Game Review: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Note: Obviously, spoilers abound after this moment. You have been warned.
One of my favorite things about id Software’s FPS titles is that they have never shied away from being bold and pushing the envelope. The original DOOM was fast-paced, violent, and its hellish thematic landscape was unparalleled at the time. It was weird and warped and never made time to stop and consider what people thought of it. Quake upped the ante with real 3D effects, a Trent Reznor-helmed soundtrack, and a strange Chthulu-inspired darkness (which, sadly, has never been revisited in future Quake games because for some reason they decided to make the sequels boring). But the grandaddy of these games, Wolfenstein 3D, set the bar for id Software and FPS games in general, both in gameplay and in tone, by offering striking imagery, violent gameplay, and, of course, Mecha-Hitler. And that tonal bar continues to be raised in Machinegames’ recent incarnation of the franchise, including its newest offering, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.
Simply put, Wolfenstein II is a game of suitable gameplay sandwiched between some amazing, unforgettable story moments, some so crazy you might think the game is jumping the shark. But it’s not: it IS the shark, and it is going right for Arthur Fonzerelli’s ballsack as he jet-skis over it.
The game begins with a cutscene that sets the tone for the rest of the game — that tone being, “BJ Blazkowicz will never die. No matter what. Seriously.” At the end of The New Order, we find BJ lying at Deathshead’s compound, hanging onto life, torso ripped open by a final grenade Deathshead unleashed moments after the ultimate battle ended. In those final moments, seeking clearance to nuke the whole compound into the dirt, Feargus/Wyatt continues requesting BJ give clearance to nuke the compound. We watch as BJ recites “The New Colossus,” staring up at the sky, and, knowing full well that he won’t escape, he says, “It’s clear.” Cut to black, end of the first game.
Now, I should have known there would be a sequel. Of course there would be a sequel, and of course BJ would survive. But I must say, the end of The New Order was perfect for me, and I honestly though the game franchise was being wrapped up with it. But of course everything is a trilogy these days. The New Colossus opens with everyone rescuing BJ, and Set Roth performing emergency surgery to keep him alive. BJ is in a coma for a few months before awakening in an opening sequence very reminiscent of Dead Alive 2: the protagonist, injured, must escape while injured. In BJ’s case, that’s in a wheelchair. It’s a fun and exciting opening moment for the game.
From a writing standpoint, keeping BJ alive seems nonsensical to a game that otherwise buttons up his story in The New Order. But what The New Colossus does is make the game about more than BJ Blazkowicz; it expands upon the Resistance as a whole. BJ, despite being the the character you control, is not the focus of this game. It’s everyone else, and watching them work with or against you is part of the majesty of the narrative.
For the first half of the game, to cope with your grievous injuries, you play in the Ya’at Dichud power suit that Caroline wore in the first game due to her paraplegia. This means that you have 50 health and 200 armor, rather than the usual 100/100 split, which creates some very interesting and tense moments of gameplay early on, as you struggle to figure out how to navigate this game with a lower health. Your target is Frau Engel, or rather, Engel’s target is you, and you spend a lot of the early game trying to build the revolution while also evading Engel and her giant ugly-ass airship, the Ausmerzer.
Much of the first half of the game is a thematic continuation on BJ’s concept of death, specifically Caroline’s death, and coming to terms with hers as well as his own. He frequently states that he is living on borrowed time and that he knows he’s dying. This concept is erratically presented, and doesn’t offer the depth that The New Order did, though it’s nice to see BJ get existential at times. The New Order had a much more coherent core theme of persistence in the face of rising seemingly-insurmountable evil. BJ fought and fought and fought and was thoroughly injured an incredible amount of times, including being stabbed once — in the damn chest! — and yet he kept going, a testament to the iron will of the American spirit. This makes the final scene in that game resonate so tremendously, because after it all, he finally gets to rest. Unfortunately it’s the final rest of death.
But then he’s saved, and Act I of The New Colossus deals with the repercussions of life after near-death. BJ is not well, and presumes he’ll die any minute. Meanwhile, Anya is pregnant with BJ’s twins and so he has to come to grips with dying before they are even born. He doesn’t do a very good job of dealing with it, either; at first pushing away his lady love to distance himself from her, like a cat going off to the shed to die alone, but then there’s a nice cutscene where Anya essentially tells him that’s a shitty thing to do. She’s right, it’s an awful tactic, but one that makes sense after watching BJ’s father be the worst father ever in some flashback scenes from his childhood home.
