Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus doesn’t shy away from the utter brutality of its alternate reality. You better believe that if Nazi Germany won the Second World War after unlocking the ancient, advanced technology of a mystical secret society and utilized that to create an unstoppable war machine, the world would be an ugly place. This is a world in which dissenters are massacred and beheaded, a world not only driven by the hateful ideology of a raving narcissist, but also by the desire to simply see innocent blood spilled. It’s a mechanical, atompunk dystopia in which robot dogs spit fire, a world where you’ll look in the eyes of black-clad Nazi soldiers and it’s hard to tell where man ends and machine begins.
This evil existed in The New Colossus’ United States even before the Nazis took over, and William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz was no stranger to it. He sees it through the slats of his mother’s closet, in the eyes of the hateful man who is his father, in the eyes of a man who beats his son for befriending a black girl, in the eyes of a man who forces his son to shoot his own dog who was only doing its solemn duty of protecting the family.
It’s within this hate-filled landscape that B.J. paints his masterpiece with bullets and Nazi blood. We come to understand in The New Colossus that not only is B.J. fighting for a better future for his family, but he’s also fighting to find himself after a traumatic childhood. Killing Nazis is, in a way, B.J.’s version of therapy and, boy, does it feel cathartic—at least, most of the time.
Picking up literally moments after the end of Wolfenstein: The New Order, The New Colossus begins in a near-death fever dream as B.J. floats in and out of consciousness. Grenade shrapnel has ripped his body to shreds and he’s bleeding out. One moment, his father is spitting racial epithets and beating his mother in 1919, in the next he’s on a surgical table back in 1961 and the Kreisau Circle is shifting his insides around with a pair of metal tongs in an attempt to save his life while a nuclear blast decimates a Nazi base. The ugly past bleeds into the ugly present, when a mushroom cloud backlighting the familiar faces of Anya, Caroline, and Set is oddly the most serene, beautiful sight to behold.
The New Colossus’ story never lets up on the ugliness presented in the first few scenes, but it repeats the same trick that The New Order performed so deftly, which is to give the blood, gib-filled shootouts an emotional weight. This time developer MachineGames has moved past B.J.’s patriotism to the deeper roots of his character, sometimes through flashback and other times through a good old-fashioned farmstead homecoming. Whereas other characters in the past have often overshadowed B.J.’s stoic masculinity, The New Colossus actually makes us care as much about our Nazi-slaying, crew-cutted, action-hero protagonist as it does about the world he’s fighting to take back. I don’t want to spoil another second of the story for you, but longtime fans of the Wolfenstein series will be particularly shocked by a very early cut-scene, the melancholy of which infuses the feelings of the entire first-half of the game.
The fact that in The New Colossus the Nazis have taken over the United States by nuking New York and forcing a surrender makes bashing their skulls in with a hatchet all the sweeter. One of the most effective aspects of The New Colossus is literally the set dressing. Throughout the game, you’ll explore Manhattan, New Orleans, and Roswell (among a few other locations I dare not spoil for you), which have all been drastically altered by the Nazi invasion, in one way or another. Visually and practically, the levels are as imaginative as they are depressing, and they’re just as effective at evoking an emotional engagement as the story is. This is a perfect example of the game’s mechanics and thematics combining into one cohesive whole, and they truly motivate you to purge the Nazi infestation.
Just like in The New Order, you’ll tackle these locations through extended story missions, after which you’ll end up in the game’s central hub, this time a reclaimed U-boat that at least doubles of the size of The New Order’s central hub and has more to do, like a shooting range and an obstacle course. It’s another example of The New Colossus building up from the solid foundation that The New Order laid.
Luckily, there’s enough in the gameplay to back up The New Colossus’ fantastic story and locations. Once again, you can either decide to move stealthily through each level, quietly taking out Nazis with a variety of hatchet tosses, close-quarter takedowns, and silenced headshots, or you can go in guns blazing and shoot the hell out of everything and everyone in sight. Dual-wielding weapons is back, and it’s just as necessary for most firefights as it was in The New Order. However, this time you can mix and match guns. You want a sub-machine gun in one hand and a grenade launcher in the other? Go for it. Or maybe you have more classic tastes and want to simply dual-wield pistols? Not the smartest combo, but it still looks cool. Or maybe you want to be able to kill everything as efficiently as possible? Then do what I did for most of the game and put a shotgun with ricochet rounds in one hand and an armor-piercing assault rifle in the other hand and proceed to mow through both man and machine in no time.
