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Since the dawn of time, first-person shooters have been about fast-paced action. As with the great majority of people in real life, you don't even think about the advantages conferred by increased mobility. You just take it for granted that you can get anywhere you need in a hurry, with the occasional added benefit of a jetpack.
Wolfenstein 2 begins by taking those advantages away. When BJ Blazkowicz awakens, he's no longer the chiseled hero of the previous games. Rather, after being in a coma for five months, his legs have wasted away. He can only get around with the help of a wheelchair.
"I'm broken," he says at one point. And you can feel it, because you're in that wheelchair.
You're given little time to adjust to your new situation before being thrown into the fire. You are on a resistance U-Boat, and the Nazis have invaded. Confined to your wheelchair, you are left to jerkily wheel forward with one hand while an SMG droops unsteadily in your other. You can't strafe or even climb stairs: you're pretty much limited to rolling straight head.
The level design takes advantage of this in interesting ways. In order to get up to another level, for example, you have to roll up a conveyor belt or ride one of the gears that is presumably powering the engine. But at point one of the Nazis reverses the belt and you're sent tumbling backward, your wheelchair flying away as you lay nearly helpless on the conveyor belt. All you can do is quickly shoot the Nazis before they can shoot you, as you are unable to reach cover.
Blazkowicz's plight reflects the dire place the resistance finds itself in. Having won, the Nazis are firmly in charge, and the resistance is seemingly on the run. The Nazis are led by a terrifying woman reminiscent of Rosa Klebb's who taunts Blazkowicz as he lays helpless.
"Is this what a hero looks like? A useless cripple of a man peeing into a tube?" She cackles.
It takes her less than a minute to establish herself as a truly heinous villain. Having captured the leader of the resistance, she strips her down to her underwear and stands ruthlessly mocking her. Then she pulls out an axe and prepares to decapitate her before her cohort meekly protests.
"Didn't I tell you to stop eating sweets and get some exercise?" She sneers to her overweight subordinate. "And I've read your filthy diary."
She orders her squeamish minion to kill the resistance leader as you're forced to watch, unable to move as you're held by two sniggering guards. I found myself moving the camera away from the scene as much as I could, unable to watch. But then I hit a cliffhanger.
The whole experience was all rather different from the fun of Sunday's reveal trailer, which seemed to promise a healthy dose of humorous insanity. It was dark, with was reflected by Blazkowicz's white hospital robe quickly becoming splattered in blood from killing Nazis.
Even the humor had a dark tinge to it. When I used a microwave trap to fry a hapless soldier, one of his cohorts yelled, "He exploded in a cloud of mush! He was getting married in two weeks! I was his best man!"
But the bit that jumps out at me the most was the battle in the wheelchair. I can't say I've ever had an experience quite like that in a video game, a medium that is so often about power fantasies. Interestingly, this appears to be something of a trend of late: The Surge also starts you in a wheelchair.
I suppose what I liked the most about the scene, aside from the excellent level design and intense atmosphere, was that BJ turned his position of weakness into a strength. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he was able to make do and hold his own for quite a while before finally being captured. It was a very cool level, and it really did a lot to put me into his shoes and frame of mind.
If the rest of Wolfenstein 2 is nearly this good, then we're surely in for one of the very best shooters of the year.
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