Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Dead Nazis
Nobody expected Wolfenstein: The New Order to be a good game when it launched in 2014, but it was. MachineGames took what was mostly a campy, struggling IP and breathed new life into it. It did so by taking itself seriously, which sounds crazy in the context of the time. Nazis were always a boilerplate game enemy, something that was easy to fall back on ever since the early 90’s. But MachineGames took the Nazi as a threat seriously and opted to use Wolfenstein as a vehicle to tell a lengthy, character-driven story in a space that usually didn’t bother. Now it’s 2017, and Nazis are a big part of real-life political discourse in America again. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus , a sequel to an oddity that was good enough to be successful, is out, being given the red carpet treatment by Bethesda, and marketed using thinly-veiled, modern political language. But is there anything here beyond opportunistic corporate branding? Does Wolfenstein II have value, or something to say? Or do PR lines about coincidence and apolitical intent ring true? Just what the heck is Wolfenstein II , anyway?
Where the first game was mostly somber and straightforward with a few nudges and winks along the way, Wolfenstein II is insane. It’s unhinged. It’s loud and doesn’t care what you think, but cares so much about what it has to say and what it wants to do. It’s not a thinking man’s game or a lavishly empty display of pretense; it’s about 15 hours of blunt force trauma to subject matter that may make people uncomfortable in 2017, for reasons that shouldn’t make a decent person uncomfortable. It’s a game about killing Nazis, and reveling in that violence. It’s part righteous fury, part joy in the face of madness, and part dope-ass first-person shooter. To put it simply, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a lot.
I struggle to even find a place to begin, so let’s get the elevator pitch out of the way. Play Wolfenstein: The New Order first. Wolfenstein II starts the second after its older sibling ends, literally. Series mainstay BJ Blazkowicz is physically unwell for reasons you can imagine, but the Resistance needs him, so here we are again. This time, the setting shifts from alternate-history Nazi-occupied Europe to alternate-history Nazi-occupied America, as BJ’s ragtag group of weirdos attempts to hook up with the few left in America willing to fight back.
Over the course of Wolfenstein II , MachineGames forces us to face the dirtier parts of American culture head-on, the kinds that make fake headlines about Nazi occupation feel all too familiar and imagined fates of the American people all too plausible. We see KKK members walking the streets in broad daylight and BJ/the player’s world views challenged when it comes time to point fingers. Wolfenstein II ’s story is about what the fun, nice characters we like are up to next, sure. It’s also about the continuing love story between BJ and Anya. But it manages to tackle themes of race, politics, masculinity, and more with a biting edge that doesn’t try to dance around points or attempt satire. It’s just, “Hey, here’s this real, messed up thing” presented the way the writers see it, and it’s up for you to decide what to do with it.
When it isn’t being serious, Wolfenstein II is being absurdly funny. Perhaps because of the aggressive subject matter, this game goes out of its way to give the player time to breathe and laugh a little. Wolfenstein II isn’t afraid to go for a little corny, juvenile gag every now and then. Sometimes it gets crass or so head-scratchingly bizarre, it’s hard to tell who the joke is for. But it all feels earned and helps sell the game’s brazen tone for what it is, a fast, dirty and human take on the world around us, dressed up as a nonsense sci-fi epic about a southern Captain America proxy blasting Nazis and robots to smithereens with impossible weapons.
While I could probably watch a movie or show of this stuff, Wolfenstein II justifies its roughly 15-hour runtime with amazing gunplay that makes you wonder how MachineGames isn’t just id Software wearing a Scooby-Doo villain mask. It’s fast, frantic, and brave as hell. What do I mean by brave? MachineGames has a story to tell and uses the game’s mechanics to help tell that story. That means when BJ’s situation changes, the way the game plays or feels often changes just as significantly, altering the flow and actual gameplay to suit the mood. For example, the initial playable sections take place when BJ is wheelchair-bound. The player must navigate a first-person shooter while constrained to a wheelchair and approach what would normally be trivial situations with a lot more thought and finesse due to limitations and other problems.
In his physical state, BJ also spends a ton of time with much less health than in the previous game, making Wolfenstein II a much more difficult game for the sake of telling its story. Most games aren’t willing to go that far in fear of making a player uncomfortable or frustrated, and the payoff here is huge. Saying much more would ruin a lot of the fun for spoiler-averse types, but rest-assured there are plenty of twists and turns that also have a big effect on how Wolfenstein II is played.
Much of the usual weaponry that one would expect in a modern first-person shooter is present here in Wolfenstein II . There’s the rifle, the machine gun, the pistol, the shotgun, and so on and so forth. But in Wolfenstein II , the player can also split the ammo in half and dual-wield anything BJ has, which is just wild. It doesn’t make practical sense to even try it, but a perk system that boosts your physical attributes and provides other bonuses encourages playing with every tool the game introduces. As part of the fiction here is advanced technology, there is also a small list of heavy weapons that defy description and even have special charging stations littered around the levels.
Speaking of levels, the best part of playing Wolfenstein II is how much control you have over any given section. Levels, even enclosed rooms, are full of winding paths, nooks, and crannies. The options for navigating and fighting in a given space are many, with speed, verticality, and dexterity all being important factors. New to this entry are contraptions, devices BJ can use that grant him even more physical options. The gameplay loop of Wolfenstein II isn’t even a loop, really; BJ will tear across the screen, bash down doors, go in and out of vents, circle around to flank enemies by himself and even ram into things. All of this will happen while he is firing thousands of bullets, swinging hatchets around, and searching for enemy captains.
The enemy captains are back, and so too are the sometimes-annoying stealth sections. In most cases, tracking down and killing the enemy captains quickly means avoiding unnecessary combat. BJ has limited tools for stealth, and tripping an alarm means a huge firefight. These sections can feel like they either slow down Wolfenstein II too much or make it more difficult than it should be, but do serve to shake things up a bit. Other nitpicks include the occasional visual glitch and a waypoint/guidance system that you often have to squint to see. These are minor complaints at best; Wolfenstein II builds on an already solid, established core and rather than make a ton of changes, adds new stuff on top instead. Everything feels in service of either connecting to the game’s story or enhancing MachineGames’ thesis of experimenting with space in the first-person shooter.
By the end of Wolfenstein II; The New Colossus , I felt overwhelmed. It was a lot to take in, so much so that 15 hours felt like so much less. It was like going to a rock concert, riding a roller coaster, and reading a thinkpiece condemning the alt-right all at once. When I jumped in, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially with so much of the marketing playing up the comedic elements. What I got was more of what I liked in The New Order , but on a much larger scale, with ambitions that cared little for AAA conventions and comforts. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a project that wears its heart on its sleeve, and that sleeve is on a bright yellow motorcycle jacket with a red devil on the back that is being worn by a Texan Terminator who finds great joy in hacking away at Nazi soldiers with a hatchet.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Looks great, but not afraid to sacrifice fidelity for performance. Character faces can look goofy even during serious moments. 5.0 Control
Wolfenstein II is all about movement and momentum, and the controls help facilitate that strong core. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Earnest voice acting combined with a soundtrack that lives and breathes 60s-70s American counter culture when it isn’t rocking out, DOOM-style or hitting the strings when things get real. 4.0 Play Value
Bonus content to go through during and after the main story, but no alternative modes of play. Art gallery-style unlocks earned by finding collectibles. A pure single-player, story-driven experience. 5.0 Overall Rating – The Best
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best