In 2014, Wolfenstein: The New Order released to widespread critical acclaim. Revamping the Nazi-killing Wolfenstein franchise, the game took US soldier B.J. Blazkowicz away from his World War II roots and threw him into a version of 1960 in which the Nazis had won the war. The game was an entertaining retro kill-fest with some surprisingly great writing, unlike most first-person shooters. Moreover, The New Order provided a original take on a series that is almost three decades old, making it one of the most enjoyable first-person shooters in recent years. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus picks up the ball and runs with it.
The story begins immediately after the conclusion of the first game and gets right into the action. Many modern games start with a plethora of opening cinematics that players are forced to sit through. Wolfenstein II does the same thing, but the game includes the initial cutscenes in a clever way: the opening sequence is filled with racist characters doing cruel things to the powerless, and the player, as B.J. Blazkowicz, can do little besides watch. By the time control is handed over and Blazkowicz can start killing Nazis, players are already raring to go.
Furthermore, the writing is solid. The heightened, unrealistic characters and deliberately stupid and outdated science-fiction concepts may be difficult for many players to enjoy, but those who can stomach it will be rewarded with some touching character moments. One of the key allies in the game is Set Roth, a Jewish mad scientist/holocaust survivor who is a member of an ancient Judaic secret society and also attaches a cat head to a monkey body just because. A key location in the game is a Nazi base on Venus, where Hitler holds a casting session for a major motion picture. Players will struggle to become immersed in a world that is comprised of hundreds of strange, out-dated tropes messily thrown together because they are funny or odd.
However, the character writing in the game is surprisingly sincere and looks into its themes with considered depth and thoughtfulness. Blazkowicz spends large sections of the game mourning close friends or otherwise self-isolating because he is afraid of hurting others with his death. His mindless killing is addressed as a displacement activity, so he does not have to think about not being around for his wife and children. Not only does this make Blazkowicz more engaging than most one-man armies, but his depiction may make players rethink the motivations of other gun-mad FPS protagonists: ‘what drives Doomguy to slaughter hordes of alien-demons (besides his murdered pet rabbit), and what broke inside of Duke Nukem the day the aliens interrupted his soap operas?’ Blazkowicz also recovers from his personal issues, gaining something of a happy ending. In a genre where many male protagonists swallow emotions until they kill themselves in a needless “heroic” sacrifice, this happy ending is pleasantly refreshing.
Wolfenstein II also handles side character interaction far better than many other video games. The title has some great background stories for NPCs: a reformed Nazi has to handle the prejudice many of the resistance fighters have towards her; a woman quietly weeps after the death of her child’s father. The game takes a moment to address the themes of grief, family, and prejudice through these characters, adding some context to Blazkowicz’s struggles. Furthermore, the NPCs walk around the levels, talk with each other, and live their own lives rather than standing around blankly, waiting to begin a conversation with the player. These additional characterisations makes the world feel real and lived in, which works even within the heightened world they inhabit.
One of the trademarks of the Wolfenstein series is that the games let players know if they are playing on high difficulty. The lowest difficulty setting in The New Colossus is accompanied by a picture of Blazkowicz dressed up as a baby. However, some moments exist when the difficulty perhaps needs to be scaled down. In a dream sequence halfway through the game, what should be an easy power-trip for the player turns out to be one of the hardest scenes. Dying a dozen times and maybe having to lower the difficulty to complete the fight undercuts the emotions the level desires to evoke. Nevertheless, the issue does not come up often, and the aforementioned level is not so frustrating as to discourage a player from finishing the game. Difficulty in Wolfenstein II, thankfully, challenges players to get better.
In fact, the freedom players have to overcome problems in Wolfenstein II is one of its most enjoyable aspects. The level design is so delightfully varied (allowing for both high stealth and direct combat) that any two players are unlikely to get through a single level in the same way. Later traversal upgrades—such as the Ram Shackles, the Battle Walker, and the Constrictor Harness—give players the ability to ram, climb, or squeeze through the level, respectively. Many players new to the series might not be aware that the game allows such variety, as the publicity advertises Wolfenstein II as a straight-up FPS, so these features may come as a welcome surprise.
While the inclusion of stealth is a great move, the mechanics are not without problems. In Wolfenstein II, the stealth mechanic is based on an alert system that activates when players are seen and stops when the commandant (captain) is killed. However, the alarm system offers little in the way of second chances, which proves to be irritating. If the player is noticed, the stealth section ends and players are immediately forced to engage in direct combat with a wide array of enemies. While running and hiding is an option, the alert never goes away and enemies are always on their guard. Killing commandants without being noticed will unlock a perk that gives players more time before the alert is sounded, but this bonus does not fix the underlying issue. The stealth system leads players to either die and revert back to a previous save when spotted or give up on stealth and machine gun down every enemy they find, making for a lacklustre experience.
Players will also learn that each main weapon is suited to specific moments of combat as they gain familiarity with them. For instance, a shotgun, while great at killing an enemy with one shot, is not good at stealth kills, and the opposite is true for the pistol (albeit only after a suppressor upgrade). The Kampfpistole (“explosive flare gun”) is perhaps the most unnecessary, as it merely replicates the capabilities of the Dieselkraftwerk (“diesel grenade launcher”) and Laserkraftwerk (“laser cannon”). However, having access to the Kampfpistole means that players can dual-wield two different explosive weapons to blow up dozens of Nazis in delightfully unneccessary mayhem.
Players engaging in such wanton chaos will find that Wolfenstein II rewards them for doing so. Rather than getting XP for achievements and making players choose which skill to upgrade, the “perk” system offers rewards for interacting with the world in specific ways. For instance, if players want to increase the amount of grenades they carry, then killing more enemies with grenades will do that; if they stealthily kill people, crouch speed will improve. This upgrade system means players will not feel stuck in a specific stealth- or combat-heavy playthrough, but are encouraged to switch between both freely.
Each level does shake things up, introducing weird new mechanics and powers with each mission. People who have seen online demos or trailers will know that the game has segments where Blazkowicz is stuck in a wheelchair or rides a giant mechanical dog with flamethrower breath (“Panzerhund”). These additions keep things interesting, but, ultimately, Wolfenstein II is no Titanfall 2. Where situational changes in Titanfall 2 meant that players had to rethink their entire playstyle to clear an area, Wolfenstein II relies on the same core combat mechanics. Each mission might mean that Blazkowicz’s movement might be different or his weapons may be more powerful, but the game never has the courage to break its own rules and pull the carpet out from beneath the player’s feet. In summation: first-person shooters always need more time travel missions.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a stand-out, weird shooter, even if the game never becomes innovative enough to be extraordinary. The title functions excellently as a sequel and will provide a good 13-hour experience, but remains conservative in its gameplay, if not its politics. However, as a stand-alone experience, Wolfenstein II is a thoroughly entertaining FPS. The shooting holds up, the upgrade system encourages different forms of play, and at no point does the game feel like a grind. Wolfenstein II is smart to continue using the stealth mechanic from its predecessor, even though the system is still too unforgiving in its design. The big hurdle for many will be the heightened, unrealistic quality of the characters and the world, but if players can handle the oddness, they will be rewarded with some touching human moments in an insane, backwards world.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.