Review: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (PS4/XBO/PC)

Developed by: MachineGames
Published by: Bethesda

It seems the work of William “B.J.” Blazkowicz is never done. Even though he’s been around for about 25 years at this point, those Nazis just don’t know when to quit. The Wolfenstein series has seen quite an increase in activity this past decade, which included, among other things, 2014’s absolutely fantastic The New Order. And now, 3 years later, the Nazi’s #1 enemy is back to continue his work with Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

Picking up where the previous game left off, B.J. survived the explosion at Deathshead’s fortress and is recovering from the events of that confrontation. Recovering aboard Eva’s Hammer, a boat stolen from Nazis by the Kreisau Circle, B.J. and company find themselves under attack by the game’s main antagonist, Nazi commander Frau Engel. Despite their best attempts to fight back, Engel manages to kill off Caroline, Kreisau’s leader, but the rest of the crew are able to escape from her clutches. With the leader of the resistance now dead, they must now take it upon themselves to carry on Caroline’s legacy and fulfill her intention of liberating the U.S., now completely under Nazi control.

The story here is on par with the previous title in terms of sheer intensity of the world and the events portrayed within it. In particular, the characterization of B.J. is much more contemplative here than before as he constantly monologues to himself, simulating conversations with the deceased Caroline to keep him sane. We see a man grappling with his will to survive as he’s found (and will continue to find) himself near death more often than any human really should, and the story dives rather heavily into his childhood which provides some of the most brutal moments in the narrative. B.J. is shown at his most vulnerable, feeling like he doesn’t have much time left in the world but must find the will to make every last second count for something. The rest of the resistance gets their times to shine as well, as the struggle for survival and victory against insurmountable odds often seems like it’s more than any of them can bare, but it helps keep things engaging throughout as you want to see them beat the odds.

While the intensity of the story is preserved in several respects, there is a somewhat noticeable change in tone in a few spots, primarily with the behavior of the Nazis. While in The New Order, they were 100% sadistic brutal psychopaths (which made it massively satisfying to pump lead into their faces), The New Colossus’ writing adds a somewhat sarcastic edge to some of the enemy dialogue and behavior. This is perhaps most noticeable in the initial encounter with Engel as, despite the emotionally torturous proceedings of the scene, there’s an almost comedic bickering between Engel and her daughter Sigrun, whom she belittles for her weight and general cowardice. Sigrun ends up joining the resistance and functionally becomes the comic relief in a sense, especially considering her design and character are essentially just “Pam from Archer but she’s German.” Much of the dialogue from the enemies in each level also expresses a noticeable amount of snark (often in a joking parallel to oft-repeated phrases in the current political climate), and I can see how this may be a problem for fans who want the Nazis to be portrayed as a pure force of evil. Personally, the sarcastic dialogue wasn’t much of a downside and actually helped increase the catharsis felt when mowing down enemies. In my eyes at least, there’s nothing worse than evil mixed with smug superiority.

The gameplay mechanics remain largely unchanged from the previous entry, as the player shoots, stabs, and explodes their way through each level to get to the end. Movement and combat still feels as fast and satisfying as ever, especially when dual-wielding or using any of the larger weapons strewn about the level, and the controls still feel good to play with. Ammo and health must constantly be picked up from the environment and downed enemies in order to ensure a continuous progression from point A to point B. While brute force can work in some situations, the game will often encourage and require stealth, especially given how various sections of the game have commandos that can call in massive amounts of reinforcements if you get caught. The game can sometimes give a manageable margin of error on stealth kills, but the cover system is still a bit janky and doesn’t always work how you want it to, sometimes making it an unusable option. On top of this, the enemies can be pretty tough regardless of the difficulty level chosen (for reference, my playthrough was on “Bring ‘em On,” the 3rd of 7 available difficulties), as they can pretty effectively swarm any area and flank you at seemingly every open corner if you’re not incredibly attentive. This does make for some rather intense shootouts that lead to a great sense of satisfaction once successfully triumphed, with the two highlight set-pieces being in a courthouse and in B.J.’s old home.

The world and level design rely on the same mix of wide-open areas and fragmented compact hallways as is standard for the series, and The New Colossus is easily the best that the series has ever looked. The graphical power on display fills every aspect of the game with so much detail, from the ruins and rubble of destroyed American cityscapes and neighborhoods to the blood, carnage, and limbs flying about whenever enemies are taken down. The more pristine environments evoke such bitterness in the player, as the art style really indulges in the alternate history hypothetical of Nazi imagery and aesthetics plastered all over America, up to the point where KKK members are out in the streets. I spent quite a bit of time in my playthrough just taking in as many sights as I could after major shootouts to absorb all the details of every environment, including one particular bit in a seemingly quaint Texas town that sells the image of a Nazi takeover of the country.

It helps feed into the sense of catharsis felt when taking out every Nazi in your path as payback for the pain and suffering they’ve inflicted on B.J. and everything he cares about. Newspaper articles, postcards, and other collectibles paint the full picture of everything going on in this version of the States, including making very deliberate allusions to specific aspects of the current landscape that work really well in context. In fact, just to drive this point home, the home base in the game includes an arcade machine with a modded version of Wolfenstein 3D, featuring a Nazi soldier fighting through soldiers representing the Kreisau Circle, and ultimately B.J. himself.  The game’s cutscenes are a spectacular sight to behold, as they are not just fantastically animated/detailed, but also surprisingly well-directed, visually speaking. The camera movements, shot framings, and attention-to-detail paid to lighting/blocking feels really well thought out, creating truly memorable scenes in between all the shootouts.

The music is also done really well, seeing Mick Gordon once again contributing here and making some great rumbling industrialized electronic/metal vibes that fit the tense vibe felt when sneaking around levels. To aid the effort this time around, the score is co-composed by Martin Stig Andersen, best known for his compositional work on the indie hit Limbo. His contributions are predictably more subdued than Mick’s more bombastic efforts, but they help add to the musical dichotomy and flesh out the tone of the game’s quieter moments. The only musical moment that gets no praise from me is the ending credits, which features a truly awful deathcore variation of Twisted Sister’s classic “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”  The sound design, unfortunately, is a bit of a sore spot in the audio department. While every other aspect of the game is top-notch, the sound effects feel weirdly limp, especially with weapon fire sounding weirdly muffled. There isn’t much of that satisfying explosion or burst when using the shotgun or the rapid-fire machine guns, and even the larger weapons like the laser turret don’t sound like they hit as hard as they should, which does subtract a bit from the feelings of satisfaction when mowing down Nazis.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a fantastic title and a worthy follow-up to The New Order, full of gorgeous visuals/presentation and unbelievably cathartic gameplay. The game does a great job of getting you invested in the thrill of its story and world that’s been crafted. There’s a few hiccups here and there with some occasionally questionable level layouts and enemy placements, but it’s so easy to get swept up in the cause of Nazi-killing that these minor flows are easily forgiven. If you haven’t jumped on the train yet, you owe it to yourself to experience one of the best shooter/action games of the year.

Final Verdict: The New Colossus retains the level of quality and catharsis expected from the franchise, proving it to still be the best when it comes to delivering on the promise of killing Nazi scum.

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