Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Wolfenstein: The New Order was a bold, flawed attempt to reinvent the first-person shooter that kickstarted the genre. Taking place in an alternate history where the Nazis won the war, long-time protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz tried to take back the world with the help of resistance fighters hiding in the sewers of Berlin. Though the run-and-gun gameplay was satisfying, The New Order shined through its story, focusing on a diverse cast of people trying to hold on to scraps of hope and love. The sequel, The New Colossus, trades the somber tone to become a tale of fury and uprising, and in doing so emerges as both one of the best first-person shooters and narrative-driven games I’ve ever played.
The New Colossus kicks off on a grim note, with B.J. awaking crippled after the events of the first game. You are in the middle of the action almost immediately, roaming around a U-boat in a wheelchair and blasting Nazis as you go. From there, the game gets zanier and more ambitious. I rode a giant mechanical fire-breathing dog of death chasing armored troops down the streets of New Orleans. I infiltrated an airship with the power to level a city. The New Colossus is constantly upping the ante and making the most of the locations you visit, like Reich-occupied Roswell, where the Ku Klux Klan walk arm-in-arm with Nazis and talk about the importance of Americans taking their German lessons. These sequences create a compelling world, going to great lengths to sell the horrifying nature of the Nazi regime’s iron-like grip on America. From detailed and beautiful propaganda adoring walls to background sequences with characters talking amongst themselves about their struggles and secrets, Wolfenstein II goes all-in on making its terrifying world a breathing place filled with atrocities and towering, architectural wonders.
The levels range from satisfying to astounding, requiring you to constantly change tactics. The long, winding tunnels and catacombs of fallout-laden New York allow you to sneak with ease as you take down hazmat-suit wearing Nazis, but the open streets of New Orleans require more thought. You can still sneak if you want, and I often ducked through entire areas without killing a Nazi, but explosive environmental traps and hollowed out buildings also give you great offensive tactical options to work with if you want blazing firefights. The more impressive, standout levels I won’t discuss for spoiler reasons, but I will say that one of them clearly draws inspiration from The Wizard of Oz and is something that has to be experienced to be believed.
The New Colossus matches the variety of its settings with frenzied and flexible action. The gunplay is satisfying, and all the weapons – from your handy Maschinepistole to large laser canons – have their own distinct personality and feel powerful. Both the perks system and the dual-wielding mechanic return from The New Order, but they’ve been expanded. You are awarded more perks (like increasing the number of hatchets you can carry) as you kill Nazis in various creative ways. Constantly seeing my progression go up for each perk was nice, helping build a sense that I was becoming more powerful bit by bit. The dual-wielding mechanic now lets you use any two weapons together. During one level, I managed to sneak through it efficiently with a silenced machinegun in one hand and a pistol in the other, mowing down foes like a stealthy madman. In another, I cleared out an entire hallway with a shotgun in one hand and then picked off the enemies at the far end with a sniper rifle. In the end, I was impressed with how the dual-wielding functioned as more than just an homage to ludicrous ‘80s action movies, but also as something with tactical merit.
The biggest addition to the gunplay is the upgrade system. Weapon kits are scattered throughout all the levels of the campaign, with each one letting you access one of three upgrades on every weapon in your arsenal. The system has no restriction, so you can put your kits toward putting silencers on your guns if you want to focus more on stealth gameplay, or increasing rate of fire if you want to go loud from the get-go. While you can’t sneak through the entirety of the game, you can through the majority of it if you want. I loved every moment of the campaign as I blew through Nazis and robots with shotgun blasts and quietly lopped off heads from the shadows.
You also get to choose between three superpowers halfway through the game, each of them with their own advantages. I won’t go into too much detail about them since that’s getting into spoiler territory, but they’re all fun to use and also give you an emergency exit in most situations should you find yourself overwhelmed. This wealth of upgrades and unlockables are fun to use and gives you surprisingly flexibility. The New Colossus is intense and adaptable no matter which playstyle you choose, which puts it above the vast majority of other first-person shooters, contemporary and classic.
Wolfenstein II constantly finds ways to turn things up to 11, but that is only half of its magic. The other half is rooted in its storytelling. The New Order presented a memorable cast of characters, then gave them time to shine between missions as you roamed a small hub world. The New Colossus has the same setup, with you and your crew aboard the U-boat that functions as your base, but also devotes more time to letting you chat with allies or do missions for them that reward you with perks. Returning characters, like Scottish pilot Fergus and mystic scientist Set Roth, are made even more interesting as they take on traumas and forge new relationships. Newcomers, like charismatic leader Grace and Nazi turncoat Sigrun (who desperately tries to win the approval of her new community), leave a lasting impression with their arcs. Even the villain, nefarious and evil-to-the-core Frau Engel is so terrifying and deliciously cruel that her thin characterization doesn’t distract too much. The U-boat quickly became one of my favorite hub worlds in the entirety of games, with the ship feeling more like a home filled with a family of lovable characters leaning on each other while facing life’s hardships than a base. And let there be no mistake: These are people who have had their souls forced through the grinder.
The New Colossus does not shy away from tough themes but, on the contrary, aggressively pursues them. The 14-hour campaign tackles racism, being complicit in cruelty, executions, child abuse, despair, patricide, the holocaust, white supremacy, and terrorism. While these themes are dark, the game handles them well, giving a proper amount of drama and emotional depth to each while also refusing to offer easy answers to the questions that plague the characters’ hearts. However, this parade of tragedy is never too much to bear, because the game takes the time to throw in wacky humor, like when machines are zapping Nazis into a fine red goop while Set Roth explains to B.J. just how broken his body is. You also see heartfelt moments of romance and friendship among the crew; amongst all the murder and sorrow, The New Colossus makes room for love and hope. Where these brands of tragedy and comedy might mix as well as water and oil in other games, here they are necessary parts to making this experience work as a cohesive whole.
When I finished my playthrough, I sat watching the credits roll with a huge grin on my face, quite convinced I hadn’t played a better first-person shooter in years. I’ll keep coming back for a long time thanks to bountiful epilogue missions, plus an alternate-timeline playthrough that grants access to another side character, scenes, and weapons. But these things are just gravy. On its own merits the campaign is unbeatable, packed to the gills with unforgettable story moments and fantastic combat sequences. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a bold game that rages and soars, deftly balancing pulp sci-fi with deadly seriousness, and one that should not be missed by anyone interested in the power of storytelling in video games.
MachineGames takes a solid foundation and creates a work of bloody art out of it.