Everything that made Wolfenstein: The New Order an excellent single-player first-person shooter is dialed up for round two. With a cast of instantly likeable heroes and bone-chilling villains giving emotional context to its bloody uprising against high-tech Nazis, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus has come to play.
It really is incredible how well this story works, considering how absurd its sci-fi version of 1961 is and how wildly the tone shifts from scene to scene. One moment it’s ultra-serious and delivering a sickening dose of venomous racism, abuse, and cold-blooded cruelty. Not that we needed another reason to want to overthrow an alternate-reality Third Reich who won World War 2 and conquered the world, but it’s hugely effective in getting the blood boiling. And yet, the next moment it’ll transition to scenes of laugh-out-loud comedy before pivoting back to BJ Blazkowicz dealing with his own mortality as he withers away from the wounds he received at the end of The New Order.
Wolfenstein 2 pulls this off without whiplash thanks to the impressive strength of its characters, who are outstandingly written and acted. Rousing scenes featuring BJ’s internal monologue, rebel leader Grace and her determined but sad eyes, and Super Spesh’s crazy conspiracy-theory rants and literal bathroom humor are all great and delivered with convincing confidence. In just a short time, each of them is given enough backstory that they’re immediately three dimensional they’re a flawed group of people who’ve gone through a hellish war and decade-long occupation, and yet they’ve survived, rebelled, and lived their lives. That said, with so many new and interesting faces, not all of the characters from the first game have much to do notably, Max Hess and Bombate don’t get a lot of screen time outside of a few gags.
But it’s the evil General Engel who steals the show with her absolutely gleeful sadism whenever she’s on screen. She’s unpredictable, often one step ahead, and completely without mercy, often toying with her prey for the enjoyment of it. She’s far and away the most memorably terrifying game villain since Far Cry 3’s Vaas Montenegro. On top of that, the flashbacks to BJ’s childhood and his relationship with his abusive, monstrously (but not unbelievably) racist father are also extremely unsettling. Together, these are the kinds of threats that make running around chopping off Nazi limbs with a hatchet feel like justifiable homicide.
All this goes to show that as long as you have characters who feel complex and human, you can get away with just about anything in a story. Wolfenstein 2’s roughly 14-hour campaign takes full advantage of that to execute a few wild twists and turns that made my jaw drop.
Gruesomely murdering Nazis is already extremely satisfying, but it’s made even more so thanks to the fast and smooth first-person shooting action, and the rewarding performances the enemies put on during their death scenes. Whether they’re reacting based on what body part you’ve shot, getting sliced up in one of the varied melee kill animations, or bursting into flame and vaporizing before your eyes when you rake a heavy laser weapon across the screen, it’s quite a show.
There are a lot of Nazis to kill, though, so you’re also encouraged to sneak into each encounter to thin out the herd by silently taking down troopers and, more importantly, their officers – if left alive to trigger the alarm, they’ll summon reinforcements. Like The New Order, this isn’t exactly a “real” stealth game, in that enemies don’t raise an alarm when they spot a dead body (and you can’t hide corpses) and will sometimes spot you when you wouldn’t expect they could’ve, but this stealth gameplay is a good way to mix up the action and prevent every fight from beginning the same way. It’s also entirely optional; if you’d rather go in guns blazing, that works too, and it’s more of a challenge.
Wolfenstein 2 makes the most of its somewhat standard-feeling assortment of weapons (there’s a pistol, SMG, machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, etc) by letting you mix, match, and customize them to your heart’s content. Using Wolfenstein’s existing dual-wielding system to blast away with a machine gun in each hand feels just as great as before, letting you sacrifice accuracy for doubled-up firepower that’s effective in close or mid-range combat. Dual wielding is also handy if you want to be able to quickly fire a shotgun blast if you blow your cover and the silenced pistol won’t get the job done on its own. It effectively lets you choose your own alternate fire mode. Unless, of course, you’re using one of the terrific high-powered guns salvaged from Nazi mech troopers that require both hands but often include their own built-in alt-fire mode.
My biggest annoyance with dual wielding is that – without a late-game upgrade you can’t pause the action to switch weapons. That can be a clumsy process because there’s just a single weapon wheel for both hands, and you have to select the switch hands option before you can access the left one. Good luck doing that while under fire without getting killed.
