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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: MachineGames
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ First Person Shooter

Graphics & Sound:

Get psyched! It's been three years, and MachineGames has finally returned with a follow-up to one of the best modern reboots around, Wolfenstein: The New Order. Their take on alternate history was both an achievement in storytelling for first person shooters and a return to form for the entire genre. Its invigorating, freeform amalgam of gunplay and stealth fit both its setting and its level design to an incredible degree of success, and as a result, it appeared on multiple "Best of 2014" lists. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is another step forward in storytelling and world-building for its genre. But when it comes to the moment-to-moment gameplay, it surprisingly doesn't quite match up to its predecessor; take this with a grain of salt, as this is still a riotously fun shooter and a must-play. All that being said, Wolfenstein II is so consistently insane, so completely detached from reality and the natural laws that govern it, that you simply must see it to believe it.

It won't take the average enthusiast long to realize that id Tech 6 still looks amazing. The attention to detail throughout is stunning, from environments to character models -- and the numerous ways in which they can be destroyed. This vision of an alternate history United States is a painstakingly crafted marvel of world-building, and the game is all the more terrifying for it. Explosions and gunfire all look viciously violent, as they should. All that praise aside, I'm torn on the lighting and fog effects. On a technical level, they're fantastic, but all too often, they prevent you from seeing what you need to see; they can directly contribute to one of the many unnecessary deaths you'll have to endure.

The tech competently drives the gameplay, but ultimately, it's the art design that really sells Wolfenstein II. Swastikas and white robes aside, it's still a frightening visual portrayal of what the world could have been like had the Germans won World War II. Manhattan is an irradiated wasteland, Roswell is a sunny but nightmarish inversion of early 1960's Americana, New Orleans is basically Auschwitz, and even in places where the Nazi influence isn't so keenly-felt, propaganda permeates every possible cultural sphere. And let's not forget the brilliance of German engineering, which has found itself in yet another renaissance...

Mick Gordon is one of the best musicians working in the video game industry today, and Bethesda knows it; over the last five years, he's scored a healthy chunk of their major releases. As is the case with nearly every other facet of the game's execution, Wolfenstein II sees Gordon expanding upon the work he started in The New Order and amping it up significantly. It's frequently excellent electronic heavy metal fare, even if it occasionally gets in the way. This isn't his best score, but it's definitely worthy; he's even snuck in a surprise for those who listen carefully during one specific cutscene.

Of all the remaining major characters from Wolfenstein: The New Order, all of their voice actors return for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. And all of them are absolutely spot-on. Brian Bloom's soulful, quietly traumatized monotone has always been pitch perfect for his portrayal, but he's given considerably more (and better) material to work with this time around. B.J. Blazkowicz may be treated as an extraordinary human being by his friends and foes, but make no mistake: he's the straight man of this production. I can't give enough praise to the rest of the cast, whose performances uniformly play to specific stereotypes with such scenery-devouring fervor that you can't help but grin like an idiot.


When last we saw William "B.J." Blazkowicz, he was in very bad shape. Yes, he took down Oberstgruppenführer Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse, but the madman pulled a grenade at the last minute in an attempt at martyrdom. It failed, but Blazko was still grievously wounded. Lucky for him (and us), he is rescued by the remaining members of the Kreisau Circle and rushed back to the Evas Hammer for emergency surgery and recovery. After five months in hiding, the captured U-Boat is somehow tracked down and attacked by the villainous Irene Engel (now a General), easily the most memorable villain from Wolfenstein: The New Order. The Kreisau Circle manages to escape, but isn't content to remain in hiding; it's on to the United States of America, where the Nazi horde has taken up residence and begun to assimilate her people. The mission: ignite the Second American Revolution.

