Review: Wolfenstein 2 is a Poignant Adventure into a Terrifying Alternate Reality
In Wolfenstein: The New Order, BJ Blazkowicz was constantly on the field of battle, exploring and fighting a post-World War II Nazi Germany. The scenes in which players took part were foreign, as concrete jungles, panopticons and flags flying the swastika made it clear it was an alternate reality on display. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, however, feels more poignant. Of course, this is due in large part to our current political climate. Yet walking through small town USA, gawking at the 1960s in all their colorful and post-war glory would be tough to absorb in any era if the beauty is enveloped in Nazi symbolism and racist iconography.
Machine Games evidently recognized this and doubled down it. While strolling the streets of Roswell, New Mexico, a disguised BJ runs into KKK members casually conversing with an SS officer. Players can listen in on the conversation and hear the Klansmen praise the liberation of America, which, in their view, assures the white man’s return to prominence. This same instance sees the Klansmen struggle with their German, promising to be fluent before it’s made the official language of the American Territories. The Roswell level in its entirety is uncomfortable; it’s important, too. Throughout the game, players may experience similar feelings of discomfort—this is predominantly where Wolfenstein II excels.
While story is most certainly at the forefront of the franchise’s latest entry, gameplay remains king. Few first person shooters feel as good Wolfenstein, and the excellence has been heightened exponentially with improvements to the last title’s formula. The perk system is beefier this time around, as each perk has a tier system. Level one involves performing 10 kills from throwing the hatchet, which raises the hatchet carrying capacity by one. Get another 10 kills and, again, the carrying capacity increases, until five levels of identical tasks are complete. There’s additionally a weapon upgrade system. Scattered throughout the game are pick ups for such upgrades; find one and assign it to whichever weapon in your inventory has a free slot. The upgrades themselves are standard: extend a gun’s magazine, make grenades more volatile on impact, add a scope or silencer, etc. These changes to Wolfenstein’s core gameplay systems are integral, especially given what is perhaps The New Colossus’ most notable flaw.
Does the industry need another heated discussion on difficulty, following the unfortunate controversy that pervaded Cuphead’s launch week? Probably not. However, The New Colossus has some skin in the game. Combat encounters are not inherently difficult; they are instead overwhelming. With new gameplay systems comes the advent of new enemy types, none of which will be spoiled as encountering them for the first time is a treat, albeit a challenging one. Wave after wave of normal Nazi foes swarm into a combat arena, helped by a bevy of specially equipped Nazis donning mechanical suits and guns firing lasers. On the “normal” difficulty, it often feels akin to horde mode dialed up to 11, and it gets progressively more challenging as the game progresses.
Some of the tougher areas can be assuaged thanks to stealth, which is greatly improved over the last iteration in the series. It’s wonderfully satisfying to sneak up on an unsuspecting enemy, and dispatch them with a hatchet-kill animation that only BJ Blazkowicz could pull off as cleanly. Throwing the hatchet, another new addition, aids in fulfilling the thrill of stealth as well.
Collectibles also make a return, including Max’s toys, gold pieces that unlock concept art and others. The comeback that will undoubtedly excite the most is the ability to play Wolfenstein 3D. Playing it can be done at a player’s leisure, since instead of “nightmare” sequences that appear across multiple levels, Wolfenstein 3D is an arcade cabinet housed in The New Colossus’ headquarters for the resistance (a submersible hijacked from the Nazis).
The resistance itself, the Kreisau Circle (a real-world group of German dissidents), is a force to be reckoned with. After a set of tragedies alter the character arcs of the resistance’s most front-facing members, the game proper begins. Fun ensues, great storytelling is a hallmark, and the resistance redoubles their efforts to liberate the world from Hitler’s Nazi regime. The liberation begins in America, where the bulk of the game is set. One of the first missions involves recruiting Grace Walker, a former Black Revolutionary Front member who commands the American Resistance. In getting her involved, the efforts of the Kreisau Circle increase ten-fold.
Grace is a fascinating character, thanks to her being strongly written and brilliantly portrayed. But there’s admittedly much to be desired—it’d be nice to have learned more about her exploits as leader of the American Resistance. Furthermore, outside of their presence around the headquarters, and infrequently offering conversation or small assignments to the player, her rather large crew of resistance fighters are relegated to uselessness. Grace adopts the role of leader, working closely with prominent characters, Set, Wyatt, BJ and Anya, to coordinate plans of attack on how best to weaken the Nazi regime’s stronghold. Thus, her group’s apparent underutilization is especially felt. Unfortunately, the same can be said of another recruited team of resistance fighters from New Orleans (led by a man named Horton); the mission to retrieve them from the sectioned off, Nazi-destroyed ghetto seems to have been filler in hindsight.
The underuse of Grace and Horton’s respective fighters bears more discussion as there could be ample for them to do beyond the main story. For instance, a set of side missions in-game, also a new addition, task the player with finding and eliminating Ubercommandos throughout divisions of the American Territories. These individuals can be found via the genius repurposing of enigma codes. Perhaps Grace and Horton’s followers could have been dispatched as field agents alongside BJ to fight, or sent out to complete the jobs themselves with BJ coordinating attacks from the sub (i.e., the Brotherhood system in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood).
What cannot be discounted, though, is the expert interweaving of political commentary throughout The New Colossus. Newspapers and notes bear cleverly subtle nods to Donald Trump and America’s current state of affairs. In addition, no one in the resistance is afraid to voice their thoughts on Nazis. Thankfully, these inclusions do not feel shoehorned in, nor do they appear as though the developer is proudly standing atop a multi-million dollar produced soapbox. Machine Games isn’t talking at their audience, they’re encouraging them to join the conversation, or, at the very least, enticing them to think.
The most intriguing aspect of Wolfenstein 2’s storytelling can be unearthed in the questions it poses. One Nazi in a later level ponders why many Americans were so willing to adopt Nazism. Was it the Hiroshima-like bombing of New York? Were they swayed by the haunting reality of WWII? Or did they never truly believe in anything to begin with? Inquiries of this nature crop up every so often, prompting the player to stop and listen or pause the game and consider things that some in the real world are often too afraid to publicly ask. If nothing else, this is Wolfenstein’s greatest contribution to the discourse pervading modern society; no better is this represented than in the game’s closing few minutes. Great art breeds discussion, inspires one to question, reflect, reconsider. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is quite simply a great piece of art.