Developed by MachineGames; Published by Bethesda Softworks; Rated Mature; Released 27 October 2017; Available on PC, PS4, XB1, and Switch; Reviewed on Xbox One X
I had high hopes when I started Wolfenstein II, the latest entry in one of Bethesda Softworks’ three classic-FPS-series revivals (the others being Quake and 2016’s stellar DOOM). To say that my expectations were met would feel disingenuous, despite that being the truth. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a game about the gleeful slaughter of Nazi’s, and gleeful it is, but when Wolfenstein: The New Order was released back in 2014, it felt like a bit of a revelation. See, Wolfenstein has always been about the sanguine-grinned extermination of Hitler’s Third Reich, but The New Order infused it’s rebooted narrative with a lighter touch, a bit of comedy (“Fuck you, Moon”) and a truly surprising and honest romance for protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus breaks out the big guns and uses them to paint, with Nazi Blood, in much broader strokes. I should say, however, that at its most manic and bloodthirsty, The New Colossus outclasses it’s predecessor in the gameplay-department to a large degree – though those moments don’t emerge until well past the mid-point of the game.
Wolfenstein II picks up right where The New Order left off, with our square-jawed all-American jarhead B.J. Blazkowicz left holding his guts in after the assault on General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse’s compound. Victorious, Blazkowicz seems resigned to his fate, a job well-done, but Anya – aforementioned honest lover – and the rest of the Kreisau Circle show up in time to save him. Blazkowicz then falls into a months-long coma aboard the resistance’s U-boat, Eva’s Hammer, where he dreams of his life as a young boy; son to a cartoonishly racist father, and repressed Jewish mother. These are our first glimpses into the psyche that propels B.J. on his crusade against his enemy.
He awakens, and thus the player is given control, when Nazis under the command of Frau Engel, the sadistic Nazi General that Blazkowicz first encountered on a train in The New Order, attacks Eva’s Hammer and begins rounding up the resistance’s leaders.
The game makes a bold choice here, one that becomes infuriating the longer it continues – to include B.J.’s ailments into the shooting mechanics. The game opens, you hop into a wheelchair, pilfer a rifle from a dead comrade, and commence the onslaught. It’s good fun for a while, but two issues arise that I’ll cover in the Gameplay section of this review.
Eventually, you fight your way into the clutches of Frau Engel, escape, and rally with your resistance aboard your U-boat. The mission then becomes one of liberating an America under Nazi rule; the country practically gifted to its new oppressors following the loss of World War II and the atom-bombing of New York City. The Ku-Klux-Klan shares the south with uniformed Nazi soldiers, strolling down streets evoking classic Americana, but garnished with Nazi iconography. At any other time in American politics, this would seem positively jarring. Nowadays, it doesn’t quite strike the chord it should.
I’ll pause here to address something that dogged this game upon its release.
Yes, this game is about killing Nazis. Nazis are bad. I understand that this game portrays its ideals with all the subtly of a swinging wrecking-ball, but how on Earth is Nazi-slaying (in glorious 4k 60fps, I might add) at all a point of contention? In Wolfenstein, there’s no revolution that can’t be won with an axe to the face. A Nazi face. Does anyone else miss when it was just “concerned” parents railing against the violence in video games? Kudos to MachineGames for literally sticking to their guns and promoting this as an anti-Nazi game.
You fight through bombed out Manhattan, recruit some new friends, fight through Roswell, New Mexico, recruit more resistance fighters, exorcise some of B.J.’s childhood demons, bring the fight to New Orleans, and then to outer space. It really is one hell of a ride, filled with a nearly overwhelming amount of variance, both in regards to gameplay and the tone of the narrative itself. And I think that’s where I find myself torn.
The previous game seemed focused. It had its aesthetic fully realized in a way that The New Colossus struggles to achieve. Nearly gone is the emphasis on the supernatural within the Nazi-culture – as if their entire success was the result of mad-science and crimes against nature. Here, it all goes without saying. The most outlandish things happen in this campaign without a passing glance by any character, let alone Blazkowicz. Poor Blazkowicz. He takes a beating in this game. He loses his body in more ways than one, hopefully no longer the Aryan specimen that Frau Engel refers to him as in The New Order. (There’s actually an excellent distillation of the many meanings of Blazkowicz’s body-changing by Kotaku here.)
