Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a shocking video game. From its imagery of 60s Americana smeared with ostentatious Nazi iconography to its mind-blowing narrative twists, the game is sure to surprise many. Perhaps most shocking of all – releasing in the month when EA has revealed it is to ‘pivot’ a certain Star Wars game from a single player narrative-driven experience into the ‘games as a service’ model – is that Wolfenstein II is actually here at all.
Creation Club aside, 2017 has been an impressively strong year for Bethesda-published IPs, from a critical standpoint at least. With Prey in May and now Evil Within 2 and The New Colossus in the space of the last few weeks, Bethesda is publishing the type of game that other companies like EA are running away from. They may need to be subsidized by endless Skyrim re-releases and paid mods, but the existence of strong single player titles like Wolfenstein II is truly worth celebrating, lest they eventually die out completely.
Considering where the series has come from, Wolfenstein II has a much better plot than it has any right to. Not only does it feature all the ass-kickin’, freedom-lovin’, Nazi-hatin’ cool you’d expect, it also has suspense, character, humor, and even warmth. Better yet, the game’s violence and extreme themes are offset by strong characterization and intelligent writing. For all of the uber evil, almost cartoonish, Nazi villains, there is a genuinely likable and human cast of heroes; for all the garish opulence of the swastika-laden world, there are mid-action inner monologues from a protagonist full of anxiety and dread who fears his father, misses his mother, loves his girlfriend, and laments his seemingly futile fight against his own mortality.
Chief among the story’s most notable achievements are the impressively oppressive settings and some of the most insane singular moments seen in years – especially from a first person shooter starring a character who was barely more than an animated emoji for 20 years. It’s astounding to comprehend that the best moments in this game are from cut scenes and sedentary gameplay moments, rather than from the bits where, you know, you’re shooting giant mechanical Nazi dogs in the face with a molten laser cannon.
The main reason for this is that the writing and plot are fantastic, but there is something to be said about just why the plot twists will stay with you more than the core gameplay, which is merely good. Levels are impressive enough, and they certainly aren’t short on gun-toting action, but Wolfenstein II is a very one-note game to actually play. Luckily, that note is mostly enjoyable, but a lack of weapon variety mixed with an abundance of frustration is what stops the game from shining once you’re away from the madness of the plot and you’re back to ol’ BJ Blazkowicz with gun in hand.
There are two ‘medium’ difficulty settings in this game; one for casual players, which is the default setting, and one for those ‘experienced’ with first person shooters, which is apparently the way the game is designed to be played. I can only glean that said intended way of play is to have even regular enemies cut through health and armor in seconds, die repeatedly, stare at the same loading screen dozens of times per encounter, and manually save the game after every 30 seconds of progress. Experience be damned, this is a difficult video game – one where dropping down the difficulty just to get to the next story development is nothing to be ashamed of.
Being another 90s id property and hearing another pulsating industrial metal soundtrack from Mick Gordon, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this game will play a lot like 2016’s Doom, but make no mistake – this ain’t Doom. Blazkowicz is no Doom Guy, and he simply cannot accommodate the kind of run and gun play afforded to the Doomslayer himself. BJ’s health is capped at 50 for the first 10 hours of the game, meaning stocking up on armor is the way to go. Unfortunately, there is no visual or audible indicator that your armor is being depleted, meaning if you’re not behind cover and paying attention to it, you’re going to be in for a nasty surprise after you kill two grunts out in the open and realize you somehow lost 200 armor in the process.
You’d think that the game would ply you with increasingly awesome weaponry to help you counteract its relentless difficulty, but that’s not really the case. The majority of the time you’ll be working with a pistol and two rifles, all of which have three upgrade slots. Later in the game you’ll find an absolutely bombastic shotgun that can be upgraded to carry a 40-round magazine and allow bullets to ricochet into enemies. It’s a highlight in an otherwise disappointing batch of main weapons – great for blowing off limbs, but not for the blowing of minds.
There are also numerous heavy weapons, which is where the boat is more adventurously pushed out. These are fun and feel impactful, but they’re basically limited to one use before you’ll have to discard them – presumably to stop the game being too easy, but the aforementioned weakness of BJ means that even these behemoth blasters can’t help make you feel like the T-800 with his minigun. If you get cocky, you get dead.
Outside of the main story missions, you’ll be spending lots of your time in your resistance crew’s base Eva’s Hammer – the stolen Nazi U-Boat from the previous game. This hub area will build up as you take on more fighters for your cause, and provide welcome moments of tranquility and character development. It also offers a fair few side missions that will result in unlocking upgrades. Eventually you’ll be able to use a machine to decipher Enigma Codes stolen from Nazi generals, which will allow you to track down Oberkomanndos for assassination. These assassination missions are just slices of older levels with a ‘boss’ character to kill at the end, and really aren’t worth doing unless you’re going for 100% completion.
Another requirement for full completion of the game is hunting down all its myriad collectables. Some, like the readables, are worth finding as they add a more reserved, and at times chilling, underpinning to the more sensational story elements shown in the cut scenes. Others, like the Star Cards, are worthless junk strewn about levels to add a bit of padding. Add these two to gold, records and concept art and you’ve got an unmanageable number of collectables to waste time on. Having hundreds of pointless items that require nothing more to obtain than a keen eye and a button press is of absolutely no benefit to any game, let alone one so focused on explosive gunfights and immersion into a terrifying dystopia.
Wolfenstein II is a game that is surprising in how brilliantly it moves its narrative along and proves itself to be so much more than a shoot first, ask questions later title. Doom had story if you wanted to find it, but The New Colossus is very forceful with its narrative, and it absolutely works. Those expecting a white-knuckle shooter will definitely get what they came for, with tons of gore and explosions to cater for even the most sadistic levels of bloodlust, but it loses some of its luster when you’re kiting yet another group of Nazis through a narrow corridor or replaying a section for the 20th time.
Thus, the best moments in the game are those in which you’re not shooting anything and, likely going against many expectations, The New Colossus features one of most fleshed-out protagonists in gaming at this point. With BJ’s character development punctuated by such an impressively crafted sci-fi world and an unpredictable and exhilarating plot, you’ve got several candidates for ‘moment of the year’ in one game. Wolfenstein II is an experience I’ll not forget in a hurry, and one I’d happily dip into for a third (and final) installment – just as long as I finally get to kill Mecha Hitler.