Games Review: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (Xbox One, 2017): Complexity and nuance with a hint of dead Nazi

Oh boy, where does one start with an experience like the one Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus offers? The second game in a week to prove that the single-player experience as we know it is still very much alive and well, Wolfenstein II is the kind of shooter we haven’t had in a while — one with a lot on its mind and a willingness, some might say a fevered desire, to push its audience’s buttons.

Wolfenstein II picks up at the conclusion of 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. Indeed, it required a better recollection of the original game’s plot than I had bargained for. It was handy, then, that the game provided a comprehensive “Previously on” sequence before leaping into the action.

BJ Blazkowicz is a wanted man, rescued by the Kreisau Circle from Deathshead’s fortress following his climactic battle with Wilhelm Strasse and squirrelled away as quickly as possible. In critical condition, Blazko falls into a five month coma, a period that sees the Circle keep his prone form on the move in a commandeered U-boat called Eva’s Hammer. They are eventually tracked and besieged by Frau Engel, a deranged member of the Nazi high command, disfigured by Blazko in The New Order. Spurred on by her ruined visage and Blazko’s brutal slaying of her lover Bubi, she mounts what will become the first of numerous attempts on Blazko’s life throughout The New Colossus.

The game uses its initial 10 minutes to establish the rules and tone for Wolfenstein 2 going forward. While in total Wolfenstein II remains a work of unhinged and darkly comic genius, the game’s introduction pulls exactly zero punches, forcing you to watch on as a number of confronting scenes depicting domestic violence, racial bigotry and truly ugly torture play out. Blazko as a child, hiding as his father beats his Jewish mother black and blue, dropping racial slurs all the while, insisting that the boy they’ve raised is weak, unworthy. Blazko as an adult watching Frau Engel torture her grown-up daughter Sigrun in exactly the same ways. Blazko, forced to watch, helpless, as Engel beheads a brave and trusted friend before his very eyes and ridicules him with their severed head.

Wolfenstein II makes you sit through these awful sequences because, when the moment comes for it to put a weapon in your hand, it wants you angry. It wants your blood boiling. It wants you ready to kill some fucking Nazis. The game then spends the majority of its campaign finding ways to keep that anger at an even simmer. More than any other game in the series, Wolfenstein II wants you to take a certain savage pleasure in every Nazi you blow away.

This is largely a response to the conflicted political climate that Wolfenstein II has found itself in at launch. How bizarre that Machinegames found themselves having to defend their game about shooting Nazis to alt-right internet dipshits who were genuinely upset and, worryingly, finally felt emboldened enough to say so publicly. Nazis are time-honoured video game villains, they are stand-ins for Pure, Concentrated Evil because that’s what they are. Nazis mean that players don’t have to ask any questions. That they’re involved at all conveys everything the player needs to know — they’re evil and they have to die.

The campaign is also a solid and lengthy affair. The omission of a multiplayer mode has allowed Machinegames to focus in and create a tightly-wound single-player story. If you were to take Wolfenstein II‘s campaign as a whole and turn it into a movie, it would be the most enjoyable popcorn blockbuster of the year. There are moments of this game that are bugnuts insane. That are so crazy they push the bounds of credulity, but you go with it because the game has never tried to be anything else. Further, and to their credit, the game’s writers do establish the ground rules for almost every major twist or surprise early on. It’s a well-scripted rollercoaster from start to finish and at every turn, Machinegames seems to be asking “yeah, it’s pretty rad. But how can it be more rad?”

The gameplay that Wolfenstein II offers is more of what was offered in the 2014 original, though far more honed and considered overall — it’s full of interesting level design that intersects with fun weapons and meatbag enemies. They are constructed in such a way that they work no matter which end of the difficulty spectrum you prefer — I’ve fluctuated from the lowest difficulty (“Can I Play, Daddy?)” to the hardest (“I Am Death Incarnate”) depending on my mood. The lowest difficulty offers the kind of enjoyable, run-and-gun, one-man army gameplay that will scratch a particularly murderous itch while the highest forces you into regular tactical retreats, pressing every last scrap of ammo, cover and environmental damage you’ve got to your advantage. Each offers an experience that is fun and rewarding and you can tweak how far you want the scales to tip one way or the other by selecting difficulty levels in between during gameplay.

If I had a complaint about game feel at all it would be that some weapons don’t feel as powerful to use as others. Maybe this is me comparing apples to oranges here but take the game’s shotgun, the Schockhammer X and compare it to something like the Maschinepistole for example. The Schockhammer, even before I upgraded it into an unstoppable engine of buckshot hate and regret, became my weapon of choice. It roars like the wrath of God herself, it hits like a freight train and it leaves an exit wound the size of a basketball court. What’s not to love?

The Maschinenpistole on the other hand feels like a total peashooter even on the easiest difficulty level. It can’t really puncture armour for a start. This makes it highly situational given that there are only a few levels that aren’t crawling with heavily armoured shock troopers. It’s also one of only two machine guns in the game, the other being the much more punchy and versatile Sturmgewehr assault rifle. After completing the campaign, I realised the only times I’d used it were when I’d run out of ammo for literally every other weapon. I know not every gun in the game can be an overpowered fear engine but I should at least want to use them all, right?

In happier news, Wolfenstein II implements the kind of RPG-lite progression system I think works perfectly for an FPS — the kind that allows you level up specific skills simply by playing the game. The perks system Machinegames have used here is extremely smart because it allows the player to unlock buffs for the things they do most often. If you prefer to start a room by sneaking about and silently taking down as many Nazis as you can before you’re inevitably sprung then the game will reward you with a perk — in stealth’s case, a reduction in the amount of noise you make while crouched — after a certain amount of stealth kills. Each of these perks, from combat takedowns to grenade kills, has three levels to unlock. I really love this more organic approach to character upgrade paths and I’d like to see more of it in other FPS titles.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a blast from start to finish. It has an insane vision and it won’t compromise. In a world of games that are pushing for open-world, multiplayer or microtransactions, Wolfenstein II proves there’s still room for traditional single-player experiences in AAA.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Killing Nazis; Smart upgrade systems; Great level design
Lowlights: Uboat common area the only bad level. A maze to find your way around
Developer: Machinegames
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One.