Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
If ever there was an appropriate time to release a game about a world’s struggle with the rise of the extreme right-wing, it’s now. As we flash back to BJ Blazkowicz’s repugnant, anti-Semitic father railing against his young son’s association with a black friend, his subsequent beating, and forced execution of the family dog, The New Colossus shows us with grim determination that this isn’t going to be a pleasant journey, but it may be an important one.
BJ is a broken man. Five months after a devastating battle with Deathshead at the end of The New Order, Terror-Billy’s shattered body has been confined to a wheelchair on board Eva’s Hammer, the gargantuan U-boat that the resistance stole from the Nazis. Yet, a loose thread was left hanging: Frau Engel, the ruthless commander who somehow survived having half of her face crushed, and who is also not pleased about BJ killing her boyfriend. Her actions after arriving on the ship are horrifying, cementing the callousness and cruelty that exemplified everything the Third Reich stood for. The insidious nature of the movement not only serves as a reminder of what could have been, but stands as a stark warning of what could be again. It also makes you, the player, pretty damn happy to start pulling the trigger when Nazis come into view.
The New Colossus is a brutal, bloody first-person shooter which takes everything that made the first game an unexpected hit, and improves almost every aspect. If you ever wondered how a wheelchair-based FPS sequence would play out, the answer is “brilliantly”. Disregarding the remarkably accessible nature of the U-boat, BJ’s path to liberating his friends is a prime example of the stellar location building throughout the game. From the confines of the ship to the ruins of a devastated Manhattan, and through to the Bioshock-esque stroll around an occupied slice of Americana replete with Nazi book stalls, ticker tape marches and homely diners, the pervading nature of evil is apparent to any who still have the heart to resist. Seeing KKK members strolling down the street whilst being given German lessons from a Stormtrooper is both hilarious and unsettling at once. Society is split between those too scared to support the movement in public, and those who have not only succumbed to the takeover, but actively embraced it.
You have a lot of work to do, and BJ’s body is simply falling apart. However, thanks to the ingenuity of his friends, an enhanced armour suit and his sheer bloody-mindedness, he still keeps on going, despite being on the verge of renal failure and having most of his intestines removed. The rest of the crew offer distractions in the form of side missions which gives you the opportunity to get to know them better — simply hanging around and listening to them chat and bicker about both the trivial and profound is a delight.
It also gives you context for the goal at hand: to take back America and reclaim the world. Doing so requires BJ’s formidable mastery of weapons, and the arsenal available to him hasn’t changed hugely from the first game. You can dual-wield different weapons this time around, and the various pistols, machine guns, shotguns and the like can all be modified with sparse upgrade kits dotted around each level. Silencers, extended ammo capacity and enhanced grenades are all present and correct, but their application feels far more streamlined here. Perks for completing tasks such as performing headshots, tampering with mechanical foes and making environmental kills all provide improved abilities which are genuinely useful. One perk increases the amount of time it takes for a commander to call for backup while another reduces the speed your overcharged health depletes by. The addition of contraptions at a later stage adds another dimension to the maps, as each offers a new way of accessing locations, such as double jumping to higher ground, or squeezing through constricted areas. You’re never penalised for tackling a level in a specific way; stealth and all-out assault are both acceptable courses of action at any point. The joy in the gunplay and the variety of the available weaponry makes each encounter a tense, adrenaline-filled rush.
And it’s a tough game. We played on the third of six difficulties, and still had our ass handed to us more times than we’d care to mention. Frustration can sometimes arise when you’re taken out by a foe you haven’t yet clocked, but overall if you end up dead it’s your fault, more often than not.
Where The New Colossus shines brightest is in its noticeable improvements. The story is chameleonic, throwing more twists and curveballs at you than one could reasonably expect from a standard FPS. The events of the previous game have taken their toll on BJ, and his constant monologuing to a dead friend as he drags his failing body from one encounter to another is truly heartbreaking at times. Another astonishing sequence brings new meaning to the phrase “courtroom drama”, and the aftermath shapes the second half of the game in a way that both feels true to the science of the alternate history timeline, as well as shaking up the way you’ve been playing up to that point.
The polish doesn’t just extend to the meaty graphical updates, but the little touches that have obviously evolved from player feedback. Whether you’re collecting armour and ammo just by walking over it, obliterating panels with a single blast of your Laserkraftwerk rather than using it like an erratic Etch A Sketch, or simply saving at any point you decide to from the menu, every small change enhances an experience that was previously great, but is now superlative. Enigma codes are now retrieved from fallen Commanders rather than by scouring every cranny (though there are umpteen collectibles available to fill that void) and they unlock assassination missions which reuse previous locations as a means of taking out high-level, heavily armed targets in the name of the cause. Furthermore, a choice you make at the very beginning — which imitates the significant decision you made in the previous game — provides a different weapon as well as an alternative story, and means that there is immediate replay value after the fifteen or so hours are up. For a single-player experience, the breadth of gameplay on offer is astonishing.
Wolfenstein II is not a subtle game, nor is it for the faint of heart. Watching comrades getting decapitated as Mick Gordon’s hyperactive electronic metal shreds in the background is not easy, but neither should it be. If anything, it amplifies the rare moments of quiet reflection on board Eva’s Hammer and drives home how important friends and family are in the face of adversity. In turn cartoonish and visceral, there’s an eerie prescience about Wolfenstein II’s narrative that feels uncomfortably close to home, but as an experience it’s nothing less than essential.