If Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is intelligent commentary on the perils of nationalism, then James Bond’s Moonraker is a satire of Cold War hysterics. Both are great entertainments, surely, and have much to say about how the world works = plus they both have laser-weapons and space travel. But neither should be taken that seriously as barometers of the social zeitgeist.
Not long after the clash between far-right and antifa groups in Charleston turned deadly this summer, Bethesda released a trailer touting Wolfenstein II’s strict Anti-Nazi Policy, by which they meant total destruction by any and all means necessary. The game looked incredibly violent, ridiculous, and deeply satisfying to our reptilian sensibilities. Fair enough, as this was certainly the mood of a nation still reeling over the sight of Swastikas and white nationalists in 2017.
One unfortunate side effect of Bethesda’s no-early-reviews policy is that it’s become painfully clear some outlets, even larger and better-funded ones, felt compelled to rush out reviews of the game to keep pace with other larger and better-funded ones. Apart from the laughably system of “review is progress”, many of these slapdash jobs completely mischaracterized, if not misrepresented, what the game actually was. So much attention was paid to a single scene showing an occupied American city with fully robed KKK members cavorting with Nazis about music on Main Street.
That’s not what Wolfenstein II is about, or even what it tries to be. Yes, there are allusions to what a Nazi-controlled world might look like, including openly-racist policies and all the expected horrors that a Reich-based world would entail. Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll find a game bent on delivering one absurdity after the next, with a healthy dose of zany moments that are hard to take seriously strewn throughout.
Nazis are still prime candidates for Bad Guy status, and few are willing to make hay over it. Only the Nazis in Wolfenstein don’t resemble the real thing in any discernable way (if you need a more pure Nazi-killing experience, you’ve always got COD: WW2). I’m not sure the fine folks at MachineGames understand the quiet subtleties of satire, but they sure did make one fine Nazi murder simulator.
Something to ponder: Wolfenstein proposes that, had the Nazis taken control we’d have flying battleships, laser weapons, cybernetic soldiers, computers (with mice!), and even a colonized Venus..all by 1961. Heck, they’ve even got a female General leading troops to victory, if you’re checking off boxes for progress. So she’s a sociopathic killer with a gift for torture – at least the trains run on time.
If you missed The New Order, don’t fret, as The New Colossus recaps that one’s insane plotline before you even get started. In a nutshell: the Nazis won World War 2, took over the United States, and once again it’s up to bulked-out B.J. Blazkowicz, who looks like a disturbing hybrid of Duke Nukem and John Cena, to lead the resistance to victory. You’ll start off in a wheelchair, get your head chopped off (you’ll get better), ride a flame-spewing robot cat, meet a pot-pissing Hitler, and slaughter thousands of idiotic Nazi soldiers with your pregnant lady love by your site. All in a day’s work for our surprisingly sensitive hero.
Strip away all that modern trappings and you’ll find Wolfenstein II a fairly old-school shooter – which is a very good thing indeed. What we’ve got here is a campaign-driven FPS pulsing with that particular forward-momentum that drove the best of them, at least before online multiplayer came along and stole the show. Superficially, you’ll find most of the FPS gameplay right as rain; controls are tight and refined, perfect for sloshing through wave after wave of Nazi baddies. Speaking of our favorite villains for killing, they really don’t look, act, or behave like actual Nazis, or actual people, really. These Nazis are as dumb as the meat slabs they become when being chopped or blown to smithereens. You can use stealth for gory takedowns, but this seems more perfunctory than necessary, as you’ll almost always opt for the most righteous kills possible.
There’s dual-wielding weapons for added punch, letting you mix ‘n match different guns to find just the right combo to take down Nazi hordes for the ultimate splatterfest. There’s even upgrade paths to give favorite weapons added bang and usefulness, though you’re limited to three upgrades per weapon with limited kits, so choose wisely. There are upgrade perks that reward skill-based goals like successful headshots or employing available toys ‘creatively’, but these are automated so you’ve got less room to haggle. If all else fails, you’ve always got your trusty hatchet. “Lotta things you can do with a hatchet. And a Nazi.” Truer words, my friends, truer words.
Another aspect that deserves some attention is the situational gameplay that arises when our hero, um, literally loses his head (spoilers!). At this point you’ll get to choose from three different body-augmented enhances, all of which will have variable changes throughout the rest of the campaign. I choose the crazy leg-extenders, which made unreachable areas more reachable; I’m not sure if these variables have all that much effect, but they help give the illusion that Wolfenstein offers more depth than it probably does. I’m good with that.
