Wolfenstein has always been one of those old reliable series that you can count on to deliver a satisfying romp that embellishes on history a bit without deviating from the standard shooter genre too much. Kill Nazis, save the world, and all that jazz. With Wolfenstein: The New Order, though, MachineGames took us into a frighteningly realised alternate timeline, in which the Nazis, undefeated, spread across the globe and even into space. After the incredible story and violent gameplay of that critical hit, the wunderbar developers are back at it again with Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, fanning the flames of resistance in Nazi-controlled America. So load up your guns, and let’s get to it. Those jackbooted Nazi butts aren’t going to kick themselves!
“You’ve been drinking from the fuel tank again, haven’t you? Bad girl, Liesel.”
Anyone who’s read my Commander Keen Retrospective Review will know I have a particular fondness for id Software and the fictional Blazkowicz family, so when Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus came up for review, I was raring to go. However, let me get something out right at the start. I’ve never been the biggest fan of first-person shooters, or more accurately, shooting humans. Shooting aliens, demons and such are okay. Games like DOOM and Alien: Isolation rank among my all-time favourites. There are only so many times I can pop a random chap’s head off with a sniper rifle or watch a missile turn someone into a fine red mist before I get a bit bored, though, and go looking for something else to play. The Wolfenstein series was always the exception to that because it’s almost a universal rule that Nazis make the best villains. Maybe growing up watching Indiana Jones take them on in Raiders or the Last Crusade imprinted something on me that makes gunning my way through the ranks of the Reich a joy every time I find them in my crosshairs.
Like Indiana Jones, previous titles in the Wolfenstein series have always kept to a mostly recognisable version of events leading up to or during World War II and the Nazi menace that plagued the world, with the occasional occult or paranormal secret society sprinkled in to enrich the plot. Since almost the very beginning of the franchise, developers such as Gray Matter Interactive, Raven Software, and, of course, id Software, have guided main protagonist William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz in his mission against the forces of the Führer and many times, the fate of the world has come down to just how many bullets he has left in the clip. Throughout all his various Nazi-killing adventures, there was little to no development of B.J. himself though. This decision wasn’t a huge issue because many first-person shooters featured silent protagonists as a way to allow the player to insert themselves into the role.
“Why does this happen every time I ask for directions?”
Fast forward to 2014 and MachineGames threw all that out the window with a welcome and wickedly inventive soft-reboot of the series. Borrowing a few characters and settings from the 2009 Wolfenstein, the developers thrust B.J. and the player in a whole new and unexpected direction, jumping ahead into a fictional timeline that saw the Nazis win World War II and go on to dominate the entire world. Aside from the exciting new setting, particular attention went into fleshing out the voiceless, personality-free shell that was Blazkowicz and even giving the Nazis more depth, instead of being just a horde of faceless goons. The New Order was a triumph in almost every way, breathing new life and purpose into a series that was comfortable doing the same thing for over a decade. The reason I’m telling you this is because Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is not just a sequel to but a continuation of that triumph. Anything I could say about The New Colossus applies to The New Order, and even the prequel, The Old Blood, also made by MachineGames. To get the best, most complete appreciation of this game, I highly recommend going back and playing the other two.
Following almost directly on in the story, The New Colossus wastes no time showing the results of Blazkowicz’s previous struggles against the Nazis, rejoining the fight during a retribution strike from the enemy forces. The internal musings of the previous game return, offering William’s personal insights into his trauma, how his actions have changed him, and how high a cost the fighting has taken on his body. To sum this up in a gameplay way, the whole first mission takes place in a wheelchair. Not letting his condition stop him, B.J. still takes the fight to the Nazis as only he can, but all the while knowing his clock is ticking down to its last. MachineGames don’t let up though, hammering this point home even harder, with B.J.’s lover from the last game, Anya, pregnant and constantly on his mind, as well as him speaking to and praying for help from dead friends.
“Did we all wash our hands before dinner? That pure Nazi blood is hard to get off…”
Along with Anya, Blazkowicz’s other living friends (and even his enemies) are the highlight of this game. With some perfect casting and delightful interactions, the entire mood, urgency and feel of the whole game rest on the backs of these characters, with a lot of new faces amongst those returning from The New Order. There is even a huge difference in how these characters and their story plays out depending on who you saved or let die in the previous game, a choice which is given to you again in a flashback at the start of this game. It’s worth playing through twice just to see all the scenes involving these people. The voice work and acting these characters received is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. What would be lengthy expositional scenes in other games are instead funny, fascinating or frightening scenes in The New Colossus, with a level of cinematography worthy of any blockbuster movie.
All this character development sets an enthralling undercurrent that rides throughout the entire game, flaring up just when it’s needed to significant effect, driving B.J. on in his missions. Firing up the conquered American peoples, sparking a nationwide rebellion and defeating the Nazis almost becomes a side goal to wanting to see the next part of the story, and that is a well-earned credit to the developer. On the rebellion side of things, though, the game branches out in a much broader scope than the previous title did, with engagements happening across multiple locations of Nazi-occupied America. In his quest, B.J. will visit New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and a nuclear devastated Manhatten, among others. There are a few other locations I won’t spoil for you here except to say that if you thought that fighting your way through a Nazi moon-base in The New Order was crazy, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. All of these places can be returned to once you’ve gone through them once, with the game installing some Uberkommandants for you to kill to advance the resistance cause, with often more intense fights than you saw the first time around.
“If I’d known who the director was going to be, I never would have auditioned.”