I’m not sure how necessary the childhood flashbacks were to flesh out BJ’s character. He has such a strong persona as is that we don’t need to watch his father be an asshole to get a sense of where BJ’s rebellious spirit comes from. A voiceover or two would be fine. Plus Machinegames presents a couple of particularly ugly (and arguably triggering) domestic violence scenes early on in the game, and they do not hold back. It’s striking and harsh, in a game which is always pretty harsh, both in violence and in social themes. But in contrast to, say, Frau Engel holding up Caroline’s decapitated head at BJ, which is a shocking but fantastical moment, the scenes with BJ’s father and mother are shocking and awful on a real level, in a way that resonates with many people.
In another flashback, BJ’s father, mad at him, ties his son’s hands to a sawhorse, hands him a shotgun, and forces him to shoot his own dog — a moment that I literally sat on for about five minutes, because I assumed that the game would give me the option to not do it, because it’s terrible. But it doesn’t — it’s a memory of an event that already happened, not the story being told that encompasses the game itself. I don’t think Machinegames is catering to people who can’t stomach scenes like that, but I’m also not sure if they need it, period.
Later in life (and the game), BJ returns to his childhood home after blowing up Area 52 (why they don’t go to Area 51 I still do not understand), and his dad is there waiting for him. It’s a little contrived, but whatever. His dad sent his mom to a concentration camp because she is Jewish, and he’s of course disappointed in BJ. BJ ends up killing him and then he gets captured because his dad knew that BJ would be coming by and so Engel’s big ugly-ass ship shows up, picking the entire house up into the sky. Why BJ didn’t see, or more importantly hear, a giant ugly-ass ship in the sky for the hundreds of miles he drove from Roswell, NM to Mesquite, TX, I’ll never know. It’s not like a giant ship with huge fiery turbines would have a “silent” mode.
Anyway, all of this is for a point. Engel captures BJ, and proceeds to parade him around to the press. And then, much to my surprise, she executes him on live TV. And by that I mean she chops his head off with a sword and it falls into a fire pit. The screen goes black. I stare at the blackness in disbelief. “Either that’s the most ‘fuck you’ ending to a game I’ve ever seen, or something fishy’s going on,” I say.
Now the second half of the game begins. This half I like to call “The Part Where Everything Goes Bonkers.”
Much to dismay, it turns out BJ did actually have his head chopped off, and it fell, but not into the fire pit. Instead it drops into the loving robotic arms of a reprogrammed Nazi drone, which flies back to the Evas Hammer. Set Roth puts BJ’s head into a jar (like you do) and then reveals that Caroline had a supersoldier body just, you know, hanging around, and they attach BJ’s head to this body and voila, new BJ Blazkowicz.
Obviously this game eschews scientific accuracy early and often; the power suit Caroline and BJ wear was made in the early 18th century, after all. And it is hinted earlier in the game that the technology to merge one head onto another body is available, as Set has a monkey/cat hybrid thing that honestly is freaky as shit. But I did spend a lot of time coming to grips with this incredible leap from a thematic standpoint, mainly because for some reason, all I want BJ to do is die. The man deserves it. The rest, I mean, not the death. He’s done so much, fought so much, it’s weirdly unfair that is not granted death. Instead, he’s granted a new life, and my question at that point was, “For what?”
Well, it’s for kicking Nazi ass, of course.
The rest of the game is like Wolfenstein on steroids, and all of BJ’s concerns about death and dying are thrown out the window. Instead, we are treated to one of the best scenes in video game history: BJ, now considered dead by the Nazis, travels to Venus (where the Nazis have a base for some reason), to audition for the part of BJ Blazkowicz in a Nazi propaganda film written by none other than an old, dementia-ridden, paranoid Adolf Hitler (now an extreme recluse), who shifts between berating and/or shooting the other actors in the audition, to hugging the director and calling her “mother,” to placing an ice bucket onto the floor and pissing in it, to puking onto the carpet, to lying on the ground and sleeping. Hitler is lying on the ground, in fact, when it’s BJ’s turn to stage an improvised fight scene with a Nazi guard, and I would personally like to thank Machinegames for, in that moment, allowing BJ to heel stomp Hitler in the head before being quickly killed by the copious amount of guards in the room. I knew it would happen, but who could resist heel stomping Hitler?
