Wolfenstein II The New Colossus Review
Wolfenstein II The New Colossus is the follow up to the surprise hit of 2014, Wolfenstein The New Order, a game about a hypothetical Axis victory in WWII. However, what it’s best known for is its narrative, a surprisingly strong aspect for a game in a series that is known for its popularization of the first person perspective in games and its barebones story as a way of allowing you to just kill Nazis. However, a few years ago a developer took it upon themselves to make a game about a scarred Nazi killer by the name of B.J Blazkowicz. RockPaperShotgun’s review of The New Order opens with “I’m fascinated with William Joseph “B.J” Blazkowicz’s eyes.” It’s a pretty notable thing to open up on because yes, there’s a character behind those huge guns the game insists you direct at everything that draws breath. As you mow down Nazi upon Nazi, B.J will contemplate his role as a partner, a soldier, a friend and a human participating in this thing we call life. It only seems at odds with itself if you choose to remember the legacy of nothingness that preceded this game. Not only is he filled with character but so are the people around him. It finally felt like it matured.
The New Colossus, then, as a sequel to it, needs to do everything bigger and better. It doesn’t but it gives its best shot.
As a game, which is the only medium that really demands interaction, you want a sequel to a game to afford you more to interact with. Whether this means new weapons, new locales, new enemies, or new puzzles to overcome, it’s typically on a sequel to introduce or innovate upon these things in order to provide a fresh experience. Wolfenstein II does what it can to facilitate that. The gunplay, which was lauded in the first game, largely remains the same with the exception of a few heavy weapons, which don’t stay in your inventory so they’re more like temporary power ups rather than a mainstay addition. This breeds a familiarity that’s comfortable but stale. The difficulty goes through the roof at some points and is fairly mild in others which leads to a grossly inconsistent experience. Almost at no point did I ever feel like “Terror Billy”, the nickname the locals give you for your acts of terrorism against the Nazi regime. About halfway through the game though, you are presented with a choice between three “contraptions” that are supposed to fundamentally change how you play the game, but as future level layout would show, only one of them is really viable. That’s because the environments have expanded and now include more enemies, and though there are supposed to be multiple approaches, a sequence will typically end in one way: guns blazing. This right here is emblematic of the biggest problem I have with the game: it introduces new things and then refuses to do much with them.
Take the setting for example. The year is 1961 and the Nazis have won World War II and hold control over America. Racism prospers, the Jewish population diminishes, and…well that’s it, which isn’t to undercut how horrible these things are but it doesn’t shed new light on anything. The insinuation is the same as it’s always been: America has always had an uneasy, unsettling relationship with racism. However it establishes this point and drops it. Thematically, it’s a way of painting the Nazis as horrible people but logic dictates that yes, people who adopt a platform and ideology that normalizes hatred and promotes genocide are bad people. Only the wildest moment of the game utilizes it’s setting in a way beyond that, and even then it’s more for shock value than anything else. Every other locale in the game is nothing but set dressing for hallway after hallway. There’s at least two locations in the game that could’ve introduced something really different just to up the otherwise stale Nazi murder(which is still good). Instead, they just change the climate a bit to impose a timer of sorts. Even when they do take you to cool places, they then force you into yet another underground Nazi compound or lab that sullies the premise. It’s all just a very poor use of a fascinating set of locations.
However, these places are home to some of the funniest, most genuine characters who punctuate some of the best moments I’ve seen in a video game. For as down as I can be on this game, the one avenue I won’t go down is that which would claim the characters or writing of this game are in anyway subpar. Whether it be one of B.J’s monologues or a drinking contest set to live background music and gunfire, the game manages to always steal the scene in it’s writing, not it’s action. The game understands its characters, their words, and the outlandish nature of the premise of the game are its greatest strengths and gives them the appropriate time to shine in minutes-long cutscenes or even in the expanded home base which is home to your wackjob makeshift, Nazi killing family.
When the characters aren’t being the bright, wholesome people they can be though, the game takes some of these characters to appropriately bleak places. Wolfenstein II is just as silly as it is heady. The first hour of the game is one of the darkest, most unrelenting chapters of a game I’ve ever played and its aftershock is felt throughout the game. It’s a shame then that it’s heavier themes are addressed and then shooed away with a joke or two or an action sequence. Instead of giving each of the tones time and space to breathe, Wolfenstein II often feels jumbled and jarring. You feel almost as banged up as the cast of characters, a expansive group of people who’ve all suffered some form of loss due to the Nazi regime. Their minds and often their bodies are left with the marks of what came before and serves as a reminder to the player and the characters themselves about what keeps them going throughout the ~10 hour campaign.
Speaking of which, the campaign also contains a very good story. Again, it’s home to some of the most radical characters and moments in a game in a long time, but the messages it tries to convey are worth the price of admission. The game opens on a flashback that paints a dark picture of the the ways in which we learn to love and hate. “The old and the weak are doomed.” These are the words that prevail the most and they come by way of B.J’s father, the go to symbol of toxic masculinity. The game then goes on to question what exactly the old and weak are and whether or not this declaration is even entirely true. A character very specifically tells you to not excuse men for being monsters by referring to them as monsters but to take responsibility for your own actions and right your wrongs. To top it all off, it asks whether or not we even know what we’re fighting for when we are fighting and if that makes you an upstanding citizen or an idiot. It’s a lot from a game whose core is “Fuck Nazis” but it mostly pulls it off.
That’s Wolfenstein II in a nutshell. You kill Nazis, you crack jokes, your character ponders his existence and you’re asked impossible questions. It’s all very odd, cathartic and inconsistent but still polished and mature enough to sit through at least once. Once you reach the conclusion, you kind of are surprised you get there because the game doesn’t seem to really indicate THIS is the scenario you’ve been working towards. Once it does end and the credits roll, you’re sort of left thinking, “Is that it?” Then of course, you’re treated to the worst cover of a classic ever. True to the end, Wolfenstein II just doesn’t feel entirely right but enough good is there to tide you over till the end.