“Now, I don't know about y'all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fuckin' air-o-plane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity. Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. That's why any and every so'mbitch we find wearin' a Nazi uniform, they're gonna die.”
Lt. Aldo Raine (Inglourious Basterds, 2009. Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
At its core, the gleefully over-the-top and intense violence against Nazis found in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is reminiscent of Lt. Aldo Raine (as played by Brad Pitt) in the film Inglourious Basterds. A man whose stance against the Third Reich is a very simple one. They need to die. Same goes for the failed artist with a tiny moustache behind it all. Make no mistake about it, Wolfenstein II is the sort of game where you’ll lose track of how many fascists you’ve cleaved with a hatchet or shot in the head long before protagonist Willian B.J. Blazkowicz makes the transition from wheelchair-bound survivor to sci-fi suit wearing super soldier.
There’s an infectious rebellious spirit that can be felt throughout Wolfenstein II. One that somehow transcends the simple pleasure of shooting at bad guys in a first-person shooter. It’s also an experience that doesn’t feel at all like it has been filtered through any form of corporate control. Although published by Bethesda, Wolfenstein II is very much the wonderfully insane singular vision of developer Machine Games. Whose talent lies with being able to go from a sombre and heartfelt farewell to a friend one minute to the sheer insanity of riding a giant mech-dog that can breathe flame the next.
One of the more gleefully violent moments where you basically proceed to run through a ghetto and set fire to dozens of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers.
As the sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, The New Colossus expectedly picks things up right where they were left – with our hero injured, and the resistance struggling to keep it together. Unexpectedly, and welcomely, the game begins by giving us a dramatic and serious glimpse at B.J. Blazcowicz’s youth as the son of an abusive father and Jewish immigrant. These sequences, which intercut with the introduction and an action-packed escape, set the tone for a wild cinematic ride that moves briskly from set-piece to set-piece as the resistance fights to reclaim America.
And the resistance fighters that we grew to love from the first game, plus some new members too, struggle with the mounting pressure of it all.
With no multiplayer content, or online co-op, Wolfenstein II is strictly single-player and story-driven. A decision that ultimately results in one of the most compelling campaigns we’ve ever seen in a modern shooter. It’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re playing an instant classic whenever you fire-up Wolfenstein II. Which is in part thanks to the old-school presentation, linear story-driven approach, and emphasis placed on encounters against large groups of varied enemies. Well, varied in tactics, weaponry, and armour - they’re still Nazi scum. But another part of it can be found in the pacing, and the campaign which is both large in scope and never boring.
Also, the alternate 1961 timeline and reality never gets too campy or ridiculous. Even though this is a time when Nazis research into new and ancient technologies has resulted in vehicles the size of stadiums that can move about freely in the air and flying saucers that may or may not be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. The tonal balance that Wolfenstein hits between the seemingly silly and over-the-top, with the serious, tragic, and emotional is a masterclass in storytelling. And one that gradually ramps up to reach a truly satisfying ending – and one that has true emotional and cathartic weight behind it.
Even the often-overlooked element of drug-abuse is given the same wild treatment, with one of B. J’s closest allies from The New Order experimenting with hallucinogenic substances throughout most of the campaign. This leads to speeches about cosmic importance and greater meaning, hippy stuff. Plus, the amusing addition of an animated creature that only he can see. It’s both a funny and unique addition to the big-budget first-person shooter genre, a place where narrative tends to lean heavily on stereotypes and cartoonish one-dimensional villains.
In Wolfenstein II, not only are drugs of the hallucinogenic variety used for comic relief and commentary on the free-spirit era that was the 1960s. But also, to showcase to quite a poignant character moment about dealing with grief and feeling overwhelmed. And how hallucinogens may not be the answer. Now, one response to this storyline in Wolfenstein II might be to yell out “Narc!” in response to the message. The sort of lesson that was taught to sitcom viewers through the years. But the simple fact is that neither the game or the characters take a negative stance on the use of drugs. It’s handled quite masterfully, and speaks to the sheer breadth of narrative gold found throughout the game.
Okay, so less drug talk and this and that about the story’s nuance. Let’s get back to the simple pleasure of shooting Nazis.
The shift to id Tech 6, the same engine that powered last year’s impressive Doom reboot, also means that Wolfenstein II is one of the most visually impressive first-person titles you’re likely to see this year. With lighting and effects detail that is many magnitudes better than those found in the 2014 original. Which results in not only the next evolution of the solid combat found in The New Order but also the fluid movement and spectacle of 2016’s Doom. From the impact that you can instantly feel whenever you fire the auto-shotgun, through to the laser canon that melts both environmental objects and Nazi soldiers in a matter of moments.
And really, the only issue that we had was that the combat melee kills weren’t as precise or pronounced as the glory kill system from Doom. That and being able to blow up the environment for an extra level of chaos would have been a nice touch.
By focussing solely on being a wholly single-player experience, Wolfenstein II can, well, go wild in the weaponry department. Not only can you dual-wield any weapon combination but the upgrade options result in variations on themes that might feel familiar at first, quickly evolve into the perfect tools for the type of combat found throughout. One of the reasons why the campaign never gets old or feels like it’s merely padding things out before the next story beat, is that the combat and set pieces are a key part of the cinematic experience. Playing Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, each story sequence feeds into the action. And vice versa.
One aspect though where things are kept almost identical with the original is in the overall difficulty - especially if you choose to play with a controller. With five or so difficulty modes on offer it’s strange to discover just how tough the game can get on “Don’t Hurt Me.” Wolfenstein II can become hard really quick, and this isn’t a knock against the engaging and rewarding combat to be found, but merely to point out that you’ll want to find the sweet spot where fewer deaths and challenging combat meet. As to not mess with the pacing of the story that comes from constantly dying and restarting.
Wolfenstein II is packed full of great and memorable moments, not only in the story it tells but also the combat it presents. From walking the streets of Roswell, New Mexico and seeing KKK members walking together with Nazis to sneaking up on an unexpected soldier only to gruesomely amputate and decapitate them before they could recite their favourite verse from Mein Kampf. It’s provocative and intense in equal measure. And in the year 2017, when real Nazis are trying to make a comeback the world over, also cathartic. And necessary.