This is a game with thought behind its themes. Agency, community, oppression, and revolution, but like I mentioned earlier – it handles them without much focus. It’s difficult to feel attached to this resistance when so few of its members are ever allowed much screen time. It’s difficult to lock into the flow of the narrative when, nearly two-thirds the way through the game, an entire block of side-missions opens up. That the game can be approached from so many angles is commendable, dramatically changing the time to play through the main story, but (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) I prefer the more linear style of the first game. Everything in The New Order felt relevent. Side-missions didn’t pad out a slender narrative, although there were definite slogs through unending corridors of enemies.
Wolfenstein II‘s story just feels short, like there are two themes explored for every one minute of available screen time, and that it can’t decide if it wants to play up its wacky science-fiction or tap into the horrors of American life under Nazi oppression. It tries to do all of this, with tremendous flair, but there’s a bit too much time spent monologing, spent presenting images that would make even the most socially progressive of individuals roll their eyes (just a smidge), and too little spent far too late actually allowing these characters and this story the room it needed to be fully realized.
In closing, an example: the penultimate mission to the game sees all of our characters for the first time on-screen together, enjoying a raucous moment aboard the U-boat. It is truly, wonderfully endearing. It’s the feeling I had watching the many characters bounce off of one another between missions in The New Order. In The New Colossus, however, it builds up to that moment only for the game to end a few moments later. All of the work recruiting people all over the country and bam – final mission. Frustrating.
Gameplay is, no surprise, fucking awesome. There’s a learning curve, however. Like I mentioned earlier, the game starts you off at a bit of a disadvantage. When you finally pull the trigger for the first time, you’re confined to a wheelchair, scooting yourself through corridors and tumbling down staircases trying to prevent Nazis from boarding Eva’s Hammer. It’s a rewarding challenge, one that leads to plenty of comedic moments, but it becomes troublesome once you get to New York.
Once in Manhattan, you’ve since obtained a suit of power armor (no, not that power armor), and you’ve been granted several enhancements to movement speed and weapon handling. You reload faster, can jump and slam into the ground for a small area-effect, and can even stack up your armor rating all the way to 200.
Wolfensein II is content here to rely on its bread-and-butter, its core gameplay mechanics of dual-wield running-and-gunning alternated with stealthy sneak-and-takedown combat. As Blazkowicz aptly states at one point in the game, “Standard INFIL.” He’s right. Standard. For the majority of the game it doesn’t feel any different from The New Order: you can lean from corners or scrunch down behind crates and barriers, popping shots from a distance or bludgeoning your enemies with a hatchet once they step into sight. Hey, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. That’s fine. But Wolfenstein II traded the sterile corridors and industrial arenas of The New Order for bombed-out skyscraper mazes and long-abandoned factories. Nothing new to video games by any stretch of the imagination.
There are some stand-out areas, though, despite their being derivative of previous games. Frau Engel’s airship, the Ausmerzer, is a stunning high-wire act – vertical and stuffed to the brim with challenging encounters. The trip to Venus is not only wacky and reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also allows for a refreshing interplay between hazardous exteriors and choke-point interior play-spaces. Although, Venus does feel a bit like Mars from DOOM (2016) met the moon from The New Order – which isn’t a complaint so much as me stating that it didn’t strike me as wholly original.
Any stand-out moment, however, seems in service of some fast-approaching destination that only exists in a future installment of the franchise. Which is disappointing.
Upgrades exist for B.J., but they aren’t all attainable until the very last mission of the game – at which point it barely makes a difference. I’ll break it down. Throughout the game you kill Commanders (same as The New Order), only this time around they drop Enigma Codes, which you will use to unlock the locations of the Nazi high-command and launch assassination mission through previously played missions. Within a few of these missions are “contraptions” that B.J. can upgrade himself with in order to dramatically alter gameplay – each of which can then be further upgraded by using the new abilities in combat. All of this, though, unlocks at around the three-fourths completion mark of the main story.
