October 31, 2017 // 7 p.m.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Version Reviewed: PC
My feelings after completing Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus are that the developers at MachineGames would benefit from a prescription of mood stabilisers. I enjoyed the previous effort at rebooting Wolfenstein but felt that, beyond the imaginative setting and the lovely, meaty guns, it struggled to establish a consistent rhythm. Its attempt to tell an emotional, heartfelt story while also letting you shoot Nazis on the moon was admirable, but the two sides to its personality never quite gelled together as well as they might.
I hoped these issues would be addressed in The New Colossus, but if anything the problem has worsened. The tonal shifts are even wilder than they were before, while the game leaps from location to location like a kangaroo on his gap year, never content with you doing one thing for more than a few minutes. Amongst its eclectic menagerie of themes and mechanics are some wonderful highs, but ultimately, MachineGames' ADHD-like approach to design detracts from the core loop of shooting Nazis with big guns rather than adding to it.
With General Dethshead's European fortress in smithereens, the watery-eyed B.J. Blazkowicz and his motley crew of guerilla fighters (known as the Kreisau Circle) set their sights on Nazi-occupied America. The US is under the thumb of the sadistic General Engel, the blonde-bobbed psychopath who Blazkowicz previously encountered in The New Order.
In the months since their last meeting, Engel has become both overseer and celebrity, appearing on talk-shows and as a creepy pinup adorning the walls of Nazi officers' quarters. Meanwhile, many US citizens have capitulated to the Nazi regime, while those who resisted have been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The result is a warped version of 1960s America that addresses many of the tensions of that time, from civil rights to A-bomb neuroses and UFO conspiracy theories.
The style is universally pulpy, but tonally The New Colossus is all extremes. It's a game that depicts racism, domestic abuse, animal cruelty, mutilation, patricide, and even fat-shaming in unflinching intensity, with viscous blood, foul language, and abject humiliation and dehumanisation of individuals that can be extremely distressing to witness. On the flipside, it can be wacky and goofy as hell, rife with cheesy one-liners, sex jokes, frat-like party scenes, and toilet humour. Sometimes it combines the two. A sombre scene in which B.J. discusses with his partner the imminent possibility of his death is literally interrupted by a man flushing the toilet.
Considered on its own, Wolfenstein II just about gets away with its bonkers, have-your-cake-and-eat it approach to storytelling, mainly down to the strength of its writing and characterisation. In some ways it's a shame The New Colossus isn't an RPG, because you'd be able to assemble one hell of a party. Old favourites make a return, including Feargus the foul-mouthed Scot and Set, the genius scientist who speaks in wonderfully clipped Yiddish. These are joined by the likes of Grace, a Black Panther-like revolutionary with a fierce attitude that sometimes slips into nastiness, and Super Spesh, a wild-eyed hippie and true believer in the alien conspiracy.
All of the characters are fully fleshed out, and although they all find ways to work together, there's nothing simple about their relationships. They fight, mock each other, get into moods, play practical jokes, comfort one another during hard times, have casual sex. It's not always subtle characterisation, but it is complex, compelling, and above all entertaining.
The problem is nearly all of this occurs in lengthy cutscenes, which rear their heads frequently to interrupt the action, often committing the sin of depicting something that would be interesting to play through without the player's involvement. Indeed, Wolfenstein II finds itself in the unfortunate situation where it tends to be at its most creative when you're not actually playing.
That's not to say there aren't some excellent moments during the campaign. The game starts on a wonderfully strange high, with Blazkowicz fighting off a Nazi attack on the Kreisau Circle's U-boat while stuck in a wheelchair. A couple of missions later you're creeping through the wreckage of bombed-out New York, engaging in sniper battles with Nazis clad in radiation suits while Manhattan's twisted skyscrapers loom over you.
Like its cast of characters, Wolfenstein II's level settings are a diverse and colourful lot. Yet after impressing you with a pretty sky-box, the missions have a tendency to devolve into running through expansive concrete bunkers. An example sees Blazkowicz travel to Roswell, New Mexico. The first part of the mission has you exploring a gorgeously rendered town centre in the middle of a parade. The celebration blends American exceptionalism with Nazi regalia. Swastikas adorn the buildings while red, white, and blue confetti flutters through the air and a trio of jets fly over the town. It's a captivating sequence, but the actual mission takes place in a comparatively dreary underground military complex. The New Colossus repeats this mistake several times, even in what is supposed to be its star mission, the equivalent of the first game's Nazi Moon base.
Fortunately, while the levels aren't as inventive as they might initially appear, the shooting itself has improved over The New Order. Blazkowicz's arsenal is more or less the same as the first game, but is bolstered by an expansive upgrade system and a few tweaks. The machinegun, for example, can double as a powerful sniper rifle that is excellent at killing Nazis at mid-to-long range. The throwing-knives, meanwhile have been replaced by throwing hatchets, which make for particularly messy and satisfying stealth kills. All guns can be dual-wielded in any combination, although nothing beats a pair of shotguns upgraded to fire three shells at once for maximum destruction.
Enemy designs have been rethought, too. There are far fewer bullet-sponge opponents in the game. Even the heavily armoured SuperSoldaten can't take more than a few blasts from the shotgun before collapsing in a wet pile of armour and flesh. This also means MachineGames can throw more enemies at you in any given firefight, which makes combat both more spectacular and more exciting. Amongst the various species of Nazi scum are a few new enemies, such as T-1000-like robots that can evade your fire with superhuman acrobatics, and floating drones which, in a first for gaming, are not horrible to fight.
At a raw feedback level, the combat is excellent. All the weapons are satisfying to wield, and enemy animations are first-rate. Sadly, the combat rarely gets time to establish a flow. The officer-based stealth system from the previous game is back, where you can seek out and quietly kill enemy officers to minimise enemy numbers. But this system means you either don't get a proper firefight, or the game overwhelms you with enemies. On top of this are regular interruptions for cutscenes, collecting the vast amounts of ammo and armour lying around, and the (admittedly optional) text and audio logs. This results in combat stuttering forward in a way that never lets you get into it, compared to, say, the elegant flow of last year's Doom.
I think The New Colossus struggles to remain within the constraints of a linear shooter. Alongside everything else I've mentioned, The New Colossus also includes a home base that you return to after each mission, where you can talk to characters and occupationally partake in side-missions. On top of that is the new Enigma system that lets you return back to certain areas to track down tough Nazi commandos.
It all smacks of a game that secretly wants to be an RPG or an immersive sim, and I think MachineGames either needs to embrace that wholeheartedly and make a bigger game or trim out some of the narrative or systemic flab to help the gunplay flow better. As it stands, although The New Colossus contains great shooting, its structure does not lend itself to being a great shooter, and while I admire it's ambition, I would quite like it to settle down and let me get on with some good old Nazi killin'.