In many ways, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus — with its story-driven alternate history account of a Third Reich-conquered world — couldn’t have released at a better time. There’s an ongoing concern in the gaming industry that single-player games are on their way out, following Electronic Arts’ recent closure of Visceral Games, the makers of the Dead Space trilogy.
Visceral had been working on a highly anticipated Star Wars game, but EA shuttered the studio and terminated the project in favour of shifting to a “games as a service” model of multiplayer experience. Hence, the debate has raged on regarding what place the sort of narrative-driven, linear solo games old have in modern gaming.
That’s to say nothing of the more serious discussion surrounding the current political climate and accusations of Nazism being thrown around left and right — a fact that publisher Bethesda commendably did not shy away from in the marketing of the game.
In both cases, The New Colossus has some important things to say — quality single-player games are here to stay, and, more to the point, they’re capable of telling powerful stories touching on real-world issues like racism, fascism and despair. Because of that, Swedish developer MachineGames’ follow-up to its surprise hit 2014 shooter Wolfenstein: The New Order stands far above many of its single-player peers.
In fact, Wolfenstein II is quite simply one of the best shooters I’ve ever played, thanks to punchy first-person melee and gunplay combat, a gripping, surprisingly poignant narrative and a cast of well-rounded, believable characters.
Guess who’s back, back again
The New Colossus puts you once again in the shoes of longtime Wolfenstein protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, who’s seen better days by the time the story begins. The New Colossus picks up immediately where The New Order left off, with B.J. gravely wounded from an explosion after defeating Nazi scientist Deathshead. Thankfully, his allies in the Kreisau Circle resistance group quickly swoop in and take the near-death B.J. to be treated on a U-boat known as the Eva’s Hammer, which they’ve commandeered and are using as a mobile base of operations.
B.J. awakes to find that Frau Engel, a ruthless Nazi commander, has discovered their boat and is gunning for him. Engel is hardly a complex villain, but what she lacks in character development she more than makes up for in gleeful sadism. She’s hellbent on getting revenge against B.J. following the events The New Order, leading her to do some profoundly horrible things in an attempt to psychologically break him. As a result, she’s rather reminiscent of Vaas Montenegro from Far Cry 3 — a captivating larger-than-life villain that steals every scene she’s in.
Rendered immobile from his injuries, B.J. gets into a wheelchair, picks up a submachine gun and begins rolling around to find his friends and escaping. It’s a strong, zany opening chapter, starting you off feeling particularly vulnerable and hindered, but it sets the tone for what’s to come — namely, a fantastic amount of fun killing copious amounts of Nazis.
Later, B.J. learns that Anya, his partner from the first game, is pregnant with twins. The revelation is shocking to B.J., knowing that he’s on borrowed time due to his injuries. His body is unfortunately left broken, his life sustained only by a suit of armour, and his mind in a fragile emotional state. Every time he goes out in a mission, he prays to his fallen allies to give him the strength to keep fighting, lest he fail and leave Anya alone to raise two children during the Nazi’s fascist regime.
The New Colossus also features a number of flashbacks to B.J.’s childhood years, revealing a time of horrific physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his cruel, racist father. Only the consolation of his dog Bessie, his Jewish mother Zofia and childhood African-American friend Billie helped keep him whole during a tough upbringing. The heartwarming kindness shown to him from two kinds of people that were terribly mistreated during this time — and whom his father tells him he should hate — helps shape B.J. into the strong and righteous man he eventually becomes.
In turn, he helps bring together a diverse, strong cast of characters who you’ll interact with on the Eva’s Hammer in-between missions. The boat, which is vast and offers many floors to explore, truly feels alive thanks to such figures as African-American freedom fighter Grace Walker, cantankerous Scottish soldier Fergus Reid and even Engel’s own daughter Sigrun, who defected from the Nazis after being shamed by her mother over her disdain for violence and obesity.
Sigrun in particular proves to be a standout character, struggling to separate herself from the atrocities committed by her mother and the rest of the Nazis and show the Kreisau Circle that she can be a virtuous person in her own right. Each character has their own compelling, often tragic reason for being on the boat, with stellar dialogue and voice performances playing a big role in bringing their stories to life.
In one scenario, I found the South African Bombate talking with the mentally impaired Max Hass, whose speech capabilities are lamentably limited to his first and last name only. Bombate expresses his anguish over the fact that Max’s sad, childlike innocence is a constant reminder of the family that he lost, and in an attempt at projection, he angrily orders Max to smile. Another situation, meanwhile, shows the crew celebrating a birthday with lots of food, liquor and music to forget about the outside struggles, if however briefly. Placed in between the larger, harrowing warfare, these small moments are a welcome reminder of the humanity of the brave men and women fighting for a better world.
B.J.’s here to chew gum and shoot Nazis, and he’s all out of gum
But ultimately, that’s all a diversion from the real centre of the task at hand — taking down lots and lots of Nazis. In the years since they’ve won, the Third Reich has doubled down on its human and animal experimentation, leading to truly perverse and dangerous results. Many of the enemies you fight are tortured humans now adorned with mechanized suits, rocket propellors and lasers, making them far more machine than man.
