things that combine to make Wolfenstein's first level work. If you have your gun on your lap, it takes time - what feels like an age - for B.J. to transition from stopping to putting one hand on the left wheel before picking the gun up with his right. Effectively, B.J. is defenceless when moving about. When you turn a corner and there are a couple of Nazis waiting for you, your first thought is to retreat. B.J. isn't run and gunning his way through this scrap. So, you play the first level cautiously, peeking around corners and sticking to cover when all hell breaks loose. It's just you, your wheelchair and just one gun against the Nazi horde.
Those Nazis. What pricks! Like in Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein 2's Nazis do not go down easily. You have to pump them full of lead before they give up the ghost. When all you've got is a pea shooter, encounters are a struggle. There's not much ammo doing the rounds, either, and you need every last bullet. Everything about the level feels like a desperate, losing battle. But, B.J., driven by his desire to reunite with his pregnant wife Anya, soldiers on, working his way through the claustrophobic innards of the sub, one push at a time. It's one hell of a way to kick the game off.
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There was a lot to love about Wolfenstein. The weight of movement, the recoil of the weapons, the impact of bullets on Nazi flesh. But when I think about MachineGames' breakout debut what springs to mind is the tone. This was a game that revelled in the destruction of Nazis, a game that did not shy away from the iconography of the regime, nor pull any punches when it came to violence. But it was all delivered with an over-the-top menace, a spirited ridiculousness that set it apart from other shooters. Wolfenstein was dumb FPS fun with a with a story, with memorable characters, with a heart.
Wolfenstein 2 continues this ridiculous menace, and right from the off, too. After meeting up with Set Roth, the German Jewish scientist who helps B.J. in the first game, we're introduced to electrified sections of the sub. Anyone who walks through these sections is disintegrated, Dr. Manhattan style. As B.J. and Roth chat, we see hapless Nazi grunts walk into the danger zone, one after the other like Lemmings, each evaporating into a bloody mess. It's dark comedy in the extreme, a slapstick moment drenched in gore.
Terrifying Nazi super bitch Frau Engel - a wonderfully voice acted character with a horrific world view - once again steals the show. In an early cutscene we see her call out B.J., now reunited with Ana and others from the resistance, via megaphone. By her side is her troubled daughter. Frau Engel berates her, fat shames her, puts her down, calls her out for her lack of steel.
Cornered, B.J. agrees to give himself up to save his friends. What follows is an incredibly tense cutscene reminiscent of the best of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Resistance leader Caroline Becker, who wears the Da'at Yichud Power Suit found near the end of The New Order, is captured and prone. B.J. is limp on the floor, forced to watch as Frau Engel ridicules him for being a cripple. Frau Engel cackles with laughter as her daughter looks on, nervously.
Frau Engel picks up an axe and takes aim at Caroline Becker's neck. Her daughter interjects.
"But mother, you promised to free her!"
"I am freeing her. I'm freeing her head from her body."
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The daughter breaks down, and the mother mocks her once again. Okay, Frau Engel sighs. You do it. She hands the axe to her daughter, who by this point is a gibbering mess. Frau Engel eggs her daughter on in German. The daughter raises the axe. B.J. - you - look on in horror. The demo ends.
I left my hands-on time with Wolfenstein 2 desperate to know what happens next, which is very much a good sign. The game's trailer confirms B.J. ends up with the Power Suit, perhaps using it to compensate for his crippled body - but what happens to poor Becker? There's a delicious fan theory that claims B.J.'s head ends up on someone else's body (the trailer shows a monkey with a cat's head, and, later, B.J. with what looks like a... sci-fi zip around his neck?).
Whatever the case, I loved the first level of Wolfenstein 2, and reckon it bodes well for the rest of the game. What I'm reassured to see here is that MachineGames is once again going for the jugular in the action, in the set pieces, in the levels and in the cutscenes. It looks like a blast.