Killing Nazis in video games is as American as baseball and apple pie. It’s been a part of the industry landscape since 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein, followed by Medal of Honor, then Call of Duty and its many clones. Yet the Wolfenstein series was the granddaddy of them all, a name synonymous with dead Nazis because that’s all the games were ever about. You didn’t need story or plotting because you don’t need any justification for killing Nazis; they’re Nazis and that’s reason enough. As such, I can’t be the only person who, upon starting 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, was not expecting a surprisingly deep, character driven narrative in a retro-futuristic alternative WWII shooter featuring robot attack dogs and laser cannons on the moon. However, that happens to be exactly what we got from MachineGames’s debut effort, and the result was a sleeper hit with some of the freshest takes on the genre in a long time.
From its first official reveal at E3 this year, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus seemed primed to undo a lot of the subtle characterization and deep storytelling found in the previous entry with a trailer that seemed focused mostly on absurdist humor. However, the final product not only continues the fine work started in New Order, but exceeds it in almost every way, with a campaign that is at turns hilarious, depressing, juvenile, nuanced, heartfelt and gut-wrenching, making The New Colossus the best single player FPS campaign in recent memory.
Back in the Saddle
Set smack dab in the middle of the 1960s, five months after the events in The New Order, we once again find William “Terror Billy” Blazkowicz on the verge of death due to the injuries he suffered at the hands of Deathshead in The New Order. That doesn’t mean a damn thing to the Nazis, though, as they are on the attack within mere seconds of booting up the campaign, forcing Billy into action whether he can stand and fight or not (he can’t). We’re soon reunited with most of the main cast from the last game: Anya, Caroline, Bombate, and Set Roth. The reunion does not last long, however, as tragedy strikes almost instantly. This opening scene isn’t there just to get things rolling, but to set the tone for the entire game, one where Blazkowicz is no longer the unstoppable Nazi-killing force he once was, but rather a man running on empty, plagued by fear and doubt. To make it through and do what must be done to free America from Nazi tyranny, he’ll need the help of some new, crazy allies.
Despite the darker tone of The New Colossus, the game never forgets just how absurd it all is, given that we’re dealing with an alternate history where Germany has conquered the world with technology so powerful it may as well be magic, including sentient robot attack dogs, two-story tall mech warriors, and laser gatling guns. As such, there are several lighthearted moments, including a birthday celebration chock full of drunken antics, psychedelic drugs and even a pig riding contest. It’s how the narrative balances these competing themes that makes it so impressive, because nothing ever feels forced, or tacked on, and all of it works in concert to create a feeling of camaraderie and family that is sorely absent from most games, especially shooters. It all works so well that I often found myself wishing I was done with my current mission so I could get back to HQ (a gigantic German U-Boat, allowing Billy to take on missions all over the United States) and interact with my crew more.
Does This End Kill Nazis?
That’s not to say the missions aren’t great fun, because they are. In fact, killing Nazis has never felt so glorious, because never before has it been treated with such joy and reverence. The New Order made shooting Nazis feel like a moral imperative, and it was wonderful. This game doesn’t take away from that feeling at all, but it does amp up that sense of catharsis with some new gameplay mechanics that get you more up close and personal with your Nazi victims than ever before.
Wolfenstein II offers the usual assortment of machine guns and pistols you’ll find in almost any shooter, but you’ll spend most of your time with the more inventive stuff that ally Set Roth creates for you, or the uber tech dropped by slain Nazi guards. These include a gun that shoots sticky explosives, super flamethrowers that toss out firebombs, a fully automatic shotgun that can chew through 200 rounds per minute, and the aforementioned laser gatling guns, just to name a few. You’ll also eventually get to select from one of three armor enhancements that change how you navigate levels and deploy all this fancy tech.
The downside to all this firepower is that Blazkowicz’s injuries have left him more fragile than ever, including a maximum health gauge of 50, instead of the usual 100. To compensate, you are given a power suit, and the ability to stack armor up to 200 points instead of the usual 100, and the ability to overcharge your health more frequently and completely than in previous entries. That said, the game can still be unnecessarily difficult at times, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the difficulty does not always mesh with how the game clearly wants you to play. For a good chunk of the campaign you will frequently find yourself wanting to go slow, play things stealthy, and take out commanders before they can call for backup. However, everything about the game will be encouraging you to go nuts, from the rip-roaring soundtrack to the gung-ho dialog that makes you want to burst through walls and blow everything up.
