Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Developer MachineGames Publisher Bethesda Format PC, PS4 (both tested), Xbox One Release Out now
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The New Colossus doesn’t have the challenge of reinventing Wolfenstein, as its predecessor once did. Instead, it has to build upon a surprising act of originality. Propelling BJ Blazkowicz into an alt-1960s where the Nazis won the war, The New Order was not simply a good shooter – it was an accomplished feat of writing and worldbuilding, managing to find a place for humanity alongside hyperviolent Nazi science-horror.
This sequel begins at the moment that game ended, building out from BJ’s success against the Nazis in Europe to begin a new campaign in America. A recap of the events of The New Order gives way to an inventive opening, where a crippled Blazkowicz attempts to fight his way out of a submarine in a wheelchair. This setpiece level is beautifully implemented, creative, meaningfully impacts the way you play, and has a measure of wit to it: it is emblematic of the successes of the first game, and makes for a promising start.
Unfortunately, there’s a sense of ‘difficult second album’ to the campaign that follows. Some strong art direction struggles to differentiate samey Nazi facilities, and set-piece environments, such as a post-nuclear New York, can’t quite overcome the fact that ‘ruined America’ is a far more familiar theme for games like this than ‘1960s European Reich’. At its lowest ebb, it resorts to playing the hits: a sequence where a disguised Blazkowicz is interrogated by a Nazi officer in a New Mexico diner is a less effective re-run of the moment in the first game where you’re cornered by a Nazi official on the night train to Berlin. A later attempt to repeat one of the first game’s most spectacular reveals is undersold and falls flat, and there’s no attempt to match the scale of The New Order’s biggest moments.
Instead, The New Colossus zooms in on the small details and doubles down on its designers’ cinematic ambitions. Extraordinarily detailed environments, particularly on board Blazkowicz’s submarine base of operations, tell the stories of the people who occupy them. Focused technical direction imbues both combat and smaller human moments with believability, showcasing an attention to detail that consistently manages to lift the experience out of mediocrity.
There’s a lot to like about the writing, too, with a strong central cast, good performances, and a dedication to ensuring that there are always characterful moments to discover as you explore home base between missions. Yet the tone of Wolfenstein has never felt more at odds with itself than it does here. Attempting to build upon the first game’s horror element, The New Colossus presents, often graphically, both physical and psychological violence, pushing beyond the bounds of grindhouse Nazi terror to feature domestic violence, racism, and child abuse. These moments are effectively presented – in that they’re deeply unpleasant – but these themes and their consequences go underexplored as the game abruptly snaps back to bloodthirsty Nazislaying, character comedy, Blazkowicz’s meandering folk-poetic internal monologue, or one-off meditations on America’s own troubled history.
The script also doesn’t grant any of its characters the freedom to stray too far from cinematic caricature: MachineGames pushes everything up to 11 with verve, but meaningful diversity requires a defter hand. The New Colossus is better than the majority of games in this regard, and that’s commendable, but it doesn’t exempt its flaws. These stylistic successes and failures define The New Colossus, which is robust but unspectacular as a shooter. As in The New Order, corridor combat with an arsenal of familiar weapons is mingled with more open sections where assassination of key officers allows you to cut off the enemy’s reinforcements. This is easier said than done, however, and both level design and AI frequently conspire to make firefights the more likely outcome. Despite its bombast, The New Colossus is all too quick to punish players who approach it like Doom. Maintaining maxed-out health and armour encourages cautious exploration, and even when at full health our hero can be downed with a few solid bursts of fire from a basic footsoldier. It makes direct engagement a big risk: you might want to sprint the length of a corridor, shotgun in each hand, but this is rarely sustainable.
It’s odd that the experience of playing Wolfenstein II is so frequently opposite to its tone. A cutscene will happily deposit you into a last-stand situation against an arena full of Nazis, Mick Gordon soundtrack at your back, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a situation that MachineGames expects you to Duke Nukem your way out of. Instead, you’ll likely die half-adozen times before you figure out the correct sequence of pillars to hide behind while you cautiously thin the pack. Trial and error is the rule, and while liberal use of quicksaving and quickloading can ameliorate some of the frustration, this feels like a stop-gap solution.
This is compounded by a plot conceit that restricts you to half of your health pool for a sizeable amount of the campaign. There’s a strange turning point, deep into the game, where your health is fully restored and you gain access to new abilities and, suddenly, everything becomes much easier – and remains so. As ever with this series, there’s the temptation to view this as a deliberate stylistic decision, but what exactly the game is trying to say remains elusive.
Like its predecessor, The New Colossus is a stunning technical achievement and an unusually stylish act of videogame cinematography. Yet where the first game gleefully took a scalpel to what had come before, there’s no old order for The New Colossus to overthrow: just a New Order that it struggles to live up to.
The script doesn’t grant any of its characters the freedom to stray too far from cinematic caricature