Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a direct continuation of the story that began in 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. A very human one filled with memorable characters, villains, and the plight of a downtrodden Resistance looking to strike back at their Nazi overlords. Taking place in an alternate timeline, the America we get to see in the game’s vision of 1961 is one where the Nazis triumphed over the Allies, and high-tech weapons can be found strapped to just about every SS soldier.
After our recent hands-on
with the game we had the chance to chat with the Senior Game Designer on the sequel and possessor of a truly awesome name - Arcade Berg. Who, prior to joining MachineGames worked for studios likes of Epic Games and People Can Fly contributing to the likes of Gears of War, Bulletstorm, and others. We discuss fighting Nazis in alternate timeline, the cinematic story, and differences and challenges between designing a shooter for single or multiplayer.
AusGamers: Let’s begin with Nazis. In particular, high-tech Nazis, or Nazis obsessed with the Occult. What do you think it is about these versions of Nazis that make them such great villains?
Arcade: Since our Wolfenstein games are set in a giant ‘what if’ scenario, where in the New Order we had, "What if the Germans won? What if they reigned Europe?" Now we're moving it to America, it's like, "What if they expanded?" Seeing as how we're in this fictitious and alternative world we can take a lot of creative freedom with our rendering of this evil threat. By doing that we can draw an image of this really evil, bad guy. An almost hive mind, all Nazis are evil kind of thing. And you still buy into it because it's all cohesive within the world. And so with this overall brutal, overwhelming, and authoritative regime it just makes you want to kill them.
AusGamers: Yeah that's true. I find that killing Nazis in Wolfenstein so much more fun than in a more realistic or historical setting. Wolfenstein has always had this historical bend to it, but it's also a series with an alternative version of history with sci-fi, and other stuff. What do you think it is about Wolfenstein that has stood the test of time?
Arcade: Do you mean in terms of the technology that the characters in the game use? Or do you mean just why this franchise is still alive and kicking?
AusGamers: A bit of both.
Arcade: As for the technology in the New World Order, I just usually call it "Nazi tech." We are in this fictitious world, so we can have fun with everything. We don't want it to be bland, realistic, or even based on what was available at the time. We can't just take things from now or the near future either. We need to make them fit and allowing the Nazis, the entire world really, but the Nazis in particular to have access to advanced technology. Much further along than we've seen in the real world. And we put this really cool wrapping on it so everything is either diesel or electricity driven, or what's called laser driven.
By doing that, we can make things even cooler stylistically than they were or are. There are obvious references to what the aesthetics were at the time, and how we've branded the Nazi style in our world. I think one of the reasons that the Wolfenstein franchise is so good to work with, is that at its core, it has some very easy to grasp and very welcoming concepts. As an action shooter, we let you play the way you want to play, we have this evil force that we can all agree is bad. We put this big narrative on it, these twists and turns, but at it's still a story and a mission against the bad guys.
AusGamers: Yeah. Obviously, The New Colossus is a direct sequel to The New Order, I think what surprised some people with The New Order was just how cinematic and engaging the story was. How have you guys looked at that element of the first game in terms of informing the design for the sequel?
Arcade: What was really fun this time around, was that we already had something to build on. With The New Order we had to figure everything out, we weren't exactly sure where we were gonna land. We knew that we were going to be in an American driven game, and that it was going be heavy on story. That's what we do, that's what we've done, that's what we're good at doing. We knew that but we didn't know exactly where we were going to land, were we going to add humour, how far could we go, how many cut scenes could we have. How much narrative exposition could we inject so it didn’t overtake all the action. I think we did a pretty good job, and we had fantastic writers in house, writing all the story stuff.
We got some really good feedback so, I'm not gonna say we were more confident but we had something to build on going into The New Colossus. We made some adjustments based on what people said and what we thought ourselves, but we know that people appreciate the strong narrative structure driving everything. We know that they appreciated the characters, so we have a lot of returning characters and a lot of new characters. But we’ve also changed some things. We are not restricting the players much at all this time around. When there's narrative exposition going on, as long as it's not a cut-scene, you are free to do as you want. That goes for the gameplay as well.
AusGamers: Another solid element of the first game.
Arcade: In the first game we said, ‘Play full mayhem if you want. Play a bit more tactical. or play it stealth.’ And now we've taken all three styles and pushed them even further with what you can do. So, it's good just having done it once before. Or twice, when you count Old Blood.
