Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is developer MachineGames’ follow-up to the delightful slaughterfest that was 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. Single-player shooters are becoming a rare thing indeed these days and an FPS with minimal RPG elements, no online, no micro transactions and no loot even rarer still. Bethesda’s commitment to revitalising the old-school shooter is admirable and was proven with last years fantastic reboot of the DOOM franchise. Sequels of reboots, however, have a much harder job. In 2017, any game that lets you mow down Nazis has already got a lot going for it, but does it manage to usurp The New Order, or is Wolfenstein II a colossal failure?
Players reprise their role as B.J. Blazkowicz, a Polish-American Jew who fought against the Nazis in the Wolfenstein version of World War II. While the end of The New Order left things ambiguous, it turns out B.J. definitely survived the climactic battle of that game, rescued by his friends and comrades. Wolfenstein II picks up pretty much right after this rescue, with B.J. gravely wounded and forced to ride around the enormous stolen Nazi U-Boat, Eva’s Hammer, in a wheelchair, guns blazing. After a number of events that I won’t spoil, B.J. and the rest of his resistance head to what was once the United States, but is now one big Nazi colony. It’s time to start a revolution.
Wolfenstein II, when looking purely at its gameplay, is a rather simple shooter. Each level is a linear A to B, you shoot Nazis, collect new guns, pick up health, armour and collectibles, complete your objective and then watch a cutscene. In between you can freely explore Eva’s Hammer, talking to your brothers and sisters in arms, have a go at the shooting range and, after a certain point, carry out Enigma Code missions (more on those later). There are a lot of fantastic character moments, both humorous and sombre, that take place in this hub in real-time that are definitely worth seeking out.
It’s with its characters and narrative that Wolfenstein II manages to stand out. The quality of the writing and voice acting is absolutely praiseworthy, but even more impressive is the direction. In one scene, the camera is looking up at a character from under a desk, then comes out to follow him as if it was on wheels at his feet. The composition of these shots infuses them with a kinetic energy that a lot of similar video games are completely lacking. On top of that, what actually happens in these cutscenes is some of the best, most visceral, invigorating and shocking stuff I’ve ever witnessed in a shooter.
The characters of The New Colossus are another strength, with the all-new faces proving to be just as memorable as the original cast. There’s Sigrun Engel, the daughter of the terrifying Nazi general Frau Engel, who has been tormented by her mother her whole life for being overweight. Grace Walker, the foul-mouthed, no bullshit leader of the American Resistance in New York City and Horton Boone, a self-appointed preacher, communist and drunk with a thick New Orleans accent. Each of these characters fits right in and, for the most part, have a significant role to play in the story.
The biggest flaw of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is its level design, both artistically and from a gameplay standpoint. While on paper a lot of the locations sound fascinating: Nazi-controlled Roswell and Area 52, New York City levelled by a nuke and a city-sized ghetto for ‘undesirables’ in New Orleans, each one of these environments is made up of a series of either bunkers, labs, factories, ruined streets and yep, even sewers. Despite an interesting premise, it seems MachineGames got a checklist of the most mundane, expected FPS levels and shoved in as many as they could. There are exceptions of course (and they would definitely be spoilers), but even those aren’t all that interesting, especially when compared to some of the crazier environments of The New Order.
To dwell on Roswell for a moment, prior to this mission B.J. is told the Nazis have moved their Oberkommando, their top brass, to a secret base built under Area 52. Apparently there’s all kinds of crazy things down their like anti-gravity technology and there’s even a suggestion that aliens might be involved. When you get there however it’s just another extremely straightforward sequence of shooting Nazis in a metallic underground base. No bizarre tech. No aliens. It’s especially disappointing given the astounding cities, structures and locales of the first game. Wofenstein II sports a surprising amount of drab, brown environments, and for every breathtaking vista or imposing Nazi mega structure, five minutes later I’d be in another sewer, factory or bunker.
Supplementing the main story are the Enigma Code missions. Every time you kill a Nazi Commander you’ll get an Enigma Code which can be used back on Eva’s Hammer to do a simple mini-game to unlock a side mission. These missions are quite simple: revisit a level you’ve already completed with the specific task of hunting down an Ubercommander. There will be some changes to the levels which range from minor, like a shift in time of day, to major, with significant changes to the whole area. These missions double as a way to collect certain pieces of equipment and collectables you may have missed, as well as upgrade your perks. There are a lot of different things to collect throughout the campaign, all of which are tucked away in hideaway spots like behind furniture or under a counter. It’s all stuff that is easy to miss, but, aside from the concept art, even when you do manage to find it the rewards aren’t really worth it.
The soundtrack has a few appropriately energetic tracks, and while Mick Gordon of DOOM (2016) fame was involved, the music is overall not as integral to the feel of the game as it was there. Most disappointing is the lack of impact in some sound effects, especially when it comes to the combat. The vocal work in cutscenes, the music and explosions all feel right, but the sounds of guns and the yells and screams of your enemies either get lost in a mess of noise, or just aren’t as powerful as I’d hoped. That said, the use of diegetic music is great. Watching B.J. have a verbal back and forth with a Bolshevik in priests clothing while one rebel plays frantic clarinet and another calmly snipes Nazis, the music rising and fading to the ebb and flow of the argument, was memorable indeed.
Playing on PC I encountered a number of technical issues. When first tweaking graphics settings, changing from full screen windowed to full screen or turning v-sync on/off would cause the game to crash. I’m not sure if a patch fixed this or I just got lucky, but this crash didn’t plague my entire play through. There was another instance in the later third of the game where any time I reached a loading screen my monitor went black and the Windows cursor would appear, and nothing short of a hard restart would allow me to close the game. This was fixed by verifying my files via steam and downloading 600mb of mysteriously absent data. Finally there was an issue with the sky boxes turning into a black, meshy mess which I believe was an Nvidia-specific issue that was fixed by either another patch, or by installing the latest drivers.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is not without its problems, but the incredibly endearing cast of characters and utterly bizarre narrative make it worth the investment. Shooting Nazis is fun and cathartic, even if the actual feel of shooting isn’t anything unique. The level design may not fill you with wonder, terror or a strange mix of the two like in The New Order, but the cutscenes, both pre-rendered and in-game, absolutely will. In some ways, and I admit this is a mild cop out, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a better movie than it is a game. Regardless, when the credits rolled I felt invigorated as well as sad that I wouldn’t be seeing B.J., Anya, Set and the rest of the crew for some time. That alone makes the game a success in my book.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was reviewed on PC with a Steam code provided by Bethesda.