Replay old missions, kill more Commanders, get more codes, assassinate more commanders – rinse and repeat. You’ll have played through every mission multiple times before you unlock every meaningful, usable upgrade, and only once all of those are unlocked does Wolfenstein II offer a true step forward in its combat. Crawl through ventilation ducts, bash through walls and enemies, high-step over barriers and reach new places: all of those attributes and their perks combined make for an exhilarating experience – but all too late to make a difference in the 90% of the game you’ll complete before attaining them.
Believe it or not, but some of the most fun I had in the game, aside from the mayhem of end-game combat, was exploring Eva’s Hammer and watching the NPCs go about their lives, listening to their small conversations and trying to feel like I, as B.J., was part of a larger resistance. There’s a striking amount of detail in the game.
I’m sure on a high-end PC this game looks and plays like a dream. Very rarely did I experience any hiccups in performance on the Xbox One X, but there were still some issues of texture pop-in or clipping. The game has the option for Dynamic Resolution, which I would highly encourage to keep framerates more consistent. The difference between 1080p images upscaled and native 4k images are very difficult to discern when gameplay can be as frenetic as Wolfenstein II’s. I ran the game at the Aggressive Dynamic Resolution setting, and wasn’t disappointed.
Environments and weapon-textures are where this game excels. B.J.’s hands look incredibly detailed and the weapons glossy-metallic. The interior of the U-boat, with all its pipes and scattered lighting and shadows can be breathtaking in its complexity. There’s a moment in the final level, when you emerge from an interior space and gaze up at a massive ship, just filling up the entirety of your screen in all its wonderful detail. The only textures the need work are the NPCs. Pores on skin looks especially bad, the light not quite interacting in a realistic manner. This is apparent more so in cutscenes than actual gameplay – which is odd. Still, the id Tech 6 engine is one of the best used in gaming today.
As far as sound goes, the guns are thunky and the violence splashy and wet. All is as it should be and in peak form. My major disappointment here is the soundtrack. Where is it? There’s a pleasant thumpy hard-rock theme playing in the main menu, but most music throughout the game is a series of either whiny ethereal ambience or chugging percussive notes when the action picks up. It’s fairly generic; similar in style, but definitely not a stand-out like 2016’s DOOM.
I like this game. A lot. Though, it frustrates me. I expected a grand time slaughtering Nazis, and that’s what I got, but I didn’t get anything else, at least nothing done with the same proficiency as was on display in The New Order. The story is passable in that it gets you from A to B with style and leaps of logic so absurd they’re plausible within the game world. But that’s probably my lasting complaint with the game, if I’m honest. I can forgive whiplash pacing and tonal shifts in favor of stellar gameplay – that’s fine. I can forgive the game’s slow-trickling character progression. This game, though, it just lacks focus. It’s everything at 100%, all the time, in all directions. So much so that we, the players, are stuck amidst the game’s many influences and ambitions waiting for a guiding hand to pull us in the right direction.
This game wants to be too many things. It wants to have a message in a time when to sell a product without one is risky-business. It wants a story with unique characters, but wants you to spend so much time away from them collecting codes in areas you’ve already mastered. It wants to present the horror of an America under Nazi rule, but digresses far too often into the nonsensical or bewildering – often in quick succession. It can be many of these things, but not all so quickly. It’s dependant, I suppose, on how you engage with it.
The New Order felt refined, disciplined, and told its story with an acute sense of forward momentum and emotional stakes. It kept it simple (read: linear), but at no point was it boring.
The New Colossus just feels a bit sloppy. And it wouldn’t be such a big deal if its potential wasn’t so far through the damn stratosphere. Once Blazkowicz has every contraption attached, the gameplay is magnificent, and the final mission is a downright masterpiece when compared to the rest of the game. The narrative has many wonderful moments, and many other that left me scratching my head. The fact remains, however, that killing those Nazi-sumbitches is damn good fun.
Definitely check this game out if it’s on sale and temper your expectations. It will deliver everything it advertises, but nothing more.