AusGamers: Speaking of freedom, in the demo section that I played there were moments where I basically became a coward and just ran from the enemy. In the Roswell mission when you need to set off the nuke and the big giant mech comes storming in with the soldiers, it was like ‘Oh, this is gonna be a huge Boss Battle’. Like any good coward it was a case of ‘Dude, I'm scared and I just want to run.’ Long story short I was able to run past the big robo-Nazi and make it to the exit. Was that conscious in the design to say, "If people want to avoid certain sections they can just run for their lives?"
Arcade: That's not even boss, that's a regular enemy.
AusGamers: Yeah, but it was huge.
Arcade: We're fine with the player doing stuff like that, we even think it's fine when people speed run. If we do stealth, for example, stealth for Wolfenstein is not about avoiding the enemy it's about killing them silently. We prefer you do take the fight to the Nazis in the way that you want, but if you can circumvent a problem like that, that’s perfectly fine. In that particular scenario, because I know which encounter you're talking about, if that was intentional I can't really say. It's not like we're gonna call a crisis meeting and discuss this. I don't hear a problem really.
AusGamers: Neither do I. I found it cool to find out ‘Oh, I can actually escape after the nuke got set off without fighting the big bad as a version of the story’. And then afterwards think that I probably should replay that just to see what it's like to fight, because it looked so cool.
Arcade: Yeah, exactly.
AusGamers: Taking things a step back to the setting. 1961 America, and in particular with Roswell, New Mexico. The opening of that section where there's a recreation of a town full of activity, so you can walk past, listen in on conversations, watch people go about their day as well, and once you get into the diner there's an extended sequence where you're basically just observing behaviour. That seems to be, not a departure, but an expansion on the narrative promise of the first game. We're getting an almost interactive story being told. Can you talk a bit about how that specific section of the game came together?
Arcade: We've definitely put effort into creating a world and not just taking visual themes of what Nazi Americana could be. This goes for all the dialogue you can stop to hear in Roswell or avoid if you want to keep walking. There’s also a lot of dialogue between enemy soldiers as well. We have all these things you can read and listen to in the world. We've tried to use a lot of embedded storytelling, you can also find Nazi research and other things. Obviously, we have a bunch more locations than what you've played and what we've shown in the trailer. Overall, it's been a conscious decision and attempt to create a living and interesting world around you.
AusGamers: One of the things that left an impression, was this fine line that you guys walk between serious and the comic and the fun. In The New Colossus the characters are so well realised and you do get invested in the story and the relationships, but by that same token there's also fun to be had in dismembering Nazis and doing all sorts of crazy '90s shooter stuff.
AusGamers: What goes into striking that balance?
Arcade: How we do it, I don't know. We have some amazing writers, let's start with that. I think the trick is that this is a grim, horrible, dirty world that we're playing in. A lot of very unhappy things are happening, and it's bleak. But there's always this humorous undertone, so when things get too dark we can always inject a bit of that. When I think about how we did it, that's just good writing. We have these really quirky characters, with attitude and personality that we can bring in. I think B.J. himself is hilarious, I love the guy. With his monologues and commentary on his surroundings, that can do so much. But add in the supporting cast, we always have something ready that we can pull out. And then the balance of it all, how much is too much, how much is enough. That's just the craftsmanship of it. The people more involved in the narrative, they've got the sense for it.
AusGamers: Cool. Talking about the beginning of the game now, with B.J. Blazkowicz in a wheelchair, did that pose any challenges? In terms of not only telling the story, but also the actual mechanics and designing that sort of level or set piece.
Arcade: That was a crazy amount of work. It was a very early decision to do that, so you could say there was a plan. It's a good lead in from the previous game, and it's a good way to present the journey of growing stronger as a character and all that. It's also very different. Not in search of novelty, but just keeping things fresh. Switching things round a bit you know, changing the pace.
It was really, really tricky. Making a primitive wheelchair control scheme with functionality, that’s fairly easy. But making it still fun and making you not feel limited, because the thing, I think, with BJ in a wheelchair, is that he is broken, but he's not weak. He still performs melee take-downs, kills people with a submachine gun. Or two. How to make you exert that sort of power, in that state, was tricky. It took us a long time to get right.
AusGamers: In terms of the combat itself and the variety in general, with melee take-downs, and dual wielding and different types of weapons and stuff. How do you test all of that?
