Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a confronting experience, and deliberately so. After all, this is a game about an alternate history where the Nazis weren’t defeated in World War 2, and have gone on to dominate the globe; their experiments and genocidal ideals unchecked and unchallenged. Swastikas emblazon the streets, the police, and the judiciary. It’s a positively frightening concept.
But beyond the surface level there’s the even more confronting exploration of hatred and its many forms. On top of the clear bigotry and psychopathy of the Nazi regime, Wolfenstein II goes further to establish signs of similar behaviour and ideals in others. Some of these signs are huge and obvious, like the player character’s racist American father, while others attempt to be more nuanced, such as the defecting daughter of a notorious Nazi general considering her Nazi label as subhuman. Now not all of these moments land, in fact many of them are quite ham-fisted and not entirely well thought out, but Wolfenstein II’s attempt to say something beyond “Nazis are bad, y’all” is definitely worth noting.
However, surrounding these awkward yet thought-provoking discussions is a fun, but very flawed, shooter, so while its goals were noble, Wolfenstein II doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park.
Picking up five months after the events of 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, Wolfenstein II sees protagonist William “BJ” Blazkowicz awaken in 1961 and take the fight against the Nazis back to his home turf: the United States of America. Blazkowicz and his team make contact with a local resistance movement, and have set about formulating a plan to rally the oppressed citizens and show that the Nazis can be weakened.
I don’t want to go too heavily into the story for the sake of spoilers, but I will say that I found the narrative as a whole to be one of Wolfenstein II’s strongest points. It’s dark and sinister, but it also isn’t afraid to throw a little humour and silliness in there. Admittedly there’s plenty of spots where it goes well beyond ridiculous, but that’s kind of half the fun of such a crazy, fever-dream tale. Others may disagree, but for me the wackiness of what’s possible in this alternate 1960s world is one of this franchise’s best aspects.
And, as with any alternate history tale, one thing we really want to see is familiar locations twisted into something new, and Wolfenstein II certainly makes for some incredible/terrifying sightseeing. The game sends Blazkowicz to the nuked streets of Manhattan (which replaces Hiroshima as the H-bomb site that ended the war), the Swastika plastered, Ku Klux Klan populated Roswell, and even travelling off-world like the previous game (I shan’t reveal where though), just to name a few. All of these locations are brimming with detail, and littered with notes to find outlining their place in this new timeline. Some of these details even go to lengths to try and humanise the Nazis, something that I’m sure will irk some, but personally I found to be an interesting effort. It reminds us that the Nazis were (and still are, it’s sad to say) human beings, and human beings are capable of monstrous things.
The game’s cast of characters are also surprisingly strong, each of them carrying the scars of war and flaunting many colourful personalities. Blazkowicz himself spends a vast majority of the game grieving over the death of a major character at the start, and is driven by the fact his lover Anya is pregnant with twins and not wanting them to grow up in a world dominated by Nazis. The other members of the team are all dealing with loss, trauma, and have hopeful visions of an oppression free future. There’s an awful lot of a “America, Freedom, Fuck Yeah!” aspect to it all, but overall the main cast’s motivations are compelling enough.
My only major complaints with the narrative are that the primary villain, General Frau Engel, is underdeveloped and two dimensional, and that the whole game ends far too abruptly. Regarding Engel, she is certainly an intimidating psychopath, but feels too much like a crazed Nazi trope to truly stand out. The game depicts other prominent Nazi figures in more unconventional ways, making them terrifying but also a little more complex by showing different facets of their personalities, albeit shallow ones. It’s a shame the lead villain wasn’t given the same treatment.
As for the ending, without giving anything away, it just felt a little disappointing to spend the whole game building up to something only to have it wrap up in seconds and clearly be holding out for a sequel. The whole thing finishes just as it seems to be getting started.
While the narrative has its ups and downs, so too does Wolfenstein II’s gameplay, although the disparity between said ups and downs is much wider.
At its best, Wolfenstein II is a fast-paced, run-n-gun shooter like 2016’s DOOM. The game runs at a very smooth 60 frames-per-second, bullets rip and tear through enemies and feel satisfying to shoot. And much like in The New Order, Wolfenstein II features a wide array of weapons, a majority of which can be dual-wielded in any combination. My personal favourite combo was the assault rifle in my right hand, and the shotgun in my left, so I could blast people from afar but cleave anyone who caught me unawares in half. Throw in your gruesome one-hit-kill melee attacks, where you slice and dice Nazis with brutal efficiency, and you’ve got some pretty sweet moves at your disposal.
But at its worst, Wolfenstein II has a frustrating difficulty curve, one that admittedly relates to personal skill but also is a result of frustrating design.
Unlike DOOM, nearly all the opponents in Wolfenstein II are equipped with the same weapons you are, and can wield them with incredible accuracy. If you’re up against more than a few of them, the Nazi soldiers are more than capable of ripping the player to shreds, even with overcharged health and armour plating. This means that using cover is vital to staying alive, and the game has an intuitive leaning mechanic to aid peeking out and returning fire from behind obstacles. But the safety of cover is often very short lived, as Wolfenstein II’s Nazis are very mobile and will quickly flank you and make you more bullets than man.
So what this means is that staying in cover will quickly get you overwhelmed, but moving out in the open will quickly get you shot. For the most part Wolfenstein II strikes a balance between these two notions by having a majority of shoot-outs take place in areas filled with corridors and obstacles, where you can dart in-between them and break line of sight. But on multiple occasions there are set-piece battles in wide open spaces, where enemies arrive from all directions, and in these instances the game can be a frustrating slog. There’s one particular section in a courthouse in the first half of the game that I attempted, without exaggeration, some 30 times before I got fed up being obliterated from all directions and I cranked the difficulty down to the easiest setting just to get past it.
And I was playing on the setting one step above easy, so I shudder to think what the higher difficulties must be like.
The result here is that Blazkowicz feels very fragile, which is counter-intuitive to the Nazis billing him as “Terror Billy”, a Nazi slaughtering monster to be feared. The narrative builds the player up as an unstoppable badass, but as soon as you play like you’re an unstoppable badass you get your said bad ass handed to you. Don’t get me wrong, I want the game to be challenging and not just a walk in the park, but this goes beyond challenging and sits firmly in frustration town.
Furthermore, there’s still some annoying controls carried over from The New Order. Developer Machine Games still seems to think its a good idea to have players press a button to pick up ammo and health rather than just collect it automatically through contact. What makes that even worse is that the action is mapped to the same button as reload, so on many occasions I wanted to reload but happened to be close to a weapons cache so instead of reloading I was furiously picking up ammo. The same goes for melee attacks, which are mapped to clicking the right joystick, being the same button as throwing an axe. I’d go to hit a crate open to get some armour/ammo, but not be close enough to it for the game to register I wanted to strike it, so instead I throw an axe at it, which aren’t deemed worthy to smash open crates. These are small annoyances, but in the heat of the game’s many hectic battles, can lead to a lot of frustrating deaths.
Overall, I’d say my time with Wolfenstein II was enjoyable, but disappointing. Coming off the strong writing and old school gameplay of The New Order, I expected more from The New Colossus. And while we certainly got more if you consider the scale of the game’s ambition, the variety of weapons and the zaniness of its content; it didn’t fix any of the controls issues from its predecessor, and even seemed to weaken its gameplay overall. It’s still a good time, but could have been so much more.