I’ve been throwing myself into an array of first-person-shooters lately. From the silly, gory fun of Shadow Warrior 2, the definitely flawed but still okay Homefront: The Revolution, the utter chaos of Battlefield 1’s multiplayer, the surprisingly awesome Titanfall 2, the rather meh Prey reboot, the surprisingly decent Call Of Duty: World War 2 to the always tense and nail-biting Rainbow Six: Siege. This list also includes the brilliant Wolfenstien II: The New Colossus, AKA “Nazi Killing Simulator 2K17”.
As you’ve already gathered, it’s the latter I wish to talk about in this lengthy, somewhat spoiler-ish piece (you’ve been warned). After sinking 20+ hours into it, I just adore The New Colossus. It’s not only a bigger, bulkier, and stellar follow-up to 2014’s definitive reboot, Wolfenstien: The New Order (still the only video game I’ve seen tackle the subject of death camps and the Holocaust with actual nuance and real weight), but it’s also one of 2017’s best games overall. From the punchy gunplay, high production values, solid presentation, wicked soundtrack, emotive story-telling, and superb characterization to its marriage of heavy, real-world issues with that of the fictional and fantastical; this sequel is altogether badass and poignant.
To help get any clueless readers of the series up to speed, The New Colossus is the eighth entry in the Wolfenstein franchise, currently set in an alternate history of 1960’s America following the Nazi’s winning World War II. Basically, just think Codemasters’ 2008 travesty of an FPS title, Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, except this isn’t complete garbage.
It follows the seemingly unkillable well-written main character – the often quiet yet genuinely relatable and professional Nazi-exterminator, William “B.J.” Blazkowicz – as he and his returning band of allies (Set, Bombay, Anya, Caroline, etc.), fight back against the omnipresent Nazi regime in a now defeated United States. All in hopes of starting up a second American revolution to take back their home. The New Colossus – named so after American poet Emma Lazarus’s 1883 sonnet, which B.J. quotes in the previous game – picks up literally moments after the events of its predecessor. When this new game kicks off, B.J. is now a wounded and broken man confined to a wheel-chair due the end of the last game where his nemesis, General Deathshead (awful name I know), tried to take both of them out with a sneaky grenade. Of course, the game makes do with this setup, perks our cowboy back up via some bold narrative and mechanical choices, and our dear “Terror Billy” – as the Nazi’s call him – is back to introducing one of video games longest-running enemies to his trusty hatchet before you can say “Hans Landa”.
So, that’s the current who and the where of this old-as-the-hills FPS series, now for the what.
First off, this terrific narrative driven shooter sticks it to the myopic publishers out there hell bent on turning everything into a multiplayer commodity and shoving mircotransaction bollocks into every nook and cranny they damn well can. Here’s looking directly at you Star Wars: Battlefront 2, you goddamn empty shell of a game.
Secondly, and more specifically, this bloody single-player experience – much like the previous two installments – uses old-school FPS elements such as fast combat, twitch-based shooting, high difficulty, a classic non-regen health system, and the ability to dual-wield whatever combo of weapons you fancy. It then moulds these older tropes with modern elements like having a plethora of hidden collectibles, moments of stealth gameplay, upgrade trees, gun attachments, melee takedowns, snappy cover mechanics, massive action set-pieces, and much more. All with a killer steam-punk aesthetic and a retro-futuristic sci-fi setting that further removes it from the humdrum WWII-FPS crowd.
Cool, now let me explain why I think this thing is the shit.
See, Richard Spencer’s least favourite video game is a bleak and brutal tale of a dominating, all-conquering force – the Third Reich – attempting to snuff out the final embers of dissent and resistance – B.J. and friends. Much like all great tales of hard-fought struggles against depressingly insurmountable odds, The New Colossus (TNC) can be quite the confronting experience– something that it delivers in droves.
From B.J.’s shocking childhood flashback scenes which flesh out his arc and define the man that he’s become now; a long-running character’s horrifying death early on; an up-close and personal moment of steel-meeting-fleshy-mortality at the game’s midway-point; to the constant feeling of failure and hardship that weighs down upon the plot’s shoulders until the game’s final third; Wolfenstein II never pulls its punches, especially not with those certain topics that’d be close to any Führer-fearing Nazi’s heart, such as themes of anti-Semitism, racism, the holocaust, and other general Nazi ideology and symbolism.
Because this ain’t Call Of Duty, folks. This game earns its R18+ rating damn well and it doesn’t shy away from those very tough, often very real topics. Truly, developer MachineGames’ latest alternate 20th century title is an unflinching tale of evilness, violence, hopelessness and defeat. All of which is driven along nicely by the game’s superb writing, humanized characters who all have their own goals, dreams and issues, as well as the vile actions of game’s effective antagonist, Nazi commander Frau Engel – a truly sadistic villain who steals the show whenever she’s on-screen.