I won't deny that 2017 has been a contentious year, but I feel I have to address the elephant in the room. Some fools on the internet (a depressingly large subset of them actually in the gaming press) believe that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is some sort of timely reflection of modern American politics. While the game’s button-pushing marketing and a few blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments trend towards reinforcing such a notion, this is ultimately one of the most desperate cases of both wishful thinking and partisan projection I’ve seen all year. Don't get me wrong: Wolfenstein II frequently does have something to say, but when it does, it almost always comes across as a boldly irreverent yet cautionary thought experiment instead of a finger-wagging, preachy indictment. It will neither reduce your average Antifa thug to a viscous, smelly puddle of false vindication nor drive your average alt-right goon into a racist, torch-swinging tantrum. Honestly, it will likely entertain both; make of that what you will.

This angle misses the larger, more important point: this is the most balls-out, crazy first-person shooter you'll play all year. Wolfenstein II is unapologetically tone-deaf, always choosing to straddle the razor’s edge between maudlin soap, abyssal horror, and camp trash. It's Saving Private Ryan meets Pink Flamingos. It is both painfully earnest and hysterically insincere; the effect of which breeds a curiously humorous feeling that the game is almost contemptuous of the player. William's overwrought, solemn inner monologue is at constant odds with the eye-popping insanity unfolding on-screen at any given moment. Moments of laugh-out-loud levity and brain-meltingly absurd spectacle undermine scenes of devastating, gut-wrenching emotional trauma with such audacity that each development is a visceral shock. None of it would work if the world-building, character development, and dialogue were not best-in-class throughout, and they are.

So yes, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus features a gutsy narrative, but probably not for the reasons you think; the lengths to which it ultimately goes will have you howling with laughter, flinching in terror, equally tickled and offended, and brought to the brink of tears, perhaps all at once. My brain was so ill-equipped to process one particular moment that the only logical course of action was to bombard my editor with an incomprehensible stream of expletives; looking back, I think it was a coping mechanism. I have no idea how the hell MachineGames pulled this off -- but I'm glad they did.

If you played The New Order, you likely remember the major pillars of gameplay, and you'll be happy to know that they return for The New Colossus. Gunplay, stealth, and exploration are now all part and parcel of Wolfenstein's DNA, and this game serves up a healthy portion of all three. The emphasis feels like it's shifted a bit; stealth feels like a slightly less viable approach than it was in The New Order. Enemies are almost preternaturally observant; I got the sense that this is not so much the result of Hitler successfully tapping into the occult as just plain questionable balancing.


Save often and don't trust the autosave system. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is often nerve-shatteringly difficult, especially in its opening hours. Enemies are smarter than they were in The New Order or The Old Blood; their precision aiming and tendency to attack in numbers can make survival in the world of the Greater Reich an incredibly tall order. At the same time, there's a reason why this game is all over the place when it comes to difficulty. And I will not divulge that reason. As a storytelling device, the difficulty level is quite meta, but a handful of particularly unreasonable difficulty spikes in particular linger in my head, rendering me unwilling to forgive this decision.

You've got multiple difficulty levels to choose from, but unless you choose from the lowest two settings, it's safe to expect a hardcore first person shooting experience. As noted earlier, this game often falls on the cheap side of challenge. There are multiple reasons for this, some having to do with design philosophy, others having to do with incredibly poor balancing and player feedback.

Level design often flies in the face of gameplay. Where The New Order kept things compact and cleanly presented, The New Colossus has a tendency to sprawl out and get messy. There are far too many open-air encounters in this game; by their very nature, they betray the core gameplay that works so well for this series. They force ranged combat when dual-wielding spread or otherwise inaccurate weapons is almost always your only recourse.

I'd like to introduce you to the most common thought going through my head throughout my first playthrough: "Eat lead, Nazis! Wait, who's shooting at me? Oh, I'm dead." Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus does a terrible job of providing feedback when B.J. takes damage. You'll see a faint pulse of red at the edge of the screen where the shots are apparently being fired from, but that's about it. Compound the facts that enemies are unreasonably accurate at range and that each shot is absolutely devastating, and you've got an often frustrating experience that rarely allows players to identify their mistakes, much less learn from them.

