Release Date: October 27, 2017Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: MachineGamesPublisher: BethesdaGenre: First-Person Shooter
About 15 minutes into Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, your abusive father binds your hands together, puts a shotgun in them, and demands that you shoot your dog as punishment for consorting with a girl of a different race. Strangely enough, I’m not sure if that event would make my shortlist of most shocking moments in Wolfenstein II.
2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a genuine sleeper hit. Yes, there were some fans who felt that the game would be more than a simple cash-in on the Wolfenstein name, but few predicted the special blend of old-school shooter design and modern storytelling. The New Order’s tremendous reception surely put developer MachineGames in an unenviable position when it came time to developer Wolfenstein II. Now that people were expecting a great game, how could they ever deliver an experience that would satisfy a suddenly energetic fanbase?
For the most part, MachineGames has doubled down on the things that made New Order work. The benefits of that approach are most evident in the sequel’s story. While New Order’s pretty good – if tonally bizarre – story benefited from the fact that many gamers didn’t expect the title to have much of a story in the first place, New Colossus’ narrative benefits from the fact that it’s simply incredible.
New Colossus’ story starts off exactly where New Order ended. B.J. Blazkowicz and the rest of our heroes have stolen a rather large U-Boat and find themselves under siege by a Nazi helicopter. After a stunning series of events that we won’t spoil for you here, our crew sets off to liberate America from Nazi invaders and use the country as the staging point for a global resistance.
While those that never played New Order could technically jump into this game – there’s even a “Previously On” style sequence at the beginning – we’d recommend that you don’t start with the sequel. There are many little story moments and emotional connections between characters that could never be adequately explained by the built-in story summary.
Having said that, it’s not long before New Colossus establishes its own, stellar narrative. Those who didn’t quite enjoy the original game’s combination of B-movie characters, outlandish scenarios, and genuinely emotional story segments may be disheartened to learn that New Colossus relies on a similar dynamic.
Actually, New Colossus’ willingness to just get weird with it is a big part of the reason its plot works as well as it does. While I lament not being able to share some of the story’s strangest moments with you, I will say that LSD sequence from one of the promotional trailers should give you an indication of just how bizarre things get. There are some truly inspired plot points throughout.
Even at its weirdest, New Colossus’ stellar roster of fully-developed characters ensures that you’ll be emotionally invested throughout. Generally speaking, if a character has dialogue in this game it’s because they have something meaningful, humorous, or fascinating to say. It’s an intimate style of epic storytelling that is easy to dream of, but tricky to execute.There are few cookie-cutter characters to be found, and those who fit that billing are usually implemented for very specific reasons.
Besides, most of the “cliche” characters in question are Nazis and New Colossus gives the player little reason to sympathize with them. Sure, the occasional bit of soldier dialogue may remind you that some of your foes are just normal people brainwashed by a regime willing to take advantage of them, but most of the game’s enemies are despicable excuses for humans that you’ll be glad to rid the world of.
It’s funny to think that people were worried that this game may get too “political.” If you do draw any modern parallels between New Colossus and certain events in the modern world, it’s only because the game’s tale of good, evil, and the people in-between is a classic kind of story that may invoke reflections on current events. There are, perhaps, a few winks to modern issues in newspaper clippings and other items throughout the world, but nothing jumps out as being inappropriate for the context of the story.
While New Colossus’ story is generally better than New Order’s in nearly every respect, it does suffer from some pacing issues exasperated by the game’s biggest flaw: its level design.
You may have heard of specific New Colossus levels involving things like tooling around in a wheelchair shooting Nazis or sneaking through a town during a Nazi propaganda parade. Those incredible levels do exist, but they are spread relatively thinly across the game’s roughly 15-hour runtime. Otherwise, you can expect to traverse through quite a few industrial landscapes as you silently take out Nazi officers and noisily disperse of Nazi machinery. Your biggest motivation to struggle through these forgettable segments will be the opportunity to witness the next cutscene and advance the story.