After this high point, the rest of the game unfortunately follows a somewhat bland, “let’s start a revolution” type story, and of course BJ is forced to do everything because he’s the protagonist and now he’s got a sweet new bod. It’s not terrible, but it certainly lacks the panache of auditioning for a puking Hitler on Venus, or getting your head chopped off on live TV.
The only other weird scene, by the way, is very close to the end. BJ is aboard the Ausmerzer. And who comes with him? His pregnant girlfriend Anya. I mean like 6–7 months pregnant here! First off, what? Is this what game devs consider a “strong female character,” one who willingly threatens the lives of her two gestating children? Surely there are lots of other people on the Evas Hammer who could help BJ out. Hell, there is a whole section of the ship called “Hacker Central.” Are those two cool ladies who work there not good enough to hack a giant ugly-ass Nazi airship?
So there is a cutscene during this part wherein Anya runs toward BJ after a big door has opened and a bunch of Nazis and mecha-dogs and shit are about to storm in. She tosses a grenade at them and then straddles BJ, rips her shirt off, revealing big ol’ pregnant belly and boobs, and then murders all these Nazis with dual-wielded guns, blood raining down on her and I swear to god I expected her to fuck BJ right then and there. It would have made more sense than this random wanton violence, honestly. Instead she says something like “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Obviously the scene indicates otherwise.
I mean, I get it. This game has BJ shooting a dog, BJ getting his head chopped off, and a babbling, pissing, puking Hitler. It’s crazy as all getup. But in that scene, Anya gets two choices: shoot all the Nazis and say “I don’t want to do this anymore,” or shoot all the Nazis, rip off her clothes, and fuck BJ because she loves killing Nazis and she loves BJ. I mean she even references it earlier on the way to the mission; over the radio she talks about feeling “excited” (read: horny), before realizing that everyone on the radio frequency can hear her. It’s a funny moment, and a Chekhov’s gun situation that could have resolved in that weird, violent sex moment at the end. Instead, we got some disjointed ultra-glorified massacre by a half-naked lady. Oh well. Perhaps Machinegames had to edit it for content or something.
Ultimately, I found New Colossus’ story to be engaging and enjoyable, with a few weird hiccups. It was great to see new characters of all different ages, genders, and races, women and people of color being a large force in the game. Sure, a lot of it had a 1960s stereotypical spin on it — the southern preacher man, the black woman with a huge afro who doesn’t take any shit — but everyone seemed sufficiently fleshed out that it kept me engaged in the world. Typically video game stories don’t do this, so I was pleased.
The New Colossus has a lot of gameplay options, most of which I barely used. Dual wielding is back, but this time you can pick different guns for each hand. There are plenty of upgrades for each weapon, and they all serve their own purpose, for the most part. The machine gun and rifle didn’t seem that much different to me, but I think there’s just a trope in FPS games now that’s something like, “an FPS must have a machine gun and a semi-automatic rifle.” I’m okay with that. There are some large guns that you can hoist around, but not keep, that vary in terms of their usability. The “uber” gun is awesome (though essentially the BFG from DOOM), the laser gun is awesome, the fireball gun is pretty good, and the big shotgun sucks ass. Lastly, there are grenades, a diesel powered sticky bomb launcher that I always forgot I had, a grenade launcher, and hatchets. Lots and lots of hatchets.
Like The New Order and DOOM, The New Colossus has melee takedowns which, like The New Order and DOOM, have like three animations, tops, so they get boring after a while. Plus one of them is literally using a hatchet to chop guy’s legs off, while they’re standing, which is fucking impossible, Machinegames. Come on, read your anatomy and physics books that I am sure you have. The good thing about New Colossus is that you can just run up and take down a guy at full health, rather than stealthing or whittling his health down, which is nice. It does feel pretty cool to run down a corridor hatcheting the fuck out of enemies like a badass. In fact I sort of wished there was a melee dynamic in the game that allowed for more, I don’t know, chain-based melee kills? Sort of like the Arkham Asylum games, but in first person.
