For a game about a gruff macho soldier killing robot Nazis, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus tugged at my heartstrings in ways I would have never expected. The series, throughout its 35+ year history, has always been campy and over-the-top. Those elements still exist in The New Colossus, but they are fused with pure brutality, terrific modern storytelling, and a wonderful cast of characters.
The New Colossus begins right where 2014’s The New Order left off, with hero BJ Blazkowicz critically wounded and on the run. The opening segment sees Blazkowicz rolling around his U-Boat hideaway in a wheelchair blasting Nazis with a submachine gun. This sets the tone for what is going to be a very bloody journey during very desperate times. It is simultaneously outrageous, comical, and horrific. These themes continue throughout the 15 hour campaign and build upon themselves in fascinating ways. I was genuinely surprised by the twists and turns that the game took and even had a few moments where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
In this alternate history timeline, Nazi Germany have won the war and now occupy the United States. The Nazi army is commanded by Frau Engel, who is has perhaps become my favorite villain in recent years. Expanding on her story from the first game, she now has complete power and is on a hate campaign to kill Blazkowicz and make an example of him in front of the entire world. Each on-screen moment with Frau Engel is riveting, as she never ceases to be maliciously evil to the bone. An early scene in which she denounces and humiliates her daughter had me wrenching my gut and feeling powerless.
Wolfenstein II is full of hard-to-watch moments, but also infuses some fairly bizarre humor such as a scientist named Set who works on outrageous experiments such as sewing a cat’s head onto a monkey’s body. He and the rest of Blazkowicz’ crew of revolutionaries reside on the Evas Hammer, a massive U-Boat that also serves as a base of operations. Throughout the game, you’ll visit and check in on your crew. These non-combat sequences are some of the most rewarding moments in the game, as it is an opportunity to dive into each character’s backstory and state of mind. Visiting them after each mission offers insight into their reasons for fighting and feels like an in-game way to relax and get to know each other. In the wake of all the terror and blood that is spilled throughout the campaign, it’s hugely effective to have a home to go back to.
One of the greatest achievements of The New Colossus is its ability to remain over-the-top throughout the game, but also deal with some very real themes. Some of the campiest moments include fighting spacesuit-clad Nazis on Venus, riding a giant mechanical dog that breathes fire, and firing a laser gun that turns enemies into mush. These are contrasted by scenes where Blazkowicz and his girlfriend, Anya, are talking about the future of their unborn children and a birthday party where everybody gets drunk and forgets about the horrors of the world for one evening. This rebel group is putting everything on the line to fight for a free world, even in light of it being a near-hopeless effort. Newcomer characters such as the black revolutionary Grace and the turncoat daughter of Frau Engel, Sigrun, add interesting dynamics and perspectives to the war. Sigrun provides valuable intel on her mother’s army, but not everybody sees her as a trustworthy ally. These struggles add depth to the characters on board the Evas Hammer in a way that was emotionally resonant for me.
Even our jarhead hero, BJ Blazkowicz strikes emotional chords, particularly in one sequence where the game delves deep into his childhood. Visiting his family home in what is a Gone Home-esque walking simulator moment is perhaps my favorite part of the game. Bigotry started early in Blazkowicz’ life, with the pressure of his father, who married a Jewish woman for financial reasons only to sell her out to the Nazis when they took power. In a flashback sequence, he forces young BJ to do something so despicable, it had me wishing the scene would end.
When it came time to come back to the combat, I felt like I had even more purpose for mowing down hordes of enemy soldiers. The grim narration from Blazkowicz’ gravelly voice pairs nicely with the bloody violence to create heavy combat situations. Nothing beats shooting down a hallway with an automatic shotgun or melting armor-clad soldiers with the red beam of the laserkraftwerk. Combat in The New Colossus is admittedly cartoonish, and what you might see in a campy action movie, but it works based on the fact that the game isn’t afraid to embrace tongue-in-cheek “video game-ness”. In the midst of the action, you can use a hatchet to cut down Nazis below the knees then, once they fall to the ground, split their face down the middle.
There are only a handful of weapons in Wolfenstein II, but they are each significant enough to merit their uses amongst the wide array of tactical situations. I favored the silenced pistol for most of the game, due to there being a lot of great stealth opportunities when sneaking into enemy territory. Similar to the first game, there are commanders in each area that emit an alarm signal should you get caught by any of the patrols. Eliminating the commanders ensures that there won’t be any reinforcements, and that the remaining soldiers are trapped in a room with BJ Blazkowicz aka “Terror Billy”. When things broke into an all-out gunfight, I favored the Sturmgewehr, an assault rifle that can be set to an accurate semi-auto mode. A new weapon called the dieselkraftwerk launches sticky grenades that can be detonated after the fact, making it ideal for taking out heavily armored opponents.
The perk system is back from The New Order, which serves as a fantastic way to reward players for their specific play style. For example, stealth takedowns and head shots are rewarded with quicker crouch movement speed and increased damage while using iron sights. I went out of my way to check the perks chart in the pause menu to see what else I could accomplish. It prompted me to try new weapons and combat techniques.
While many of the visited locations such as New York City are destroyed, BJ’s ventures to Roswell offer a look into what everyday life is like in Nazi-controlled America. The small town is decorated with Swastika banners and propaganda posters, with heavily armored soldiers patrolling the streets to the tune of a triumphant Nazi war song. Each of the small businesses is distinctly German such as the Blitzen-Diesel Oil Company, Roswell Pretzels, and the Klasse Spielzeug toy store. While walking through the 1960’s town, I overheard a conversation in which one of the Nazi soldiers was urging two robed Ku Klux Klan members to start learning German. It’s a scary look into a world where fascism has been normalized in America.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is surely one of the best single player games of the year, crafting masterful storytelling with 80s science fiction pulp. Despite always keeping the action ramped up to 11 and being completely ridiculous, it left me with a gaping hole in my heart as I felt for every character in this game. MachineGames have crafted something truly special that can only work in a video game. The New Colossus takes everything that was great about The New Order and improves upon it in meaningful ways. It’s a dark emotional journey set in a world that mixes reality with absurdity. It holds great power with its story.