Wearing our hearts on our sleeves, we loved the reboot of the Wolfenstein series back in 2014. The New Order had everything going for it: rich alternate universe storyline, choice of gameplay style, lengthy campaign, and no tacked on multiplayer. That last part is probably the most important because it gave the game the chance to focus on being solely a narrative driven FPS. We don’t get many of those, and the quality and quantity thrown at us impressed greatly. Three years down the line and Machinegames are back with the follow up to the reboot and its DLC with Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – does the massive name indicate a massive game?
Stepping back into the shoes of protagonist (and major Nazi antagonist) William J. Blazkowicz, Wolfenstein II picks up exactly where the first game leaves off. Deathshed has been defeated, but the menace has not abated, and Frau Engel has picked up the mantle – arguably becoming more sadistic than her mentor and determined to crush any rebellion that stands in the way of the master race. Offering up parallels to the first game, B.J. is damaged and needs time to recover, though that’s not going to happen with a massive flying fortress tracking the survivors down. It’s time for B.J. to get out of bed and go back to what he does best… killing. Be under no illusions, this is a game about vengeance and death.
In a neat touch, the choices made in the first game over which companion you’d have accompanying you for the full adventure (Fergus or Wyatt) are repeated, with exactly the same scene done in flashback. Don’t think you’ll been able to scrub that horrific experience from your mind just yet. That said, Wolfenstein II is going to offer up sicker and more disturbing actions with consequences as you experience the alternate history the Machinegames writers have conjured up. With access to Evas Hammer (a submarine base), the motley crew of B.J., Anya, Max, Fergus or Wyatt, Set, Bombate and Caroline can get on with trying to incite the citizens of the USA to rise up against the German menace. Europe had its chance in the last game, this time it’s America’s turn.
North America has been subjugated by the Nazis, major cities have been hit with nuclear strikes, smaller ones occupied and the people massacred. The will to fight has been beaten out of the populace, and the occupiers retain control of the regions through superior soldiers and the latest technological terrors. Heading into fallout riddled Neu York, Ku Klux Klan controlled Roswell or the blasted landscape of New Orleans, you’re given a glimpse into how things went sour so badly and have to face the forces that have run these places into the ground. It’s lone soldier time, but at least you’ve got weaponry and gadgets to fall back on.
Whilst there’s a solid story backing things up, Wolfenstein II is an FPS and a challenging one at that. From the off the game is brutal on anything over the lowest difficulty. Forget regenerating health or enemies that drop with one shot to the leg, you’re lucky if you even get notified you’re being shot at. Firepower is never an issue though and there’s a response in your hands to every situation. B.J. carries the basic weapons – pistol, submachine gun, rifle, shotgun and grenades, and gets to play with the heavier items when he finds them in fixed emplacements or carried by supersoldaten. Each gun is distinct and has multiple firing modes to upgrade, adding a tactical element to deciding what to improve first – the idea being that if you prefer stealth you can focus on those elements first, or you can pick the loud options. Everything in your arsenal can be dual wielded giving rise to great combinations of power and rate of fire. The damage they inflict on enemies is quite frankly horrific. Arms and legs are severed, heads explode, people burn, and that’s before you bring a hatchet and close quarters kills into the mix. It’s rated 18 for a very good reason.
Improving your shooters isn’t the only thing to keep an eye on though, there are various harnesses to collect and perks to earn that add to B.J.’s manoeuvrability and durability. Initially restricted to one, you can soon upgrade to the others which widen the tactical and exploration options further. You’ll need them too, the variety of combat scenarios need some quick thinking and fleet movement to stay in the fight. Enemies get bigger and tougher and the checkpointing can sometimes leave you high and dry. It’s not completely unfair, die repeatedly and you’ll gain health boosts with each reload until you’re able to eliminate everyone in your way. Cover and peek come into their own when you’re outnumbered, but there’s nothing more disheartening than seeing that concrete pillar keeping you alive being broken apart by sustained machine gun fire. Being able to save anywhere helps too if there’s been a particularly tricky section you don’t want to have to get through again.
Visually this is a step up on the last game, it’s spectacular to look at. Destroyed cities and clean compound environments all have their own character and ways of telegraphing the direction to move in. We’re not in the open world genre here, but the levels are expansive enough that you feel like you’re fighting through a lot of space. Multiple routes depending on which harness you’re using add to replayability, and every level is riddled with secrets and collectibles. Most are so well hidden that you can miss nearly all of them on a first playthrough. Adding to the cutscenes, the readables lying all over the place expand the world you’re battling through by giving insights into the oppressors, the oppressed and from all levels of the Nazi hierarchy. Absorbing this information has a twofold effect: 1. you start to question the propaganda, is it really false?; and 2. you start to feel for some of the people you’re hunting. In one mission to take out a commander I found his journal that talked about the loss of his wife and the impact it had on his ability to follow the abysmal orders of the Fuhrer. It didn’t stop me from finishing the mission, but it did make me pause and think.
Making you consider the world and what you’re fighting for is driven by three main characters – your partner Anya who’s pregnant with your children; Horton, a preacher of sorts from the South; and Gracie, the leader of Black Panther style group from New York. It’s debatable on whether any of these characters are likeable – they all exhibit elements that you’re actually trying to rid the country of: endangering innocent life, militant views and expecting everyone to conform to your vision. Couple these with B.J.’s interior monologue that chirps in during the slaughter and you start to question what’s actually going on. Sure, being ruled by the Nazis isn’t good and they need stopping, but will the replacement be any better in the long run? You’ve got to hope so. For the dark tone running throughout Wolfenstein II, there are some truly insanely weird moments – drinking games, parties and proposals all feature at various points. It enhances the living for the moment attitude and counters the death toll to some degree, even if it is oddly out of place at times.
The campaign is fairly lengthy, and about two thirds of the way through you open up the ability to decipher the locations of Uberkommandants that enables revisiting of the locations you’ve been to already. Each has a decent reason for returning, and switches the levels up so that it’s not just a retread. It adds side missions that come from the crew of Evas Hammer, some of which are set in the submarine, some are out in the world, but all offer up something a bit different to do. The New Colossus manages to surprise and delight with what it adds around the story missions, and there’s plenty to get lost in. Indeed, I’ve spent more time hunting around the levels for anything to swipe than I care to think about. Plus, there’s a mysterious door with a timer on it that isn’t open at the time of putting this review together, so it’s anybody’s guess on what’s behind there (probably the Freedom Chronicles DLC, but I’m hoping for even more).
If we were worried that a follow up was going to be a cheap and quick cash in then all those fears are banished once you’ve played the first ten minutes of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It’s well designed, brilliantly conceived, is sublime to play, and draws you into this terrifying world that’s been created. Look past the violence and the obvious villains, there’s a commentary in play that is relevant to today’s society. Don’t look past the action and you’ve got a slick and rewarding shooter that knows its audience. When it comes to narrative driven shooters we’re usually short-changed with either content or scope – that’s definitely not the case here.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is out now on all platforms with DLC incoming any time soon.