You have the choice of stealth or full-frontal assaults, although based on the game’s rather difficult nature, I do recommend discretion. Specially-marked Nazi commanders are also capable of sounding alarms to bring in reinforcements, making it essential that you eliminate them quickly — whether you do that stealthily or otherwise.
Throughout the 14-hour campaign, you’ll experience some really great, over-the-top setpieces, ranging from a chase through the streets of New Orleans on a mechanized, flamethrower-equipped Panzerhund wolf to a Wizard of Oz-inspired encounter that needs to be seen to be believed. There’s a great mix of pistols, shotguns, machine guns and grenades, as well as scientifically enhanced lasers and other Nazi weaponry you can get your hands on.
You can dual-wield any weapon for hilariously crazy combinations, such as a shotgun in one hand and a laser-beam blaster in the other. But as ridiculous as this may sound, there is also a tactical advantage to using two guns at once. At times, I would have my upgraded silenced Pistole in one hand and Shockhammer shotgun in the other, so I could quietly pick off enemies while also being ready for a possible firefight.
Doing so reduces the time it would take to navigate the weapon wheel, which is open in real-time, giving you precious extra seconds to shoot first at an alerted enemy. At the same time, dual-wielding removes the ability to aim down the sights, so you sacrifice accuracy for power, making it an appropriately balanced gameplay mechanic.
This type of combat readiness is particularly important since B.J. does not have the regenerating health ability that most first-person shooter heroes are lucky enough to have. As a result, he’s reliant on health packs and armour scattered throughout the levels. This made stealth a much more fulfilling (albeit very tense) option, as trying to get through groups of enemies quietly and without getting shot was tough, but also greatly reduced my chances of getting injured or killed.
The New Colossus also rewards you for experimenting with different combat options. There are three different categories of perks — Stealth, Mayhem and Tactical — and the more you perform specific maneuvers in each one, the more proficient you become in them. For example, racking up more kills with the throwable axes (Stealth) will increase the amount that you can carry at a given time, while defeating enemies in ways the involve flames (Tactical) will reduce the amount of damage you take from diesel-based weapons. It’s a satisfying loop that had me switching up my strategies whenever viable, making B.J. an increasingly more powerful Nazi-killing machine the more I played.
Late game, you’ll also be able to go on Ubercommander assassination missions to take out high-ranking Nazi officials. These offer a nice change of pace from the major story missions and take you to some interesting locations. In one mission, I visited a film set modelled after B.J.’s childhood home, with actors paid to spread propaganda of how evil a man “Terror-Billy” really is. Another had me revisit the eerie dilapidated Manhattan subway system, avoiding large rocket-powered tin men along the way.
Unfortunately, some of the levels in both the story and Ubercommander missions can feel too claustrophobic to encourage stealth, making it far too easy to get spotted. I found myself quickly overcome by large swaths of enemies, making the game feel somewhat unforgiving at times. Particularly, The New Colossus‘ anthropomorphic robotic enemies move and shoot fast, downing me in several instances before I could even make it to cover.
Overall, though, areas are well-designed to encourage multiple approaches. This is especially true in the latter half of the game, when B.J. is given a sort of ‘super power’ augment to increase his strength, verticality or contorting capabilities. Environments are designed to accommodate all three abilities, so ultimately there is no ‘wrong’ choice, merely one that better fits your kind of play-style.
In all of the game’s various locations, you can also find objects that reveal more about the world through some well-done environmental storytelling. An early New York level is filled with letters written by pinned soldiers who were sending well wishes back home to their families, while a note from Sigrun on the Eva’s Hammer recounts her first meeting with none other than Hitler himself. These are often heartbreaking reminders of how all life is torn apart by war, making B.J.’s cross-America journey feel all the more crucial.
However, despite the oftentimes dreadfully bleak outlook, the game still manages to maintain a steady stream of wit and levity. When he’s not going through solemn monologues, B.J. will make some rather humorous comments to help keep himself going. In one mission, when he’s tasked with infiltrating the Oberkommando base, he mentions that the base has a large amount of “Nazi assholes,” and once he clears them all out, he smugly remarks “Oberkommando, population: zero Nazi assholes.” The banter between the Kreisau Circle members, particular on the Eva’s Hammer, is similarly very amusing. While a grim tone is largely kept throughout, the New Colossus wisely remembers not to constantly take everything too seriously. This is, after all, a series that’s featured Mecha Hitler as a big boss encounter.
Vive la resistance
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a single-player revelation. I initially came for what I thought would be rather bombastic Nazi killing, and I certainly got that in spades thanks to a wonderful mix of solid stealth and shooting. But what really kept me playing was a compelling story filled with an expertly written cast of likeable characters. B.J.’s story can be gruelling, but it’s nonetheless a thoroughly exhilarating ride with a surprising amount of heart to it, making it one of 2017’s must-play games.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
Note: the game also receives 4K enhancements on Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro. Eurogamer has a great in-depth breakdown of the technical improvements on both systems, but suffice it to say, the game looks better on both systems. For what it’s worth, I played half of The New Colossus on Xbox One X and the game — which already looked pretty to begin with — had a higher resolution and sharper overall picture.
A Nintendo Switch version has also been confirmed for release sometime in 2018.
Image credit: Bethesda