It’s up to you whether you want to sneak around a scenario or go in guns blazing. I found that a nice mix was key, especially later when you get silencer upgrades to your pistol and machine gun. Remaining from The New Order is the “commander alert” game mechanic, which I can’t tell if I like or not. On the pro side, I feel like it’s more akin to how actual stealthing would be like: if anyone sees you and starts shooting, or if anyone sees a dead body, they immediately shout and the commanders sound the alarm. On the con side, as far as I can tell, there is A) really no way to stop the alarm short of killing the commanders, and B) no fucking way in hell to hide from bad guys once it’s been sounded. Apparently you can destroy the alarms but hell if I know what they look like, and usually by that point you’re next to the commander so you might as well just shoot the commander. It feels a little clumsy, probably because it just seems like there are no options; it’s either “do not be seen whatsoever” or “run and gun it until you find the commander.”
In addition, there are some body upgrades that help you fight, regain health and armor, and can open up different access points to areas. One particular upgrade — the conceptually disgusting Constrictor Harness — literally constricts your body so that you can fit through incredibly narrow places like pipes and narrow floor vents. Every time I do it I have this mental image of a wormy Blazkowicz pulling himself through a small pipe and it’s gross and I’m glad they don’t explore it in any cutscenes. The other two upgrades allow you to ram into obstacles and people, and rise up to new heights with stilts. These offer some diversity, and many of the maps have different entrance points depending on what upgrade you have (you start out with one but eventually get all three). However, different entrances didn’t seem to matter much in the long run, as they all inevitably take you into the same arena with little difference in logistical choices, and I found myself really only using the Constrictor Harness, with the Ram Shackles and Battle Walker coming in a distant second.
In the end, a diverse set of upgrades and guns and I probably spent 80% of the time using the silenced pistol, machine gun, and laser gun (when available). However, the diversity adds options for mayhem, which is always a good thing.
The New Colossus has a buttload of collectibles, including concept art, models, and, by far my favorite, MUSIC. Yes, they recorded some alternate Nazi history 1960’s era pop songs for you to collect and they are all great. Makes me feel awkward, almost, enjoying Nazi music. Fortunately you can just think of it as really good German music. They even have a fictional version of the Beatles called Die Kafer. It would have been amazing to have the Beatles’ actual German version of “She Loves You” as one of the options, but we all know licensing songs out of the Beatles’ catalogue is spendy. Plus like I said, the songs offered are pretty great.
Aside from collectibles, The New Order has a “war map” which you can use to re-enter places you’ve been before and kill “uberkommandants” to help liberate the United States (and Venus too, I guess). As an endgame mechanic it’s kind of clunky and almost immediately repetitive; the ubercommanders are a nice treat but offering endless replayability of new commanders taking up the areas you just cleared out sort of, I dunno, nullifies the whole point of having a revolution, right? Plus the commanders keep coming back to places that they don’t need to — the most obvious being Blazkowicz’ rebuilt childhood home, which is now a movie set. Like, why would they continue going there? There is literally no value in repopulating a movie set again and again and again.
It would have been nice to even have singleplayer maps on the war map that weren’t of the same places I’d been to before. I get liberating the old spots, sure, but it just seems too contrived to liberate an entire country by killing the three or four uberkommandants who just happen to all be in the New Orleans ghetto, which oh by the way was just nuked. Plus once you kill all of them, now you’re just spending time killing commanders and it gets repetitive fast. Alternately, the war map could have made an excellent multiplayer feature, with BJ and the Resistance (including, I guess, a pregnant Anya) fighting Nazis in various game modes. Or maybe expand the war map using DLC? Speaking of…
The DLC for this game are the “Freedom Chronicles,” three games from the viewpoint of characters in the Resistance. The first episode is out now, called “The Adventures of Gunslinger Joe,” wherein you play a football player who has the Ram Shackles upgrade and has a little mini-adventure. Ultimately it is disappointing, as it merely rehashes game mechanics that already exist, and Joe isn’t strong enough of a character for me to give a shit about him. The Cardinal Rule of DLC is that it offers new game mechanics, or a story worth following, and the former does not exist in “Gunslinger Joe.” I’m still playing through so we’ll see if the story ends up being worth it — but I guarantee you it won’t. We’ll see how the next episode plays out.
Holy hell this review was long. I really enjoyed this game, especially the cinematic nature of it. It’s one of my favorite things about Machinegames’ take on the Wolfenstein universe: they have created an 21st century experience and crafted a fine FPS that delves into the psyche of a man we never thought that would happen to. Mistakes and ho-hum gameplay aside, playing through this game at least once is worth it, though if you’re not a fan of FPS games, you might want to wait for it to go on sale.
I mean, at one point you get to kill KKK members with wild abandon. Why not go for it?