Review: ‘Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’ (PS4)
Fair warning: this article has some spoilers. Nothing too crazy, but if you want to come into Wolfenstein II totally blind - stop here.
There are three main reasons I am chomping at the bit to play Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus every day when I get home from work: character and story depth, intensely-paced action, and oh my god this game is satisfying. And it knows it is too; Wolfenstein II baits you in with a rich and compelling plot, and almost forces motivation on you with each squeeze of the trigger or swing of the hatchet. Machine Games found an itch I didn’t even know existed, and gave me an automatic shotgun to scratch it with. This game just hits the spot.
I can’t deny it: Wolfenstein II is over the top. By a lot. But despite its absurdity, it somehow manages to remain calm under pressure and weave a grounded story that delivers soft sentiment as much as it does violence. This is a product of the fact that the game’s protagonist, BJ Blazkowicz, isn’t just a Nazi-killing tank: I found myself becoming just as familiar with his emotional weaknesses as I was with his skills in combat. There are genuinely moving moments when his humanity shines through his power suit, and it becomes clear that his vulnerabilities are real. This is also in large part due to the incredible vocal presence of Brian Bloom as Blazkowicz, and the ensemble of compelling characters that surround him throughout the game. Players are introduced to BJ’s parents in the game’s opening moments, allowing a small peek behind the curtain of what makes him tick, and his abusive father (impressively voiced by Glenn Morshower) reveals an important cog in that machine. BJ’s motivations to fight for the sake of good are intrinsically linked to his relationship with his dad: the beatings, the fiery racism, the mental and emotional abuse-- these experiences make BJ as a character. Moreover, they make him human. As the game progresses, BJ’s relationships with characters like Set Roth, Grace Walker, and most importantly with his partner Anya, prove to be the cables that hold Wolfenstein together through jarringly chaotic gameplay. And this holds true for all characters too: even in his interaction with the sadistic Irene Engel, Blazkowicz’s world comes off as real and tangible. Without the stunning supporting cast that keeps this game grounded, Wolfenstein II may have been a bloody mess.
That being said, Wolfenstein II is a bloody mess - in all the ways it set out to be. Between the breakneck-speed firefights, and the tense, albeit rare moments of stealth gameplay, I don’t remember the last time I was pushed this hard to keep up in a game. Even the most meticulously planned encounters with enemies devolve into white-knuckle clashes as BJ sprints through waves of gunfire. While I’ll admit to playing Wolfenstein II on the hardest difficulty, this definitely takes some getting used to (especially for someone like me, fresh off a Destiny 2 run where movement gunplay are both more rigid and controlled). Everything from aiming down a scope to simply sprinting can feel a bit out of hand at times. In one of my favorite set pieces, just after reaching the top of the partially-destroyed Empire State Building and rendezvousing with the American Resistance, BJ is rushed by roughly 20 heavily armed Nazi soldiers, and at least four attack drones. The real challenge here is the arena size: a fairly small floor-space with very sparse cover, and an even smaller raised platform above it. It goes without saying that I died countless times, but it forced me to reckon with the game’s movement and pacing in way that I previously hadn’t. The lesson is simple: stand in one place too long, and you’re dead. Spend too much time sprinting around, and you can’t get your shots off (also dead). The secret to survival is finding the balance between the two, and using a “stick and move” approach to combat. Layering in a few hatchet throws or melee kills doesn’t hurt either, provided your timing and spacing from enemies is dialed in. However, even after understanding how to properly engage your foes in this game, death is inevitable. With this in mind, it would be really nice to know where fatal blows come from from after dying, but it doesn’t take away from the satisfaction of reloading the stage, and diving back into the battle guns-first. Speaking of satisfaction…
Wolfenstein II delivers a brand of satisfaction that felt refreshing and tasteful. It weaves together the mechanics of a wonderfully-built first person shooter and the gravitas of a dark, yet oddly hopeful political drama in a way that I never thought I’d see in a video game. These two elements create some intensely thirst quenching experiences that had me giddy to play more. Hearing the rev of the Laserkraftwerk as it cuts through waves of Nazi enemies results in an almost audible hit of endorphins every single time I fired it up - and the best part is, the motivation to squeeze the trigger didn’t end with “Nazis are bad”. Of course they are! But relying on that as reason to press forward would be the cheapest, easiest way out.
Fortunately for us, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus takes no easy paths. Machine Games and Bethesda team up to shine a spotlight on racial and historical tension, then provide players with a literal hatchet to cut through that tension in the fight for justice. This is not an easy product to deliver, but damn do they deliver it well. From the gameplay, to the script, to the game’s pre-launch marketing, Wolfenstein II is an unapologetically sharp experience that was an absolute joy to unravel.
If you’re still on the fence about buying it, I’ll connect some dots for you: get off the fence. This game needs to be played.