Arcade: The core of it is just playing a lot, having a lot of different people playing and not only testers. We can get quite a bit of quantitative data, with damage input, aim, et cetera but a lot of it comes down to a feeling of quality. And the only way we can really get that is by play testing. Of course, everything comes from an assumption or a theory of what will be fun. Obviously, you will get much higher damage output by wielding two shotguns at the same time instead of two pistols. But that is perfectly fine and with dual mixing you can freely do it now, you can mix any two weapons. There are so many different combinations and ways you can set it up. I like having one stylized weapon and one more powerful than the other, so I can play my stealth game, and then when I'm discovered I'm already ready to react. Some people do one long range one close range, a lot of people, they go for heavy damage. It all comes down to playing and playing and playing, and tweaking thereafter.
AusGamers: As Wolfenstein is a a single player experience, how does that differ from working on a game that also has to factor in a multiplayer side, in terms of designing for combat, and weapons, for something like that?
Arcade: A lot, actually. Neither approach is easier, and I've done multiplayer stuff before. The main difference is that more things are fine in single player games, it's fine if something is overpowered. As long as it's fun.
Arcade: I think that is the most specific example. Also, we don't have to be as anal about the map, it has to feel good, it has to play well. If we find something that is exploitable and too out there we reign it back and we consider it, but now we can work on the weapons individually. Make sure that they all feel good separate to each other, and not use the same laser precision design with the weapons compared to each other, because they play differently. I think that's also one of the things that people appreciate with Wolfenstein, is that it's fun shooting the weapons. The gun feel, the gun play is good. And that's because we make it feel good shooting at Nazis, the AI in our game. You could not just apply all this in multiplayer because it would have to be a completely different.
AusGamers: You mention gun play, many feel that was nailed with the first game The New Order. It was fun to play and I think that's what also caught a lot of people off guard, just how great it was as a pure action game. I guess with that base covered, what was then the biggest challenge coming into Wolfenstein II. It feels like that side of it would have been like, ‘We've nailed that side, where do we go from here?’
Arcade: We have a pretty interesting approach for gun play. We actually have a dedicated team we call the TGE, or The Gun Experience. And this is what they do. One of the biggest challenges we had with The New Colossus was that this time round we have a full body. We're not a floating camera like you see in most first-person shooters. Where it's just a floating camera and a body. Here you are a full body, so looking down you will see your chest and your feet and your hands and everything.
If you fall you will see everything. This is true throughout the entire game. This is a huge design and technical challenge to make it all work, animation wise, reloading, switching weapons, all the different states it can be in. Ground combat, when you fall and you're lying on your back you can shoot, then you decide when you want to get up. Translating this nice gun feel from the first game, into a completely new set up and a completely new system that raises the fidelity to a crazy level. That was a huge challenge. You can't cheat, you can't just move the hands outside the camera anymore and hope.
AusGamers: Over the years one of the things a lot of people do, well I do, is fire up a first-person shooter, look down and back into a corner. In most case you look down and go, ‘Okay, there's no body’. Even so, what’s the reason to make that switch? Is it to make it feel more like you are B.J. Blazkowicz? To simply be able to look down and see your feet and your hands? As per a number of games it’s been proven that a floating camera works.
Arcade: There are so many reasons, one is we want to push the envelope on every aspect of first person shooters, right?
Arcade: And this is a way to increase fidelity. It is also a way for you to be B.J., to an even greater extent. That is definitely a point. Also, by placing an anatomically correct B.J. there, it forces us to build the entire world correctly too. We can't set the camera at a bogus height, which often happens in an FPS. Everything is built to scale. You are in that world. It's all about making you actually feel like you are there.
AusGamers: That was something that I did notice playing the game, but I wasn't too sure if that was in the first one. It's interesting to hear that was a big challenge. Another technical change this time around is moving to id Tech 6, what did that offer the team, technically, in order to push the envelope?
Arcade: The pure visual upgrade, physically based rendering, animation quality, the sheer amount of animation, and so forth. Everything is just a step up. If there's big kick-ass engine, we can raise the bar in pretty much every aspect.
AusGamers: How does the relationship with id Software work? That must be handy to have those guys working on the engine whilst you're working on the game.
Arcade: It's gonna sound like a cliché but we're a big happy family, and we're in constant communication with everyone. It's easy.
AusGamers: On that token, what stage is development on Wolfenstein II at, at the moment?
Arcade: We're wrapping up. People tell me we have to be done soon, so obviously we're very late in development. We're just trying to get everything to the level of what you've seen and played.
Thanks to Arcade Berg from MachineGames for his time, and of course, Bethesda! Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is out October 27 for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.