The way weapon upgrades work in The New Colossus is functionally similar to The New Order’s weapons alternative modes, but this time the mods you can apply to each weapon seem to have a much bigger and more permanent effect on how they perform the rest of the game. You can upgrade and mod weapons by finding weapon kits throughout each level. Most of the weapons in the game have three different pieces that can be upgraded, one of which is an alternative firing mode that can be switched on and off at any time.
There are small changes that make this system more satisfying than The New Order’s. For one, the secondary modes truly feel like secondary extensions of each weapon. Instead of having a rocket launcher with its own separate type of ammo as your secondary firing mode for your assault rifle, this time you can flip open a scope and turn your assault rifle into a semi-automatic DMR. On top of that, you can upgrade your ammo to armor-piercing rounds (which I highly recommend, as it will make dispatching robotic and armored enemies much more manageable), and it will just stay that way for the rest of the game. Likewise for the triple-barrel automatic shotgun, which takes the secondary-fire ricochet rounds from The New Order and simply makes that a permanent upgrade. Instead, your secondary firing mode is to fire-off all three barrels at once, giving your gun a major punch with a slower delivery.
The catch here is that these consumable upgrades are hidden around each level and it’s quite possible that there are either not enough to upgrade every weapon, or I just missed some. But instead of being a hindrance, this actually gave me a much more rewarding and personal connection to the choices I was making. Besides, you will find most of the upgrade kits fairly easily, and they will cover most of the upgrades, and who needs a silenced pistol in a Wolfenstein game when you can dual-wield anything anyway?
Just as with The New Order, however, The New Colossus’ gameplay has a few nagging faults. As satisfying as it is one moment, it can just as quickly turn on you the next. You’ll be tricked into thinking The New Colossus is your best friend (how can a game that turns Nazis into giblets so beautifully and joyously not be your best friend?), and then the next minute it is literally stabbing you in the back with a Nazi soldier or robot who is apparently the god of flanking maneuvers, even though you swore you just cleared out that last room. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll go down fast, and even if you are paying attention you might not realize how much damage you’re taking, as the hit indicators don’t fully accomplish their task of indicating when and how badly you’re getting hit.
If this happens to you, take solace in the fact that it’s only partially your fault. You probably got lulled into a false sense of security from that time when the AI all charged around a corner in a single-file line, letting you take them out one by one and ending in a pile of corpses at your feet. After that, why would you expect them to suddenly become expert military strategists who can flank you from angles you didn’t even know existed?
The AI isn’t the only inconsistent thing about The New Colossus. In fact, the entire first and second halves of the game feel pretty different from one another. Or, maybe more accurately, the first half of The New Colossus almost feels like an extended, five-hour prologue to the actual game—New Order 1.5 as opposed to a full-on Wolfenstein II. The two newest additions to the game, the Contraptions and Oberkommander Missions, both arrive after the game experiences a figurative and literal resurrection halfway through. The game introduces the Contraptions, which give B.J. some cool new abilities, just early enough so that you can learn how to use them but not late enough that you never truly feel comfortable enough experimenting with them.
On the other hand, this isn’t Prey; The New Colossus isn’t necessarily interested in letting the player get experimental with the tools that it gives them, and the Contraptions seem like a manifestation of this attitude. They’re cool as an idea, but in practice they work less like superpowers and more like a permanent key used for unlocking arbitrary doors. When the Contraptions are introduced, you’ll initially choose from one of three available. When you start the next level, the first thing you have to do is figure out a way to infiltrate an area using one of them. At first I thought this was The New Colossus’ sloppy, poorly disguised attempt at a tutorial and I was sure you could do cool stuff with these new powers at some point. And I was right, like, twice. I chose the Contraption that basically turns B.J. into an accordion, letting him slip through smaller vents and underneath objects no human should physically be under. It was supposed to offer some stealth opportunities and it did…twice. The rest of the time you’re mostly just repeating the lessons from that aforementioned, halfway-through-the-game-is-a-great-time-for-this tutorial, which is how to find the part of the map where you can use your Contraption to progress.