Game Mechanics:

At its core, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a game about killing fundamentally bad people. Of all the enemies put in your way, each and every one of them is a card-carrying member of some disgusting organization, be it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or the Ku Klux Klan. All are either true believers in the Greater Reich or otherwise complicit in the functioning of this abominable machine. They are beyond redemption, so it’s your job to bring their irredeemable, destructive lives to a painful, humiliating end, and the game goes to some satisfying, cathartic extremes to establish that.

Wolfenstein II adopts the excellent shooting model of The New Order and runs with it throughout most of its ten-or-so-hour runtime. Its fast, chaotic, and gruesome twitch shooting dispenses with several tropes that we've come to expect from the genre. Vitality does regenerate, but only to a point; you'll have to go scavenging for health packs and armor pickups if you want to maximize your survivability.

Wolfenstein II's best combat encounters, like those of The New Order, are set in localized areas. One or more commanders patrol the area, and if anyone spots you, the alarm is raised and reinforcements are summoned. However, every commander emits a specific signal that informs the player of both his direction and his distance from Blazko. If you can eliminate all commanders in an area without raising the alarm, you'll have a much better handle on the situation than if you go in guns blazing.

Commanders drop Enigma Codes upon death. In The New Order, they constitute cipher puzzles, and the reward for solving them is extra content. In The New Colossus, they function differently. By spending them on chances to solve timed puzzles in the Enigma Machine (located at the Helm of the Evas Hammer), you will pinpoint the locations of special Nazi Übercommanders and unlock special assassination missions, most of which are located in slightly-reimagined segments of levels you have already completed. These side missions enhance the game's replayability and give you the option to hunt for any weapon upgrades or collectibles you may have missed.

B.J. Blazkowicz may be an inhumanly tough man, but he's only as offensively powerful as the weapons he wields. And from a nasty fire axe to a freakshow of munitions that spits nuclear fire, old Terror-Billy can be pretty damned powerful. The fan-favorite Laserkraftwerk returns, albeit in a slightly different capacity; the new Dieselkraftwerk is a delightful new option for those who pick a particular timeline (yes, that returns, as well). Most of the regular weaponry is powerful but standard, but you'll frequently have the opportunity to wield some big guns. You'll need to if you wish to stand your ground against Panzerhunds, Supersoldaten, and the other flesh-and-blood/technological terrors in your way. Weapons can be aimed down the sights or dual-wielded, but this isn't so much an option as it is a curiosity. If you're not dual-wielding, you're probably going to die pretty quickly.

The radial wheel that houses all of Blazkowicz's weapons is a clunky mess. I understand why MachineGames implemented it; they want the player to be able to dual-wield multiple different weapon types. However, this mechanic is so unwieldy that it requires your undivided attention, regardless of whether or not you can actually spare a single iota. This escalates things from "you're in a fix" to "you're just plain screwed."

Character growth is handled automatically, taking into account your playstyle and rewarding your milestones with special perks that enhance your effectiveness in numerous ways. Additionally, certain story developments change things up even further, but that's as much as I'm willing to say about that. The game always lets you know when you're making headway with this kind of stuff, but you can always check your progress manually.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus features quite a bit of downtime; much more than The New Order did. Even though the Kreisau Circle is on the run, you'll still have ample opportunity to visit with your comrades-in-arms, from the resident mad Da'at Yichud scientist Set Roth to B.J.'s adorable (and massively pregnant) squeeze Anya Oliwa to the gentle half-wit Max Hass. Of all the new characters introduced in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, most of them are pretty unlikable, and that's probably by design. By the end of the journey, the red-blooded Texan war hero is sharing his quarters with a degenerate crew of American Reds, Black Panthers, and tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists; not exactly the best company for a freedom-loving American. But even they are worth talking to and getting to know; I'm excited to see what the inevitable Wolfenstein III does with this dysfunctional family dynamic.

It's not enough to call Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus "brave." It's positively fearless. This is a game that looks at some seriously discomfiting subject matter... and then proceeds to honk its crotch at all of it. I have a lot of complicated feelings about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, but it's definitely one of the best shooters of the year.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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