Speaking of upgrades, each weapon has three potential enhancements like scopes, extra ammo capacity, and other things that change their behavior in ways more interesting than just bumping up the damage output. Upgrade kits are rare, so the choices you make feel more important I only had around half the possible upgrades by the time I finished (though I’m sure I missed quite a few).
Another carryover from The New Order is the perk system, which gives upgrades just for scoring kills with things like headshots or flame damage. That encourages you to mix up your playstyle, and also gives a constant stream of rewards just for “doing you.”
BJ may be a buffed-out killing machine with a suit of armor, but he’s not a tank. You’ve got to keep moving and play cautiously to stay alive, grabbing health, armor, and ammo items where you can find them (often off of Nazi corpses). That’s an area where The New Order was rightly criticized for making us push the pick-up button for every single individual item we wanted to grab, including small-value armor scraps that fall off of enemies. The New Colossus finds a much happier medium between that and the more common first-person shooter design of Hoovering up any item you even look at here, many items can be picked up by walking directly over them with a small auto-grab radius. You’ll still be pushing the button quite a bit, but it’s not nearly as annoying as it was in the first game.
Because of BJ’s fragility (and the fact that I played through on the “Do or Die!” difficulty level, one notch above normal) I died quite a bit often without knowing exactly what had killed me. Every time that happened I wished there were a killcam that focused on the gloating enemy who’d gotten me so that I’d know what to look out for next time.
But the only real problem I consistently had in combat is that BJ’s pretty picky about what he’ll jump over. I got killed more often than I’d like because I got stuck on invisible obstacles while trying to vault over stuff – especially in the later levels.
Wolfenstein 2’s linear series of levels is made up almost entirely of the kind of dreary settings you’d expect from Nazi-occupied America. The irradiated remains of New York, military facilities, and a New Orleans that’s become a walled-in ghetto are all pretty gloomy with only occasional eye-catching spectacle, but they’re dotted with details and readable bits of life in a fascist alternate reality that make exploration worthwhile. Not only that, some of this reading material humanizes the Germans you’re fighting, to some degree. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no moral question about whether a bunch of goose-stepping thugs deserve what’s coming to them, but hearing, for instance, the perspective of a family who resettled in America after the war is interesting. And every so often we hear from a relative of someone who died at the hands of the infamous “Terro-Billy” the Nazi propagandists’ name for one William J Blazkowicz.
It’s the non-combat areas in between fights that really distinguish themselves. Walking around a Nazi parade in Roswell, New Mexico and listening to SS troops chatting with Ku Klux Klansmen and finding common ground is eerie and chilling, and the detail in the windows on the main street is excellent. The same goes for the submarine that serves as a base for BJ’s rebellion, which is packed with characters and great incidental dialogue. Some of those side characters don’t look so great next to BJ and his main cast of friends, however.
This being a single-player game, it’s notable that there is some significant post-game content. Wolfenstein 2 recycles some of its maps for tough assassination missions (which must be unlocked by gathering items from dead Nazi officers) that allow you to gain some upgrades that were mutually exclusive with choices you made during the campaign. And there’s a reason to start all over, too: one of the first things you do is repeat a choice you made in The New Order to spare the life of one of two characters, which determines which one is alive in the sequel. That gives you access to a different weapon and has that person play a role in the story, and given the role that Wyatt played in my playthrough I’m interested to see how the older, more grizzled Fergus would’ve handled things.
On a technical note, after the first couple of hours Wolfenstein 2 ran beautifully for me on PC, with excellent performance and stability. I have to caveat that first couple of hours, though, because during that time it crashed consistently when I was trying to make the pre-game choice between Wyatt and Fergus, about 20 seconds into starting a new game. It was only after I quit out of just about everything running in the background that it ran successfully. Bethesda has indicated this is an Nvidia driver issue (I’m using a GTX 1080), and there are already beta drivers available that may solve the issue if you encounter it. A second Nvidia-powered PC using a GTX 980 had no issues whatsoever. Both console versions, meanwhile, have run well and without incident.