That being said, the Contraptions are a great idea. I just wish they were better implemented. Considering there’s most certainly going to be a third chapter to this particular Wolfenstein saga, given how the story ends and how much Bethesda’s marketing department is leaning on this franchise, I’m really hoping that MachineGames takes the idea of the Contraptions to the next level and, instead of trying to shoehorn them into the game for the newness factor, actually designs the entire game around them and ways they can be utilized in firefights.
The game also introduces Oberkommander missions in the second half of the game, but the implementation here at least is pretty successful. These side missions task you with returning to the various stages of each main location to hunt down and assassinate a top commander in the Third Reich. Once they’re unlocked, accessing these missions becomes a three-part process. First, you must beat the main story mission to unlock the location where each high commander is hiding. Second, you must pick up the Enigma Codes that normal commanders drop during the main campaign missions. Third, you must play a brief but fun mini-game that allows you to “read” the Engima Codes, which will then reveal the Oberkommander’s locations on a map located in the game’s central hub.
While most of these side-missions are fairly short, the locations change just enough to keep them interesting. The first time you visit Roswell, the town is bustling with a daytime parade and celebration of all things Nazi. When you return there for the Oberkommander mission, night has fallen and the streets are empty except for Nazi soldiers, Ku Klux Klan members, and an enormous robot patrolling the streets. These missions can be completed while you’re still in the middle of the main campaign or after the credits roll. This simple option prevents the excellent pacing of the main campaign from slowing down, because you don’t feel the pressure to complete all the side-missions before finishing the game. It’s also a cheeky way for the developer to extend the game’s playtime a few hours, which the main campaign ran about ten hours the first time through.
There are a few other small inconsistencies here and there that I feel like I should mention. For one, there was a weird visual thing happening with in-game, first-person cut-scenes where certain characters’ eyelids would constantly twitch. That was pretty distracting. Also, MachineGames really needs to drop the “press a button to pick stuff up” shtick. The last thing I want to do when I’m getting shot at by a few dozen Nazis is stop to pick up health. It wouldn’t even be that bad except that it requires the most precise cursor placement, which probably didn’t seem like a big deal for people playing on PC, but on console it’s a small headache.
Finally, it seemed like the stealth mechanics completely changed in the second half of the game. Suddenly, when I was getting spotted by enemies, the action would slow down a la Metal Gear Solid V, giving me just enough time to turn around and pop off a headshot before they could raise the alarm. This mechanic, as far as I could tell, was nowhere to be found in the first half of the game. It sort of makes sense from a thematic perspective why B.J. would be more “with it” during the second half of the game, but it was still pretty distracting and compounded the notion that I was playing two different games in the same series.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is fun in all the right ways and difficult in some of the wrong ways, but it’s driven by a superb narrative filled with a tragic pathos and punctuated by a campy sense of action-hero glory and Eighties cinema-style gore. It’s a ten-hour adrenaline-filled experience that offers a decent amount of replayability thanks to an early decision you have to make (fans of The New Order should be familiar), and the new Oberkommander Missions. And despite some small frustrations throughout, is a more than fitting follow-up to its predecessor.
|Publisher: Bethesda Softworks • Developer: MachineGames • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.27.17|
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’ story and imaginative level design carry the burden of its quality on their shoulders, but they’re backed up by solid shooter mechanics and really cool guns. While the experience as a whole might be inconsistent and sometimes frustrating, it’s an experience worth having. After all, you get to blow up a bunch of Nazis. Also, did we mention the guns were really cool?
|The Good||An excellent narrative, immersive world-building, and fun weaponry keep the spirit of the Wolfenstein series (not to mention American liberty) alive.|
|The Bad||Inconsistent AI and lack of true experimentation with some of the newer mechanics leave the game feeling slightly half-baked.|
|The Ugly||Someone needs to send these characters to an optometrist.|
|Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Bethesda for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|