It can create some genuine dissonance that might bug some players until they adjust the difficulty to a setting that lets them handle things the way the game wants you to. For me, that was one notch below Normal difficulty, allowing me to actively engage enemies as frequently as I wanted and make the most of my armament without letting me breeze through unscathed. For those who care primarily about the challenge in games such as these, higher difficulties will present you with little chance to truly flex your tech, or your muscles. Fortunately, the difficulty can be adjusted in-game at any time without penalty, so you can adapt on the fly to how you want to play – calculating stealth killer or unstoppable techno juggernaut.
A Beautiful View to a Kill
It's not just the weaponry in this game that is technologically impressive. Wolfenstein II easily sports the most technically advanced graphics on PS4 to date. It may not have the splendid art direction of games such as Uncharted 4 or Horizon Zero Dawn, but it will be awhile before another game throws as much graphical horsepower your way as Wolfenstein II. The lighting is particularly stunning, and the game seems to find every opportunity to show off how smartly applied soft light can transform otherwise mundane scenes into something extraordinary looking. There's also some impressive visual design in its own right, particularly with regards to the clever melding of both retro sci-fi and futurism. Creating alternate universes is a difficult juggling act, because things need to be familiar enough to identify with, but different enough to convey where you really are; that is a balancing act that MachineGames absolutely nails. There are some fantastic set pieces in this game, that can't be much discussed without spoiling things, but MachineGames does a wonderful job blending all the different visual aesthetics together.
It's Not the Size of Your Sights…
Unfortunately, the controls aren’t quite as slick and impressive as the visuals in this game. In fact, they are the one serious drawback to an otherwise flawless experience, thanks primarily to horrible gunsights. Your sights on most weapons are worse than useless, they are an active impediment to making sure the bad guys die before you do. On most conventional weaponry they are too small, while the weapons themselves are too big, such that aiming down your sights only succeeds in literally hiding your enemies from view. Thankfully, weapon upgrades scattered throughout the levels can be used to affix scopes and other items that eventually ameliorate this problem, and better yet most of the weapons you find yourself using don’t require aiming down sights to begin with, but if you’re like me and love the brutal simplicity of a machine gun to the face, you’re advised to use all weapon upgrades first and foremost to make sure you can actually see where you’re shooting.
You may also want to take a look at your controller sensitivity settings, as the defaults seem astronomically high compared to what eventually worked for me. It behooves me to admit that I am, first and foremost, a mouse and keyboard guy when it comes to shooters, but Bungie and Respawn have proven that wonderful shooter controls are indeed possible on the Dual Shock 4, and after the 130 hours I spent with Destiny 2, Wolfenstein’s controls felt fairly sloppy without some tweaking and a period of adjustment.
Other than the hiccup with the controls, though, Wolfenstein II is a runaway success. Fantastic gunplay complemented by a masterclass approach to narrative and a soundtrack that will get your blood up, The New Colossus will frequently surprise you, whether it’s through drug-induced hijinks or the sharply written social commentary that is somehow a spot on condemnation of modern American issues despite taking place in an alternate 1960s.
A Comment on the Commentary
Make no mistake, despite Bethesda’s claims to the contrary, Wolfenstein II is pointedly political in several places, and goes beyond simple ideas such as “Nazis are bad”. Introducing a new character named Sister Grace to act as the crew’s moral compass, in a pitch perfect performance by Debra Wilson, the game takes swipes at modern day white supremacists such as Richard Spencer, but more importantly includes some uncomfortable but necessary thoughts on the complicity of the average American’s silence in the face of atrocities. If you’re the kind of gamer who thinks “maybe Hitler had some good ideas, after all” or likes to walk around Confederate monuments with Tiki torches, this is not the game for you and MachineGames and Bethesda make that quite clear, quite often.
Before I begin writing any review I always challenge myself to sum up the game in question in ten words or fewer. It’s typically just an internal process I use to clarify my thinking on the game or as a response to friends looking for quick impressions. For Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, it could best be summed up as “Inglourious Basterds meets Fast and Furious” – a multicultural group of irreverent, colorful characters on a globetrotting quest to ruin Hitler’s day, week and life in a fantastic revenge fantasy setting. Brutal, absurd, clever, insightful and touching, The New Colossus is a rollicking adventure that has reset the bar for what first person shooters can, and should, be.