One thing is for sure, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus does not fuck about.
From the unsettling flashbacks of the game’s opening, to the audacious escapades near the game’s finale, this is a game that is often gleefully ignorant of subtlety, as it charges into its prickly subject matter with unrelenting force. Yet, this does not stop Wolfenstein II from having heart and soul to go with its big dumb head.
Wolfenstein II’s greatest triumph is in how it moves from somber introspection to blood-spattered carnage to ludicrous, hilarious set piece moments with little jarring. Its predecessor, The New Order, aimed for this as well, but found difficulty hitting the right notes consistently. The New Colossus still has the odd stumble (a daft, yet inspired, setup is wasted on a couple of occasions late on), but developer Machine Games has a better handle on weaving bleak drama, black comedy, and more than a hint of the ridiculous into the Nazi-smashing action.
We pick up almost immediately after the end of The New Order, with gruff sadsack protagonist BJ Blazkowicz barely surviving his terminal encounter with General Deathshead. A grim flashback to Blazkowicz’ childhood follows, then we arrive back in 1961 a while after. The game proper begins here, with Blazkowicz freshly awakened from a comatose state to find his rebel group’s base of operations under siege from the off-kilter General Engel, who is out for our hero’s blood. So here begins the first of many silly, yet brutal situations BJ finds himself in, as the withered Nazi-killer fights back from the comfort of a wheelchair, wearing nothing but his undercrackers, a robe, and a pee tube taped to his thigh.
That this segment of the game, with such a daft premise, ends in grim, chilling fashion is a testament to the strength of that balancing act, and it’s merely the first occasion of many in the ten or so hours BJ spends blasting his way through the Nazi war machine. General Engel is a character that represents this best. At times she comes across giddy and delirious, but of course that’s usually because she’s torturing and killing people at the time.
After being the brief star of one of The New Order’s best, most intense, scenes during an undercover mission on a train, Engel eclipses her predecessor in terms of personality and menace, no mean feat given the cruelty dished out by Deathshead. She’s not only a devout believer of the Nazi regime, she completely and utterly revels in the destruction of those who would oppose it. Simply put, she’s evil, exceedingly hateful, and someone awful enough to motivate you into taking her down. She’s cartoonish to a degree, sure, but far less so than many previous depictions of Nazis have been in the gaming realm.
On your side, the crew of your U-boat base are just as important in telling this story. They’re an eclectic bunch, drawn from all walks of life, but each with their own particular set of skills. They provide a lot of the light relief, but also manage to fit their personal dramas in too. While not everyone gets a good chance to show you their personality, the handful that do are a greatly entertaining bunch that make roaming around the base a frequently enjoyable and insightful experience. Small stories emerge between them that are as surprising as they are touching and amusing. One such segment with the hulking, yet childlike, Max Hass was particularly engaging,and quite lovely in the way it played off a puerile conversation before flowering into something sweeter. The introduction of the acid-tongued resistance leader Grace is a fine addition, never afraid to give you a piece of her mind, and fiercely loyal. She drives home the game’s message of fighting back better than anyone else.
After that initial violent lunacy at the rebel base, BJ sets out to do as much damage to the Nazis as humanly possible, adamant that his unborn child will not endure the world like it is. So he embarks on a journey to pay General Engel back the suffering she has wrought with bloody interest.
Blazkowicz travels to around the United States and beyond during this time, and each location acts as a viewing glass to what Nazi-occupied America looks like in all its different flavors. There’s the relatively unscathed heartland, rich with Nazi sympathisers. Then there’s places where some of the worst of German and American history are working together to a nefarious end. In areas where the Nazi’s had less luck or hope of overthrowing? There is only carnage and wastelands left. It’s a diverse, often chilling, picture of what the Nazi occupation has done, and only amplifies the kind of fears many have of the direction modern day America is headed. Each of these areas is of an impressive scope, and there’s many nooks and crannies to delve into.
Getting down to the core of Wolfenstein II, you’re going to be shooting up a whole lotta Nazis, and the action has received a nice, fluid tweak, whilst retaining a devastating level of challenge should you require it. There are slower-paced sections, designed to let the player soak in the alternate America’s horrors, but when combat starts up, amped by yet another brilliant Mick Gordon soundtrack, the game becomes a high-velocity death machine that’s clearly taken on a few pointers from Bethesda labelmate DOOM. The best thing, once again, is that there’s impact from the slow and the fast of Wolfenstein II. The gunplay is hyper-violent and frenetic, and the enemy are a match on any difficulty.
The only grumble concerning the flow of combat is Blazkowicz’ occasional inability to scale a small obstacle. It almost always results in a bit of fish in a barrel shooting for the Nazis, and on at least five occasions, it resulted in a cheap, and frustrating death. On a positive note, once you gain an understanding of what is and isn’t easily traversable, it becomes far less of an issue. It would just have been nice to not have to guess for a bit.
Coming back to the combat, the dual-wielding of The New Order returns, and is as satisfyingly theatrical as ever. The guns are a basic bunch at heart, but criminy, they’re an absolute pleasure to handle, especially the shotgun, which ranks up there with the best found in any game for its punchy overkill.
The weapons are now upgradeable too, via hidden upgrade kits found in the game world, and range from simply giving you more room for ammo, all the way up to making them dish out the death a bit quicker. The aforementioned shotgun for instance, can be made to fire three shells at once, meaning a potential six shells at once in dual-wield. Overkill? Yes, but that is far from a bad thing given the firepower the Nazis have at their disposal. Good job that later on BJ gets to upgrade himself as well (but that’s all best left for you to discover).
The story lasts around ten hours, but there’s plenty of room for expanding on that by taking out Oberkommandos by picking up enigma codes to decipher their location. Doing this takes you back into the regular game levels, but with these as the new objectives, and they are the best way to see more of the levels you might have skirted past during the story missions. On top of that, there’s some different aspects to the story depending on the early choice you’re given (basically choosing which timeline you went through in The New Order).
Apart from a section closer to the end, the ride is a bright, bloody, and breezy one. There’s very little in the way of story fat, and you can take it head on, skipping the little morsels and still have a good time (but I implore you not to, as those morsels are bloody tasty). If the storytelling wasn’t so well-executed, you could perhaps bemoan the lack of a multiplayer to add longevity, but it felt unnecessary in DOOM, and I believe it would be the same here. The quality of Wolfenstein II as it stands has everything to do with the resolute focus on producing a weighty, enjoyable, singleplayer romp through Nazi-occupied America.
Expecting an improvement on The New Order was the baseline, and The New Colossus meets that, but it then goes on to supercede almost everything that its predecessor did. Don’t let the visceral carnage, plentiful bloodshed, and bombastic silliness trick you, Wolfenstein II is a smart shooter, and ranks among the best of its kind in the modern era.