Death is simple. Life leaves you, and that’s it. But something as mundane as death can’t stop B.J. Blazkowicz, just as nothing is simple in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It lays atop a base foundation of familiar Nazi-fighting with a tight and impeccable blend of the grave and the happy—despair and hope—in a story that creates and advances deep, varied characters. And that’s all while delivering some of the best shooting you’ll feel this year.
Picking up mere moments after the end of Wolfenstein: The New Order, Blazkowicz is so close to death that he could punch the light at the end of the tunnel with his impossibly brawny fist if he wasn’t so dead to begin with. The crew of the resistance group Kreisau Circle rescue him, giving him enough time to recuperate aboard their stolen Nazi submarine while he flits in and out of consciousness to learn that he has something worth living for: Anya is pregnant.
It’s a lesson learned with sterling timeliness as Nazi commander Frau Engel soon begins an assault on their aquatic base, though this and the lead-up to it are perhaps the only significantly problematic parts of the game. While Blazkowicz lays nearly catatonic, he has flashbacks to his abusive, racist, and antisemitic father. It’s gruesome and anxiety-inducing in perfect measure, presenting the lay of land of 1919 culture—but then it keeps going.
It sticks the landing and then it doesn’t stop. Same with the following encounter with Frau Engel and her daughter Sigrun. It gives you enough time and control to realize that things are, for once, beyond Blazkowicz meaty control, and then it simply refuses to stop. It stands in stark contrast with the rest of the game as it spends dozen or so hours carefully and thoughtfully building these characters around the themes of violence and life. (We’ll avoid spoilers by going on, but you can read some great words over at Paste and Waypoint.)
Once that’s over, however, it plows right into being a phenomenal narrative topped with superb gameplay. (Although the early, uh, hampered parts still handles better than most games without the deliberate handicap.) The writing and the acting and the cinematography (and the shooting) all congeal into something incredible. The most stellar case emerges just one mission after resolving your choice from The New Order between Wyatt and Fergus.
Fergus was easy to like. He was a badass and strangely effervescent. But in saving Wyatt, the endlessly neurotic and lifeless bundle of celery from the first game, you see how those traits develop inside a man recently crippled with overwhelming responsibility and survivor’s guilt. And then watching those things crack and break under the duress of the resistance’s plight is just as messy mix of traumatic and encouraging (and surprisingly, genuinely funny, as is much of the game is), just as it should be.
This is a story that treats details as seeds, little gems you tend to and care for so they grow into fully realized components in a bigger world rather than shoehorned concepts. In just exploring the submarine, you can find little touches that speak volumes about each character, even the smaller side ones you’ll never remember the names of. Max’s drawing of a pig on his wall, Caroline’s closet of matching shirts over a set of dumbbells, a book on sewing for kids under Anya’s bed.
This mentality of tending to the details extends to everything. Every propaganda poster is ancillary rather than perfunctory. As covered in our QuakeCon preview, the ideological collision between KKK members and Nazi soldiers is thoughtfully extrapolated in a terrific bit of environmental storytelling. It’s impossible to find a corner of this game that isn’t considered and purposeful.
For such a prescient and politically poignant narrative, it’s interesting to find that the gameplay is delightfully retro. Between the drive to rarely look down the sights and levels designed to be wide and open and circuitous, it feels a bit like a throwback to the same sort of games that last year’s Doom was aimed at. It moves fast, shoots hard, and, most importantly, lets you overcharge your health.
Okay, so it’s not the most important part, but it is indicative of how the game likes to get you moving. Stealth is fairly vital to start with as you take down Commanders that can call in backup, though sneaking around is more dependent on the paths made available to you than anything else. But once it’s on, it’s fucking on. And with overcharged health, it encourages you to push forward quickly while you can still take advantage of its diminishing value.
And this game can be difficult, even on the second-to-lowest level. Some of it is because you don’t get a lot of feedback on your damage input/output, but the combat can just be kind of hard. Some encounters are best played twice: once to learn the locations of Commanders and health and armor pickups, and then a second time to turn everything into goop. And goop you will have because these guns really let them have it. Heavy laser weapons and remote explosive charges and double automatic shotguns. They make sure you are fully equipped for when things get hairy.
Enemies are reasonably smart in dealing with you, too, calling out when they’re flanking you and the like. But there is a distinct lack of variety. Supersoldats will scare you out of melting cover and charge you and robots have a greater tendency to come hacking and slashing at you, but it gets a bit tiresome shooting the same grunts in the head over and over again. Later parts of the game remedy this, but this problem is generally present throughout.
It’s nice, then, that the game really has no preference about how you want to play. You can bump the difficult up or down at will with no adverse effects (unless you still like collecting achievements). You can rely on checkpoints or you can manually save if you want to save-scum your way through. And even as you upgrade your weapons or rack up perk points as you accomplish little things like get 100 headshots, the game doesn’t really care how you spec your Blazkowicz, and it still all feels good in the end.
And of course, there’s Mick Gordon’s soundtrack. It’s a name you might remember from being the highlight of last year’s Game Awards where he played the award-winning compositions he wrote for Doom. He’s back, and while he’s toned down from the unrelenting demon metal of yesteryear, he has managed to pick out the moments for quiet and the moments for slow, thumping drive and the parts where the pedal should go through the goddamn floor. (Head over to Polygon for a taste of one especially well-crafted scene.)
Looking back on my time with Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, it’s kind of unbelievable that I even managed to crank out these words. It’s largely an experience that defies being distilled. This is a game that is large and expressive in both narrative and gameplay with high-reaching ambition and the grasp to achieve it. For all the people it puts into the ground, it’s thoughtful enough to ask is it worth it, and in this case, the answer is a resounding yes.
(Because they’re Nazis and the answer is always yes when it’s Nazis.)
+ Stellar motion capture and voice acting and cinematography
+ Writing that creates subtle and nuanced characters but also plays big when it needs to
+ Follows through on its themes and questions on the nature of its story
+ It gets buck fucking wild and you just need to see it to believe it
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Release: October 27, 2017
Genre: First-person shooter
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (coming to the Nintendo Switch in 2018)