Unsurprisingly, MachineGames are still running wild with this game’s universe. As the series list of sci-fi tech grows larger, the Nazi reworking’s of historical art and music (Nazi Beatles, Die Käfer, anyone?) stretches out, and as the arsenal of weapons and gear expands (melting and disintegrating enemies with giant lasers is too much fun), so to do the environments that B.J.’s travel to. For as the franchise forges onward with its new found success of recent years, the actual locations that you battle through become even more desolate, expansive, and breath-taking.
This ranges from a whole host of varied areas. There’s the cold and oppressing slabs of concrete bunkers housed beneath the Nevada desert and the sunny streets of Roswell, New Mexico that are about as American as apple pie, baseball, and legislation which hurts and targets minorities. Then, there’s the walled-off, blood-soaked city streets of the New Orleans Ghetto and the harsh, caustic surface elements and clean sci-fi hub interiors of the Nazi’s Venus base. (Yep, much like The New Order, you leave Earth for a chapter in what is actually a highly memorable chunk of TNC). Yet the real standout section here is the creepy, bombed out New York City chapter that sees you exploring and fighting through the destroyed, radioactive-filled streets of the Big Apple right down to the wet, Nazi, and alligator-filled subways below. And, I think I speak for most Fallout fans when I say that the dark tone, eerie atmosphere, and haunting setting of this nuked Manhattan is what Fallout 4 should’ve been.
Anyway, with the post-game Kill Board side-missions that see you hunting down high-ranking Nazi officers across the US of A, you’ll be spending even more time in these glorified post-apocalyptic locales. Places whose propaganda-ridden sections remind you of what potentially could’ve been and places whose maps are littered with stunning concept artwork collectibles and readable items that flesh out the thoughts and feelings of oppressed and oppressors alike that further reinforces the horror the Nazi’s have sunk the world into. After all, what you cannot say best or easiest with narration or your character’s dialogue, show it with small pieces of art and visual story telling. And TNC nails that in full, unfiltered fashion.
However, despite the straight-faced tone and dire seriousness which persists throughout this often depressing game, Wolfenstien II: Electric Naziloo also finds plenty of time to not take itself too seriously. Rather, it finds plenty of time to just let itself revel in its own video-gamey madness. Because as MachineGames’ creative director Jens Matthies told PC Gamer earlier this year in an interview: “We take what we’re doing extremely seriously, which is interesting in a game like this that’s incredibly over-the-top”.
Ergo, TNC is keenly aware that it is a video game and knows it should entertain the player beyond using excessively violent, incredibly satisfying gunplay and smoothed out controls to kill fascist polygons. For much like The New Order (and 2015’s The Old Blood expansion DLC) before it, this ballsy sequel is not only damn fun to play, but can be silly and light-hearted too, offering a few heart-warming moments in the process.
On one hand, you’ve got the fist-pumping, djent-tinged metal cover of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ that plays during the closing credits – courtesy of Veilröth. In terms of music, composer Mick Gordon (DOOM 2016) has unsurprisingly offered yet another killer soundtrack that underscores the game’s slick cut scenes and intensive firefights so goddamn well.
On the other hand, there’s the fact that much of the game’s humor and dialogue often borderlines on campy goodness when the sheer gravity of our protagonists shitty situation isn’t being brought up– like faint glimmering rays of light breaking through an unrelenting, enclosing darkness. Then there’s just the unabashed, cathartic fun that comes from manning a fire-breathing Panzerhund (a giant mechanical dog the Nazi’s employ to doll out pain against rebel scum) or how B.J.’s pregnant lover, Anya, at one point dual-wields assault rifles to save her partner and make swift work of a full squad of Third Reich bastards as their blood and guts shower her half-nude body in a painfully over the top slow-motion scene.
Yes, it’s completely fucking ridiculous … and I loved every single goddamn second of it.
Mein Gott, you’ll even overhear some amazing banter between Nazi guards throughout the game’s 12-14 hour runtime that are both meta and hilarious. Such as the following “So Much For The Tolerant Left” gem I overheard once from two soldiers:
– “I have no sympathy for terrorists. How can they promote violence towards us, just because we hold a different point of view?”
– “They are violent creatures, Karl.”
– “I think they were born without a moral compass. We are humans too, aren’t we? Violence only begets violence.”
– “You’re right Karl. Acts of violence are never okay. Never.”
– “What kind of society would this be if I were to kill anyone who does not subscribe to my viewpoint?”
– “A war zone Karl. It would be a war zone.”
That is some out-fucking-standing satire right there!
