Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Review
Land of the Oppressed, Home of the Brave
Three years ago, a new studio dubbed MachineGames tackled reviving (yet again) one of the oldest shooter franchises in existence with Wolfenstein: The New Order. Aside from some underdeveloped gameplay mechanics, the game was a huge success, thanks to its energetic shooting and creative alternate-history premise that saw the Nazis win the Second World War and spread their regime across the globe. The sequel, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, is a direct continuation of both the gameplay and narrative this excellent reboot brought forward and succeeds on both fronts, though it seems the bulk of the effort went into the story with this studio’s sophomore release.
Narratively, The New Colossus resumes right where The New Order left off, with BJ in rough shape after having taken down General Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse and once again stuck in a hospital bed. The Resistance movement have taken over a nuclear Nazi submarine to use as their base of operations, and the action picks up with BJ and his team fighting off Nazi raids on the boat while trying to figure out their next step in weakening the seemingly indestructible Nazi empire. Before long, the story brings the group to the United States where the bulk of the missions take place, with between-mission trips back to the U-boat which serves as a home base throughout the game.
Though the premise for the story sounds relatively straightforward, what happens within these parameters is anything but. The New Colossus has a lot of cutscenes and dialogue, with an overall larger focus on storytelling than its predecessor. Fortunately, this is a story worth paying attention to, as it boldly tackles racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and all of the nasty stuff that has been normalized under a fascist regime. Scenes will go from funny and light-hearted to brutal and heartbreaking in a flash, with abrupt tonal shifts, vivid imagery and dialogue that would make the likes of Quintin Tarantino proud. The resistance are made up of a diverse cast of well developed new and returning characters who add a lot of texture to the narrative, and the villain is thoroughly evil and highly memorable.
BJ is a broken man at the start of the game, convinced that his body is on the verge of failing as he tries to muster the will and strength to keep going. This is reflected in one of the first levels by having to use a wheel-chair in one memorable sequence, with some clever level design and gameplay ideas that let you navigate the level and kill enemies from your chair. This level made me hopeful that The New Colossus would take some of the creativity and excitement that went into the story and apply it to the gameplay.
The gameplay side of things ultimately plays it rather safe with very few meaningful changes compared to The New Order. Aside from a few great set pieces, most of the gameplay simply involves going through each level and killing everything. As with The New Order, you can attempt to sneak through some areas to kill officers before they raise the alarm and call in reinforcements. Sadly, the stealth mechanics remain half-baked and extremely simplistic. There are no means of distracting enemies, or hiding bodies. You can take down enemies from behind, use limited throwing-axes, or upgrade a couple of weapons with silencers, but that is about the extent of it. Enemies will be quick to spot you and once spotted, there is no recourse but to reload a previous save or go in guns-blazing.
Fortunately, going loud remains a lot of fun in The New Colossus. Almost every weapon in your arsenal can be duel-wielded, which isn’t new, but the system has been streamlined such that it is now easy to combine any two weapons. The gunplay is meaty and satisfying with sparks flying all over the place and enemies crumpling to the ground filled with lead. A decent variety of enemy types will keep you on your toes, with the typical Nazi foot-soldiers being joined by hulking Mechs and fast moving robots. The Mechs will drop heavy weapons you can pick up, which are extremely powerful and satisfying to use but reduce BJ’s mobility. The enemy AI isn’t particularly bright, which is especially obvious when going stealthy, but there are enough enemies and enemy types to make shootouts fun and often challenging, even on the normal difficulty setting.
It is extremely rare these days to find a singleplayer game without some kind of character progression, and Wolfenstein II is no exception. Weapon upgrades return from The New Order and remain meaningful, letting you turn an assault rifle into a scoped semi-auto marksman rifle, or your submachine gun into a nail gun. These upgrades are hidden around the environments, one of the reasons to explore beyond picking up the myriad collectibles and bits of flavor-text that are crammed into every corner. In addition to weapon upgrades, you will earn perks based on how you play, such as bonuses for ammo capacity, stealth and movement speed which are earned by using certain weapons, sneaking or running around a lot. Part way through the story you will also gain access to an extra gadget that is used primarily for accessing certain parts of the environment, though these fail to shake up the gameplay in a meaningful way.
Outside of the main story missions, you have the opportunity to use Enigma codes you find on fallen enemy officers to unlock access to a variety of side-missions. These side-missions involve going back to already visited locations to take down special enemy officers. Even though these missions take place in familiar locations, level layouts and often time of day will be changed so that they feel reasonably fresh, and these often offer up good challenges and help improve the value prospect of this singleplayer-only game. They are also a good way to find additional weapon upgrades and upgrade perks to provide an edge in tough story missions, and these side quests can be played after completing the main storyline.
While Wolfenstein: The New Order ran on the infamously problematic Id Tech 5 engine, the sequel has moved to Id Tech 6, resulting in a game that looks fairly sharp and runs quite well. There is a decent mix of environments, most of which look quite good thanks to the strong lighting in particular. Character models are the only sore point, with decent facial animations making up for character models that aren’t as detailed as other modern cutscene-heavy games. The audio design is fairly good, with weapons sounding great; the laser weapons in particular sound fantastic. The original score is excellent, with an industrial synth soundtrack fitting the looming, mechanized Nazi architecture perfectly.
Though I suspect Wolfenstein II’s story focus and lengthy cutscenes may deter those looking for a faster paced action driven experience, it remains a successful follow-up to 2014’s surprising franchise reboot as the story and setting are quite engrossing, and the action remains satisfying. Anyone patient enough to give The New Colossus the chance to tell its story will be rewarded for the effort with some wild and intense moments that end up overshadowing even the most frantic firefights the game throws your way.