Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Alt-right Place, Alt-right Time
2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a masterpiece. It’s fluid and fast-paced Nazi killing gameplay is what reeled me in, but what kept me there was one of the most surprisingly heartfelt stories I’d seen in gaming. Fantastic writing and direction combined with believable performances from a stellar cast put MachineGames on the map as one of the best storytellers in the business. Its sequel, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus continues on from the fantastic foundation The New Order provided. And with gameplay, storytelling and a presentation that far succeeds its predecessor, The New Colossus delivers an experience unlike any other.
The opening to The New Colossus doesn’t pull any punches. Flashbacks to B.J. Blazkowicz’s childhood are filled with child abuse, domestic violence, racism, antisemitism and animal cruelty all perpetrated by B.J’s father. Games aren’t known to handle serious subject matter like this particularly well, but Wolfenstein understands there is a difference between “going there” and “going there carefully and with the respect it deserves.” That isn’t to say this game does everything perfectly, and sometimes it’ll trip over itself trying to be “mature”, but this opening sequence in particular displayed a degree of honesty I have seen in very few games. Everything that happens here feeds into the character of B.J., the man he eventually became and the events that transpire later on in the story. All before taking control of Captain Blazkowicz in this game’s Nazi controlled version of the 1960’s.
The bulk of TNC’s story picks up right where TNO left off. With general Deathshead (one of the villains from the previous game) defeated and B.J. in a dire state after a grenade blew up in his face. His friends manage to keep him alive, but Blazkowicz is left in a coma which he only wakes up from 5 months later. It isn’t exactly a calm awakening either. The submarine, called Eva’s Hammer, captured by the Kreisau Circle in The New Order is under attack by general Engel (another antagonist from the previous game who takes on a more prominent role this time around) and it’s up to Blazko to kick some Nazi ass. Problem is, his legs don’t work, so you’ll be shooting Nazis while rolling around in a wheelchair. The resulting restrictions in player movement allow for some creative variations on the gameplay formula set by TNO and turn this into one of the most interesting opening levels I’ve played in a while.
After escaping general Engel’s assault, the game introduces the player’s leading objective that drives the rest of the game: Find the remaining resistance leaders in Nazi occupied America and ignite a revolution. It’s a simple premise but one that The New Colossus uses exceedingly well. Introducing amazing new characters such as Grace, the leader of the black revolutionary front and a badass through and through and Horton, an eccentric marxist resistance leader and part-time preacher. Both of them have been fighting the establishment since long before the Nazis showed up and can thus provide some interesting insights to challenge B.J’s well intentioned, but occasionally misguided beliefs. The returning cast remains strong as well, with the deeper dive into B.J and Anya’s relationship standing out in particular. Fergus or Wyatt also return, and you’ll have to make the same choice you made in The New Order to choose which of the two you want on your team. Aside from narrative changes visible during cutscenes or interactions on Eva’s Hammer, this also provides gameplay changes in the form of two special weapons. The Dieselkraftwerk, a gun that shoots pellets of diesel which can be detonated remotely and the Laserkraftwerk, which shoots lasers. Both are equally viable and interesting options and yes, both kill Nazis.
One of the great things TNC does is representing B.J.’s health through, well, his health. During the first half of The New Colossus, Captain Blazkowicz’s body is falling apart. Even after regaining the ability to walk through some special power armor previously worn by fellow resistance member Caroline Becker, the rest of his body is running on limited time. This means B.J.’s health bar is basically cut in half. Making the player more vulnerable and the game more difficult as a result. Even on lower difficulties I found myself struggling to get through the hordes of Nazis in my path. It’s frustrating at times, but ultimately serves a great purpose. And when you do get that full health bar back near the end through ways I won’t spoil, it feels all the more satisfying.
This rebooted iteration of Wolfenstein likes to tell its story through cutscenes and like the first game, TNC has a lot of them. What sets this apart from other cutscene heavy games, though, is how perfectly every single aspect is executed. The performance capture, the performances themselves, the cinematography, the visuals, the sound design and the masterful soundtrack from composer Mick Gordon all fit together to create scenes that left me in awe at times. And even when not watching a cutscene, The New Colossus finds ways to tell you its story. It’s not afraid to hit the brakes and let you explore the world MachineGames have created. The main hub from which you access the various missions has dozens of little quests and interactions that make up many of the best moments this game has to offer. From feeding a pig to giving someone the confidence to make new friends, the way this game blends action and quiet reflection is something truly special.
The changes to gameplay in The New Colossus are very much iterative instead of transformative, and this is by no means a bad thing. All the changes and additions made here improve the already great gameplay loop of the previous game. One particularly interesting new mechanic comes in the form of contraptions. At some point, you’ll get to choose one of three unique tools to help you in your Nazi killing adventures. A constrictor harness, that allows you to crawl through very narrow spaces. The ramshackles, which allow you to break down doors and turns enemies into mush simply by running into them and finally the battlewalker, which are basically portable stilts. No matter which one you choose, they all offer interesting new opportunities both during and outside of combat.
The gunplay remains smooth, responsive and above all, fun as hell. A new weapon upgrade system provides some welcome depth and customization options. And the upgrade kits you’ll need to find in order to use it are sparse enough that every one you spent feels like a significant investment. The stealth system is more dialed back in comparison to TNO. Where previously you were able to pass through most levels without anyone ever noticing you were there, here it’s mostly used to thin out the herd before opening fire. This is mostly down to level and enemy layout, which gives opponents a much easier time spotting you. While I personally wasn’t too bothered by this, it does take away from the depth of the game, leaving you with fewer choices in the end.
“From feeding a pig to giving someone the confidence to make new friends, the way this game blends action and quiet reflection is something truly special.”
Wolfenstein 2’s visuals have received a significant upgrade as well. MachineGames has made the jump from the modified id Tech 5 used in The New Order to id Tech 6, which was first used in the 2016 reboot of DOOM. This not only features the latest rendering and post-processing techniques, but also brings with it significant performance improvements, at least on PC. The result is a gorgeous game that, for the most part, runs like a dream. Mick Gordon has returned to provide the soundtrack and like the first game, it’s bloody brilliant. A mix of badass electric action themes and more quiet acoustic sounds give the game an extra punch, often providing many “fuck yeah” moments as the music kicks in and you go on an absolute rampage.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is very similar to the character of B.J. Blazkowicz himself. Both have a heart of gold and while some of their actions are misguided, that doesn’t prevent them from being an absolute delight in the end. Oh, and both are all about killing as many Nazis as possible, which is always a good thing.