Similarly, there’s a great little scene at the start of Roswell mission where you witness two Ku Klux Klan members be berated and belittled like children by a Nazi soldier that gave me some hefty chuckles. Like, I almost – almost – felt bad for these two racist fucks at the thinly veiled threats this soldier issued them simply because they couldn’t say ‘thank you’ in German fluently enough. (Also, before you ask, while there’s nothing quite as full on as Mafia III’s KKK massacre extravaganza mission, there are a couple side missions here in which you can deliver some cold hard bullets into the xenophobic flesh of Klan members).
Hell, even Adolf Hitler himself features in a very important scene later in the game. And goddamnit, it’s one of the most humanizing and sobering takes you’ll see of the supreme fascist leader in recent memory from a piece of media.
Look, this game is just fuckin’ glorious on nearly all accounts and there’s just so, so much to love about this game. Better yet, TNC and its developers themselves know this, so they’ve cut right through the shit and gone all in on this terrific sequel – something that makes me very excited for where they might take the third game.
This commitment to depth, detail, and utter insanity is also evident by how the publisher, Bethesda Softworks, promoted and marketed the game pre-release – just see the start of that E3 reveal trailer, their viral Nazi-punching GIF that went around a few months back, and the fact that you start this game off with B.J. in a wheel-chair, mowing down Nazi’s like it ain’t no thang.
That being said, it’d be totally remiss of me not to mention that while I do love TNC to bits, it isn’t quite perfect.
Sure, it’s a very similar game to the previous two entries in terms of mechanics and its control scheme but hey, what’s not at all broken, don’t fix it. Sure, there’s also the occasional texture pop-ins and the odd frame rate drop or two early on in the game, but that’s fine – I can live with that.
What was infuriating, however, are the random spikes in difficulty across the game and how the default normal setting – “Bring ’em on!” – seems to be unbalanced with B.J. feeling far too fragile, dying so much quicker than he ever did before in past titles. Something that two other issues then exacerbate further.
One: you can never stealth kill your way through whole areas of Nazi wankers like you could in this game’s near-perfect 2014 predecessor. While leaving a trail of pure carnage behind can be good fun, there’s also less of that slower, methodical silent-killer enjoyment this time around. Which sucks. Even when when you can utilize the silenced-pistol-melee-combo approach, it’s only for very brief moments due to the level-design; all before the big guns must come out and your surrounding environments have to be painted red and the air must become thick with gunpowder. As someone who personally adores stealth games and their approach, this annoyed me deeply as it felt like a glaring oversight on what made the last two games work so well gameplay-wise.
Two: with the game’s heavier focus on outright action and large shooting galleries – all with the admittedly poorer-paced levels, coupled with the fact that B.J.’s health is annoyingly stuck at 50% for the game’s first half – means you’ll die sooner and easier than you had any right to. Sometimes because you simply missed one enemy who snuck up behind you or spawned too late and even with full armor and health, will make quick work of your revolutionary ass before you fuckin’ know it. And that’s on the default normal setting too.
Again, making the once-loved stealth-approach the far lesser, rare option. Which then means you get tunneled into going in guns blazing mode way too often. Now, that works fine in a game like last year’s solid DOOM reboot, not as much in more dynamic, well-thought-out game such as these recent Wolfenstein titles.
Sure, there are narrative reasons for our playable hero’s weakened state: ol’ B.J. was on death’s doorstep at the end of the last game, you do start this new entry off in a wheel chair, and his worsening health is a big plot point for much of the first half. While this disparity in maximum health does create a major dynamic shift in gameplay later on when you get back to full strength (following a very, graphic and interesting scene), it’s then business as usual with some extra skills and gadgets at your disposal. Yet I still can’t help but feel that some of the game’s difficulty should’ve been ironed out in the first half to make it a smoother experience. That, or at least had the levels better paced out or designed to give players more options and satisfying setups.
Moreover, while the games final cinematic is a well-executed conclusion, the “final boss” isn’t really a boss battle as much as it as a larger-and-longer-than-usual firefight with two giant super-mechs. Which doesn’t quite give you the climactic finish that the game felt like it was building up towards for the past few hours. And just for me personally, I also don’t think that this game will become as loved and be deemed as important as The New Order was at first and over time.
Even so, these aren’t deal-breaking criticisms for me and they don’t ruin what is one of the finest and most polished shooters I’ve played since, well… since The New Order three years ago.
In so many words, Wolfenstien II is goddamn baller and you all should play it.
Oh and as a final disclaimer, if you get upset there’s a video game about killing genuine Nazi’s, please remember that A) it’s not real, calm the hell down; B) it actually isn’t about killing people you disagree with but is about murdering legitimate Nazi troops in a German-controlled world; and C) is, y’know, a motherfucking video game. Cheers.