Taking a lot of what The New Order laid down and building on it sees The New Colossus coming hot out the gates with a very solid combat system that doesn’t feel awkward in any way. Crouching in cover, leaning around corners to shoot, and vaulting or climbing things are all invaluable skills that will help you survive, as well a series of perks that improve your abilities depending on how you execute your attacks. Weapon customisation returns as well, though simplified a bit this time. For example, instead of needing to locate a silencer for your weapon, you can now use a kit to assemble one or any of the three upgrades available for all the main weapons, like expanded clips, scopes and so on. Find all the kits throughout all the locations, and you can craft some pretty awesome improvements to your arsenal, all of which can be turned on and off depending on how you want to tackle the next group of Nazis. Best of all though is your trusty hatchet, a newcomer to this game, replacing the vent pipe (or the ol’ whackin’ stick) from previous games. This ultra deadly blade is your silent killer, usable in close quarters for bloody executions and thrown at long range for distance kills or distractions. If none of that is to your liking, you can always jump onto or detach mounted heavy weapons and use them for some gloriously destructive, messy kills, at least until the level design conspires to have you leave them behind by climbing a ladder or something, which is sad, but fair.
On the subject of level design, this game is beautiful, with the effort and scope of detail put into each location you can visit amazing. Where other first-person shooters will quickly rush you through an area to get to the next engagement or try to dazzle you with open-world awe, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has tight, contained, meticulously designed environments just begging to be explored that aren’t so large as to overstay their welcome. There are sense and understanding to the design of these places that work to strengthen the narrative, not to mention they contain all sorts of little elements that make them feel lived-in and necessary. I can’t name a single instance where something felt out of place (like chest-high walls in other games), and there was only the occasional moment where I could tell the game was about to throw something big at me when I entered a wide-open area. Aside from all that though, the locations themselves just look brilliant. Taking the Nazis as we saw them in reality and extrapolating a further twenty years of their culture and style that captures their mindset, while still sneaking in hints of the real-world ’50s and ’60s influences that are trying to creep into their oppressive world, it’s just mind-blowing to see it all come together.
“No matter what timeline we’re in, Skynet always gets created. Damn it!”
As much as I could keep raving on about this game, I’d still like to discuss a few minor issues I had. For example, every so often, as I was pushing through an area, I’d notice intermittent lighting issues, with illumination appearing patchy and flashing in and out as I moved closer or further away. The same goes for some textures on walls or furniture. None of this was game breaking for me, but spotting them did raise an eyebrow. It might be because I’m playing on a standard PS4 and this game could run better on a PS4 Pro, maybe, I don’t know. The id Tech 6 engine is a powerhouse, and I’m impressed it works as smoothly and swiftly as it does. On another point, some Nazis (and their attack dogs especially) would do the old Bethesda dance after I killed them, spinning on the spot and contorting in weird and hilarious shapes until falling through the floor or exploding away, never to be seen again. Again, not game-breaking, just funny. The only time it was annoying was when it happened to a Nazi captain, and I couldn’t retrieve the Enigma code sheet he had. A quick reload later, though, and it was mine. My last big issue (which, as of writing, will probably never occur for anyone ever again) was when the game received a patch to unlock some timed content, and a particular part of the main story was affected in my save file, preventing me from advancing. I had to reload an earlier save and replay around two hours, which was annoying, but it would only have been an issue to me and the first wave of players who just so happened to be in that exact spot in the story when they accepted the patch update.
Lastly, it’d be a disservice to the legacy of Wolfenstein not to mention Wolfstone 3D. Ever since they took over the reigns, MachineGames have creatively snuck in callbacks to the 1992 classic Wolfenstein 3D in each of their titles. In The New Order, any time B.J. rested on a particular bed in the hub area, he would enter a nightmare maze, rendered like the original low-resolution, sprite shooter, complete with sounds and all. The Old Blood expanded on this same method with there being a hidden bed in each area that played a variety of different levels. The New Colossus takes the cake though, as, in this game, there is a fully functional Wolfstone 3D arcade cabinet in your hub area that, in keeping with the alternate timeline of the world, is a version of the game as it might have been designed in a Nazi-ruled world. Where once you would have been fighting sprite soldiers of the Reich, you now see resistance fighters and bosses that would have been Nazis are now B.J. and his companions, because you guessed it, you’re playing as a Nazi. The game even has some hilarious old references in it. For example, when you kill certain resistance fighters, they scream “My life!” which is a callback to the oddly translated Nazis death screams in the original. My favourite, though, is B.J. commenting on how real the graphics look and how he feels like he’s in the game. All in all, it’s a great way to kill some time between missions, and I had such a blast playing through it, I wish a future patch would add an option to play this from the main menu at any time.
“After we changed the carpets to red, we saved so many Reichsmark on cleaning.”
MachineGames has once again knocked it out of the park. Ever since The New Order, they’ve been a developer to look out for, topping all the Wolfenstein games that came before. Now they’ve shown they can surpass even their own work. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a blast to play, with exciting combat, a phenomenal cast of characters and an incredibly eery mirror portrayal of our worst real-world fears, come to life. Throw in some crazy attention to detail and a whole lot of polish, and you get a game that is bursting at the seams with style and design, ready to wow you at every turn. On top of all that is a story that honours everything that came before, while still making its own mark on the franchise. I am just itching for a sequel, but until then, I’m cranking up the difficulty and jumping back into the boots of “Terror Billy” Blazkowicz for one more round against the Reich.