The real shame is that certain levels – most notably the game’s hub area – prove that MachineGames knows how to populate a level with exceptional examples of environmental storytelling. Even the game’s many warehouses, tunnels, and bombed out streets are filled with clippings, posters, and similar items that expertly flesh out this alternate timeline. Unfortunately, this strength doesn’t translate to enough unique “storytelling via gameplay” scenarios.
The good news is that New Colossus’ action has been significantly improved in several meaningful ways. From a sheer quality of life standpoint, the most important improvement in this sequel is the ability to automatically pick up certain pieces of armor and ammo. You’ll still be required to manually pick up health if it will overload your current health meter, but you’ll no longer be required to jam an action button as you examine every nook and cranny.
New Order’s forgettable weapon upgrade and perk systems also benefit from slightly reimagined approaches. Perks, for instance, are still tied to completing certain in-game actions like performing “x” number of stealth kills. This time, however, there is a much deeper skill tree that doesn’t require the player to finish as many arbitrary tasks in order to obtain certain perks. While you’ll still find yourself trying to complete certain objectives in order to unlock particularly lucrative perks, New Colossus does a much better job of doling out rewards to those who take full advantage of the game’s many Nazi killing options.
Weapon upgrades benefit from a similar philosophy. Whereas New Order hid specific weapon upgrades throughout the campaign, New Colossus’ introduces generic upgrade collectibles that allow you to upgrade the weapon of your choice with one of a few different perks. This is a far more satisfying approach that allows you to focus on your favorite weapon.
Of course, those who enjoy collecting items, in general, will still have plenty of opportunities to search for enigma codes, lost toys, records, and many other items that MachineGames has hidden throughout each level.
The star of New Colossus’ combat is most certainly the hatchet. Upon finding the hatchet early in the game, B.J. quips that there are “A lot of things you can do with a hatchet…and a Nazi.” As it turns out, players will not only be able to hatchet a Nazi by sneaking up on them, but will be able to use it to perform an insta-kill on most standard Nazi troops. This mechanic seems to be a nod to Doom’s glory kill system, and it works almost as well as it did there.
Quite frankly, you’re going to need all the tools New Colossus offers you if you plan on surviving its surprisingly tough campaign. Even those who play at normal difficulty will find themselves having to play through certain sections over and over again. For the most part, the game’s difficulty will be welcomed by those who seek it, but there were a few moments when I felt that I’d backed into a nearly unwinnable scenario. Thankfully, there is a manual save option that I recommend you use liberally.
The one aspect of New Colossus’ combat that remains an almost constant irritation is the officer “stealth kills” system. Just as it was in New Order, there are levels in New Colossus populated by officers that will raise an alarm if they’re not killed first. While this system makes sense thematically, it often puts a quick stop to the game’s pace. Furthermore, there seem to be many more officers throughout this new campaign and much more questionable rules governing important aspects like the enemies’ line of sight.
Wolfenstein II’s visuals suffer from similar familiarity. They are good – certain design aspects make them great – but at least on the PS4 copy of the game that I played, they weren’t significantly better than New Order’s. That may very well change if you play the PS4 Pro, Xbox One, or PC versions of the game. Thankfully, the sound design and score remain just as engrossing as they were before, even if some may balk at this sequel’s increased reliance on Doom-like metal chords at key action moments.
While the lingering presence of certain annoyances call into question New Colossus’ “more of the same” sequel approach, given that the “same” in this case is phenomenal cinematic storytelling, open-level shooter design, and a cast of characters that rank among this generation’s best, it’s hard to argue against MachineGames taking the easy route when designing this game.
MachineGames’ take on the Wolfenstein series continues to deliver so many of the things that are missing from AAA development scene. It’s an unflinching experience that feels as if it was crafted by the only group of creators that could have delivered it. I may have come to expect greatness from the Wolfenstein name once more, but I wasn’t exactly expecting New Colossus to be quite as good as it is.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.
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