Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (TNC) is actually the third modern Wolfenstein game. The New Order (TNO) and The Old Blood (TOB) are the previous releases in the last few years by Machine Games and Bethesda Softworks. If you enjoy guns-blazing FPS action with a surpringly deep story and cast of characters, the Wolfenstein games deserve your attention. TNC picks up right after the events of TNO, in which, spoiler alert, the hero BJ Blazkowicz nearly dies in his heated battle with Death’s Head. Nearly torn apart, BJ is comatose for about five months.
TNC begins with taking players through the events of TNO, including the decision players have to make a couple of hours into the original adventure where you have to choose which one of your comrades gets to live, and which has to die at the hand of Death’s Head. This alters the story’s timeline some, and also presents a fine opportunity to replay the game as well. I believe I chose Private Wyatt years ago when I first played TNO, and I did the same this time around, although I came to kind of regret it as I didn’t like Wyatt’s character as much as the story developed in TNC. Anyway, after making that choice again and catching up with the rest of the events, gameplay begins aboard the Eva’s Hammer U-Boat, with the Kreisau Circle (the resistance force) has captured from the Nazis. Having been a safe, hidden transport for several months, Eva’s Hammer is now under invasion by General Engel’s airship. Players reprise their role as BJ, who awakens just in time to drag himself out of bed and into a wheelchair to fight back the Nazis once again.
BJ’s body is certainly broken, and that your max health is capped at 50 for the first half or so of the game is indicitive of that. You can however, get up to 200 armor during this time, and that’s due to story reasons I won’t spoil. The story is more provocative than I anticipated, which is something I would also say for TNO and TOB. Race relations, BJ’s awful abusive father contrasted with his loving mother, his childhood, and his own difficulty coming to terms with his mortality in the face of being an expectant father (Anya is pregant with twins), provide strong themes that you simply do not normally see in a gun-heavy action game. As with the previous Wolfenstein outings by Machine Games, BJ has some voiceovers, internal monologues, where he reflects about what going’s on. These are sometimes very basic, and sometimes pretty deep and they give a real boost to the characters, BJ especially, and it makes them much more interesting and worth investing in. I still remember one of the things he would say a few times in TNO at key plot moments –“Breath in, count to four, breath out, count to four” — simple enough on paper, but how those lines were used during key points in the story was really neat.
I applaude Machine Games for making a universe that gives players ample reason and opportunity to invest, but I have to admit that most of the collectibles I skimmed or didn’t even read. There are tons of collectibles in TNC. I think all told there are a couple of hundred or so of these, from rare gold pieces, concept art pickups, “star cards,” enigma codes, tons of readable pickups like notes, postcards, letters, newspapers, internal Nazi memos, and much more. A lot of these readables are somewhat long, not Quantum Break long, but still long, and most of them are kinda similar to one another. I found myself picking up all of these that I could, as I tend to explore thoroughly anyway, but I wasn’t worried about reading them despite having an interest in the story and key characters. Similarly, I found myself uninterested in the chatter amongst NPCs, such as that between Nazis that are nearby but unaware of your presence. The (friendly) characters, by the way, are mostly from TNO, including Anya, Set Roth, Caroline, Bombate, Max Hass, Wyatt or Fergus, and so on. Lots of newcomers get into the story as well, like Grace and Super Spesh, who bring their own personality to and already eccletic mix. I will say however that the foul language by some of these characters (Grace especially), gets to be a bit much.
So, how is actually playing TNC? Well, it’s a very competent FPS. Players can dual-wield any combinations of weapons right from the start, and weapons can be upgraded with upgrade kits that you can only get by finding them in the game world. Perks are unlocked as you perform things during play, like getting 25, 50, and 100 headshot kills, or using your hatchet for so many kills. There are over a dozen different perk categories, and these provide bonuses like delaying how quickly commanders can activate alarms, tempering recoil on weapons, and much more. They’re fun to pursue while playing, and I noticed that I was earning points in a lot of categories without even trying to, and that speaks to the diversity of combat encounters and methods available to you. Combat is often furious and fast, although I found that after I upgraded my Sturmgewehr with a scope, things got a lot more fun, this was actually the first upgrade I did. Before that, accuracy was a major problem for me. The second upgrade for armor piercing bullets made most of the tank enemies easy as well, but there’s still plenty of challenge to be had thanks to enemies attacking from a variety of angles (although rarely in the vertical plane) and damage being sustained rapidly. And, wow, those attack dogs pop out of nowhere sometimes and can startle you if you’re not paying attention.
The combat encounters are satisfying though, a must for an action-heavy FPS like this, and they are the meat of the gameplay that is otherwise about getting from A to B, and pressing Square when prompted to activate the next story sequence, be it planting a bomb, opening a door, or what have you. I will say that I appreciate that if you’re at a prompt that is going to end the level, the prompt notifies you of this, so that if you aren’t ready to leave yet, you can avoid accidentally doing so.
One nuisance that persists from previous Wolfenstein games that I believe is worth metioning are the ‘hitboxes’ and screen clutter. What I mean by this is that, a lot of times, items I am prompted to interact with in the gameworld I don’t even see, especially some collectibles. Or at least, I don’t see it right off. Rather, I just see the prompt to pick up ammo, or armor, or switch to a heavy gun, or pick up whatever collectible it is. And, while rarer still, sometimes the prompt for these and the actual location of the item as it is in the gameworld can be a little off, which is what leads me to say the ‘hitboxes’ are sometimes a little off-ish. One case in point is in the Eva’s Hammer, in Max Hass’ room, the music box which you can interact with to turn it on. The prompt for this appears on screen even if I am looking well off to the left and down and the music box is not in the visible field at all. On a related note, there are a bunch of items in the world that bring up prompts — fallen weapons and armor pieces, crates with items in them, health packs scattered all about, and what that does, inadvertently, is create a bunch of “pickup X” or (just as often) a “X is maxed out!” prompt on the screen. My strategy typically was, just like in TNO and TOB, run through an area and just button mash square and move on. It just felt like there was a bit too much chatter in this regard than there needed to be.
The HUD clutter I am referring to is by no means a game-breaker, but it’s not ideal as the game is quite a visual treat overall, especially the scenes where things slow down and you can explore and look into the details that Machine Games put into the game world. Framerates on my launch PS4 were never a concern either. The sound package is also great, with a soundtrack not quite on the level of DOOM, but it has some intense grooves and atmosphere-building tunes nonetheless, while voiceovers and effects are also great. A lot of levels are kind of steel and concrete and monotone and there is a noticeable, but certainly not excessive, amount of symmetry to level design. However, there are also a lot of very nicely designed levels, like the early Manhatten level is great, and I loved the wavy water effects in that one too. There is a bit too much “crawl through the massive air vent” going on which, like explosive barrels and weapons crates, are two tropes in FPS games I would like to see disappear for a while.
In sum, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is exactly what I was expecting given what we saw in the previous Wolfenstein titles by Machine Games. It’s a AAA quality guns-blazing romp to be sure, but with a very quality story and characters that not only invites players to get invested, but gives them ample reason to.