Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus picked quite the year to release its sequel. Receiving backlash from various special interest groups for “pushing a political agenda” and getting a lot of players angry and butthurt…over a game about killing Nazis. The comments section on the trailers alone are enough to warrant groans.
Marketing and current events aside, it’s great to see a AAA single-player FPS with no tacked-on multiplayer or microtransations. Even better, the game is an excellent sequel with one of the best shooter campaigns in years.
Father, Son, Patriot
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus picks up exactly where the first game left off and even includes a thorough recap for new players. The main hook is that after blowing up the headquarters of General Deathshead at the end of the first game, the hero, William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, is on death’s doorstep. The ragtag resistance group helping BJ try their best to keep him alive and continue taking down the Nazis World Order, taking the fight to a German-occupied United States, but he’s a shell of his former self. Adding to this ticking clock of drama and uncertainty is that his love interest, Anya is pregnant with his children and he doesn’t think he’ll live long enough to help raise them.
This narrative thread is, surprisingly, brought into the gameplay. In his weakened state, BJ spends the opening of the game in a wheelchair and is only later granted movement through a suit of power armor. The following escapades happen so quickly, he doesn’t have time to take the suit off. And he fears that if he does, it will be the end. This is powerful and thought-provoking stuff conveyed by BJ’s internal monologue and it’s something a lesser game would not include at all. The strength of this narrative is further helped by its sheer confidence. Wolfenstein II goes there. It shocks, awes, and left me wanting more in the best ways possible.
The only downside to such a personal tale having a large role in the plot is that taking down the Nazi regime is more of an added bonus, rather than the overt goal. I’m OK with more personal stakes overtaking an otherwise bombastic pulpy adventure, but it did make the final act abrupt and some characters have moments that were not earned because of this. Wolfenstein: The New Order had a similar problem with Bombate but it’s much more obvious here.
Another returning feature is the Dual Timeline storyline. At the start of the game you are given a choice regarding the fate of two major characters, with level design, supporting cast, and even weapons obtained altered by this change of events. I only played a third of another timeline and enjoyed the differences quite a bit, however, nothing I saw made the core narrative different at all. It’s an expected, bit of corner cutting and doesn’t completely break the illusion, but can feel awkward if you are looking for it.
When A Punch Just Isn’t Enough
The excellent narrative comes paired with some of the most satisfying shooting I’ve had in a long time. It cannot be overstated how great it is to dual-wield shotguns and mow down Nazis trapped in a tight corridor—blood, limbs, and shell casings littering the floor. All of the mechanics from the first return and give players even more options than before. Dual-wielding has been enhanced, allowing you to pair up any two of your weapons together to make BJ an efficient killing machine.
Also returning are the various perks that are leveled up by performing specific actions. Take down more enemies silently and you’ll be able to move more quickly when crouched, kill more Nazis with grenades and you can carry more, and so on. Wolfenstein II constantly gives you feedback about you progress with these perks regardless of how you play, giving it the feel of leveling up in an RPG while keeping the speed and action of a shooter.
It’s not all going guns blazing though. Leaning up and around cover is still as fast and fun as ever and is often an integral strategic element. Adding to that, the stealth mechanics that are as fun as they are gruesome. Throwing knifes is so 2014, axes are in now, and it’s a simple change that is unbelievably fun. Sneaking behind an enemy unseen lets you initiate a takedown and each one is brutal, often leaving severed arms and legs thrown about the ground like a child who didn’t pick up their toys. Even the normal melee attacks are instant kill moves and leave the enemy in shambles. It’s always satisfying and I’d go out of my way just to watch a Nazi die a horrible death. Plus, you can throw these axes ridiculous distances and nailing a headshot from downtown is exhilarating.
Almost every level has several commanders on patrol that will sound the alarm if they spot BJ. But take them out unseen and reinforcements can’t flood the battlefield. It’s a great reward and something that you should always attempt, even if enemy routes can be difficult to plot. Thankfully, Wolfenstein II now lets you save at any point and that will improve your chances.
More importantly, manual saves prevent the sometimes obnoxiously far apart checkpoints from being too much of a slog. The game isn’t unfair, but a handful of difficulty spikes lessened what would have been incredible set-piece moments. Forcing the player to, in an entirely new area, survive waves of enemies with no time to prepare, never felt quite right to me. I wasn’t trapped in a corner, I was let loose in the open, with enemies all around and explosive barrels peppered about. I won’t claim to be a great shooter player, but when I died more than twice at a given checkpoint, I’d rethink my strategy and get past it. The sections I’m talking about made that impossible, and even crazier, when I did succeed, it was either because of manual saves or dumb luck. And this struggle was antithetical to what was going on narrative-wise as well. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between. Shooting through Nazis, large armored battle suits, and androids is a buttery-smooth experience the rest of the time.
The timeline choice at the beginning of Wolfenstein II also changes which utility weapon you get. Gone are the days of awkwardly cutting square holes in fences and grates. Now, depending on the timeline, you’ll either disintegrate the wall instantly with a laser or blow it up with a C4 launcher. Both weapons are very powerful but have limited ammo supplies that can be refilled at the occasional wall-mounted station.
What also makes a return is the classic health and armor system. Picking up health packs are how you heal and collecting armor helps you tank some of the bigger attacks. I like this particular retro throwback, however a lack of any visual representation beyond a tiny number on screen it can make the game feel uneven. Having max health and armor makes you a god, but only having 50 health is pitiful. And in a game where a Nazi with a shotgun could come up behind you and kill you instantly, it can lessen the fun. Not knowing exactly how many shots you can take at any given time before you have to retreat is confusing. And I don’t think it’s worth having the god-like heights of the health and armor system if it is going to lead to expected deaths.
Crack The Codes
When not shooting or enjoying the story, the levels offer plenty of secrets to find. Notes, gold, records, concept art, and more are scattered about in high numbers. There are also hidden upgrade kits that allow you to upgrade your weapons in many different ways like a silencer for the pistol, double clip size for the shotgun, or armor piecing rounds for the machine gun.
Roughly halfway through the game, there is a choice between three different enhancements that affect combat and traversal. It might sound like a tough choice at first, but through side missions you can obtain all three and even power them up further. It’s a great idea and I loved the extra perks and abilities, but I won’t spoil them here.
All commanders you take out drop enigma codes which are used to attempt a minigame to open up optional side missions. Almost every single main story level is replayable through these missions, letting you to pick up any missed collectibles in addition to killing a new target commander. Naturally, enemies are back patrolling and oftentimes you’ll have to go through the level backwards which keeps things fresh. It’s a great touch that allows you to have more fun with the gunplay after (or before) the credits roll.
Even though the ending mission is a tad abrupt, I really enjoyed the ride that was Wolfenstein II. It’s full of memorable moments in both the story and gameplay that I’ll be thinking about for a while. If you hoped (or were afraid) Machine Games was going to have some grand message or hidden meaning in the plot in relation to the current political climate in their latest action game, you’ll either be disappointed or relieved by its simple message: Nazis are bad. It’s what the series has always been about, after all.
With one of the more memorable campaigns I’ve played in years and gunplay that is nothing if not succulent, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is truly something special.
Also, you can hurl an axe across the map into an unsuspecting Nazi’s face, and that’s sure to brighten anyone’s day.