And let’s talk about those bugs, glitches, and other aggravating design choices that, ultimately, stymie the game from being the glorious Nazi-killin’ simulator it desperately wants to be. most Most are more hilarious than nefarious, though, and you’ll chuckle seeing dead Nazi bodies floating by. Others, however, threaten to cripple whatever enjoyment you’d otherwise have. Most relate to poor design choices than technical hiccups, if that helps.
Most egregious is the game’s practically non-existent feedback system while being pummeled from all sides, making it nigh impossible to judge what’s happening. Curiously, the game supports rumble feedback, just not when you’re being attacked. On-screen prompts aren’t that helpful, either, and you’ll be stone cold dead before you even know it. Like so much else in the game, perhaps the devs thought this route was more in keeping with the old-school playstyle, but it still sucks.
Because so much of the action takes place in narrow hallways, tunnels, or tunnel-like locations there are severe chokepoints where you’ll have to survive waves and waves of Nazis attacks. Unfortunately, there are times when the game’s auto-save and respawning system results in a game-breaking mess. You might find yourself respawning just seconds – seconds! – before being blasted into chunky Blazkowicz beef over and over again, forced to consider which precious movements may get you out of danger. The only option is to reload a checkpoint and play through large portions of the game over again.
One new, if slightly frustrating, addition is how your life-meter isn’t set to max; this game honors events of the last, meaning our mortally wounded Blazkowicz is constantly losing health. It never reaches zero, but you’ll definitely experience anxiety as your precious health meter ticks slowly down. Unlike DOOM, where armor and health float your way, you’ll be scurrying to snatch every health pack and armor shard sparkling in the distance to stay alive. It doesn’t take much to bring Blazkowicz down, over and over, so best stock up and keep moving.
Speaking of scavenging… best get used to it. For some bizarro reason known only to the developers and their therapists, you’ll have to manually pick up nearly EVERY piece of additional ammo and health you’ll find on your mission to total Nazi obliteration. A smarter game design would’ve inferred that, yes, you’d love to have that ammo and health automatically snatched up while multitasking enemy kills and running like a madman. Worse still, items have specific hitboxes that you’ll need to look at specifically before you can snatch ‘em up, which drove me nuts. This makes no sense as you’ll jam the ‘collect’ button as much as you’ll be pulling on the trigger. There’s no consistency either, as some objects appear to auto-collect while most don’t.
Presentation-wise, Wolfenstein II easily delivers the most fluid FPS action seen since, well, DOOM. Regardless of what platform you choose the game is buttery-smooth and incredibly slick, coupled with precise controls that make controlling Blazkowicz a joy. While having to micro-manage a huge arsenal can be unwieldy in tight spots, the game rewards those who plan ahead before charging into battle against armored, flame-throwing Nazis, flame-spewing robot dogs, and other flame-spouting villainous foes. Did I mention the game loves its flames?
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I even enjoyed the campy dialogue and voice-acting throughout, most of which is built on grossly exaggerated stereotypes. Blazkowicz (Brian Bloom) is too overwrought to be taken seriously, but others make up for it. The jive-talking, take-no-$#!% leader of the resistance Grace (Debra Wilson) brings a touch of 60s Afrocentrism – and breast-feeding – to the group, as does Max Hass (Alex Solowitz), the lovable half-brained hero with Hodar/Groot like mono-word speech. The rest are a hoot: the psychedelic genius, the Yiddish-spouting doctor who loves head-transplants, and let’s not forget the obese Nazi defector and the black man who ‘loves’ her (and pretty much all the ladies).
It’s Nina Franoszek that steals the show as the grotesque General Frau Irene Engel, relishing her sadism and butchery with aplomb. Cut from the same gaming cloth we’ve seen with Pagan Min from Far Cry 4, her role more interstitial between levels than necessary. But man alive, is she a nasty piece of work. Kudos to the devs for delivering a freakishly great female baddie that can hang with the baddest boys.
If only the developers would’ve reconciled Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus more saccharine moments with its truer, more preposterous intentions the end result might’ve been a revelation. Which is a shame, because when everything works the game purrs like a kitten. Combat is great, the storyline satisfyingly stupid, and there’s loads of fun Easter eggs littered throughout for fans to squeal over. Unfortunately, questionable design choices mar the overall experience, most of which were avoidable. Adherence to old-school gaming principles worked in DOOM because that series benefited from them; ironically, while Wolfenstein actually predates id’s hellish shooter, it could’ve used a bit more modern gloss. As it stands, The New Colossus is practically the definition of a great rental, and not much else.