I'm not the first person to say it, but Bethesda and their development teams have really pulled off a miracle when it comes to the stone-jawed protagonists they acquired along with iD Software. Taking the two prototypical FPS heroes and turning them into well-developed characters is a herculean feat, and they've certainly found the right people for the job. MachineGames had an easier time than the new team at iD since B.J. Blazkowicz has always been a talker, and the world-weary soldier that just barely emerged from Wolfenstein: The New Order fits perfectly into the franchise. Bethesda and the public agreed, and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus sees B.J. and his motley crew of freedom fighters bringing the battle to the shores of a Nazi-infested America.
Seeing familiar streets warped under a fascist regime was one of the main hooks of this sequel, so it's a shame at just how little of this alternate society is shown to the player. You get plenty of collectibles where you can read about happenings or listen to timeshifted pop songs, but the only real setpiece of Nazi Americana comes in the form of the "milkshake" scene that was heavily featured in E3 trailers. Most other levels take place in worn down facilities and bombed out remains, giving the game a dingy and uninteresting look compared to the lavish German mansions you snuck through in The New Order. This makes sense story-wise, but it's still a real shame that all the worldbuilding accomplished by the propaganda TV shows and commercials in the game's ad campaign couldn't find a home in the game itself.
MachineGames is instead focused on character building, which has proven to be their specialty going all the way back to Butcher Bay and The Darkness. B.J. is given a backstory with a confirmed Jewish heritage, and these scenes and their consequences are some of the game's most powerful moments. The developers work overtime to get you to latch onto B.J. at the beginning of the game, which is necessary to make these scenes work, but also off-putting when you consider the amazing work they did at breaking the character down in The New Order. At the end of New Colossus, our hero is more together than we've ever seen him in this series, trading his haunted mumblings for an earned bravado. I guess B.J. can't be on the brink of sanity forever, but I found myself going back and forth constantly on whether this character development worked in the context of the franchise.
The rest of the cast, both returning and new, don't get as much love as the main protagonist. New characters like Grace and Horton feel one-dimensional and others often have little to do with the story beyond their introduction. The one highlight is Sigrun, the former Nazi who has a powerful arc that mirrors many seeking forgiveness for past transgressions in our modern age. Returning characters fair a bit better by default due to their history, but the interactions here still feel like expansions of a single character trait rather than conversations with fully developed people. Set Roth is now solely tinkering away in his lab, Bombate is looking for a good time, and Max Hass has taken up art surprisingly well.
Worse still, your boat is now filled with tertiary characters that will have long conversations introducing themselves but never interact with the "main crew" beyond that. Again, this is realistic, but it gives players no idea who to focus on and what scenes are actually important. Everything just feels scattershot, with a pile of minor plot threads left dangling by the time the credits roll. This isn't to say that the writing has gone down in quality, as I still wanted to seek out every conversation on the boat between missions just to see what surprises unfolded. It's just that none of it really came together this time around. The New Colossus has a few transcendent moments, but it doesn't feel like a complete story on its own.
So, while the overall narrative left me a bit wanting, The New Colossus still delivers when it comes to absurdity. In both gameplay and cutscenes, Wolfenstein II masterfully goes from full-on pathos to over the top B movie madness with the flip of a switch, and I wouldn't have it any other way. This is still the game where you double fist shotguns and disintegrate enemy super soldiers with a portable laser cannon. B.J. will still eat dog food for scraps of health, and you can still bolt 100 Nazi helmets to your body to gain armor. This is the game at its best, presenting a realistic world that still fits into the over the top aesthetic of Wolfenstein 3D.
Of course, you could bypass a lot of that fun by sneaking around. Stealth players can make use of a silent pistol and their trusty hatchet, but I found that this style of play wasn't given much room for error. I'm not a stealth expert, but I found that most combat scenarios are better rushed through, especially after you get some late-game abilities. Rushing past an army to get to the commander and halt the alarm before it really started allowed me to hole up in a room and blast foes as they filed in one after the other, ignorant of the pile of bodies below their feet. This isn't very realistic but it did make me chuckle every time it happened.
There are other weapons in the game, but I didn't find a lot of use for them once the shotgun was introduced. When compared to The New Order, there are fewer weapons (so long sniper rifle, adios Tesla Grenade) and the enemies feel less threatening. I still remember my near-lethal encounters with the Panzerhund from the first game, but New Colossus sees him downgraded to a run of the mill enemy that feels trivial to take out. It was still thrilling to carve a path through each room, but I found myself reloading checkpoints less often, which might be a good thing considering the game has an annoying knack of repeating campaign dialogue after each death.
One thing that did stand out was how much Wolfenstein II shares with 2016's DOOM. Your suite of close up melee kills are framed just like Glory Kills, although they're not as useful since B.J. doesn't gain invulnerability as he shoves sharp objects into his enemies over and over. The soundtrack also feels affected by nuDOOM, as the subtle orchestration of The New Order has given way to even louder guitars that make their presence felt whenever things go hot. I'm not one to complain about metal in any game, but the combat tunes here felt less fitting to a game that is trying to take itself seriously most of the time.
As fun as the combat was, I didn't really feel the drive to engage heavily in the game's side missions. Very late in the story, you unlock the ability to seek out Nazi commanders hiding out in locations you've already visited. You get these locations via the Enigma Machine, a delightfully retro computer with a unique hacking minigame. Once you're past that, these amount to little more than bonus missions for those who need more combat. However, you do get to see a few remixed areas here and there as well as the ability to pick up new collectibles and earn bonus abilities. These new areas lack checkpointing, making the scenarios a bit tougher than main missions, and I found that they broke the story's pacing just a bit. B.J. jetting off across the country never really seemed to fit into the otherwise intricately detailed plot, and this disconnect only further served to loosen my ties to the narrative.
It may seem like I'm picking on a lot of little things concerning Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, and that may be the case. This is a fine sequel on the surface, but it erodes away a lot of the fine points of The New Order. It tries to draw poignancy in its parallels to the real world (both accidental and purposeful), and that undermines the Wolfenstein universe that different developers have been building for decades by tying it down to a real life time and place. Everything feels pulled in so many directions that the game's ending elicited a Halo 2-esque reaction, with credits that come out of nowhere and left me wanting so much more. This is a well-made shooter with beautiful graphics made by some of the best in the industry. It's also clearly a sequel that shoots for the moon and lands somewhere beyond, failing to improve on what came before.
Wolfenstein II's combat is as intense as ever, and MachineGames can craft FPS story beats like few others, but something just feels askew about this sequel. Like a follow-up to a Hollywood blockbuster, everything is a little looser and the game suffers for it.
- White-Knuckle Combat
- Brilliant Story Moments
- Absurd Tendencies
- Loose Overall Narrative
- Shallow New Characters
- Reduced Combat Options
- Uniquely Awful End Credits Song