Wolfenstein: The New Order made a terrible first impression. The opening hours were insipid, a chore to chug through, but more importantly felt wildly out of place when placed next to the rest of the game, which was fun, outrageous, and tonally just so vastly different. Developer MachineGames hasn’t made the same mistake twice though. Where The New Order stumbled and dribbled out the gate, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus shoots out of a cannon: setting the tone instantly with vicious, Rambo-style wheelchair executions and general murder-mania.
The legend BJ Blazkowicz is back — but this time a bit broken at the start of the game. Following the conclusion of the The New Order he’s in a wheelchair and essentially crippled. Probably should be dead too. But if you know anything about Blazkowicz is that even borderline lifeless he’s more dangerous than almost any other man — and definitely still better at butchering any Nazi unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Starting Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus off with Blazkowicz in a wheelchair was a risky decision by MachineGames, because obviously the game plays differently: shooting is less tight and more wobbly, moving around is a tad clumsy, and you’re much slower. But yet it works. In fact, it might even work better. Some of the best moments in the first game where the intense combat sequences that finished in a power-trip high and left you feeling like an utter unstoppable force. Repeating those moments half-dead in a wheelchair only intensifies those feelings.
While mowing people down in a wheelchair is chaotic, entertaining, and often packing a pinch of hilarity, it isn’t as fun to sneak around with. As previously mentioned the wheelchair can be ungainly to maneuver around with, which doesn’t lend itself too well to sneaking around where I want to maximize my precision and effectiveness. That being said, slowly wheeling around a corner and creeping up on Nazi soldiers as they chatter about how their cousins had to clean up after one of Blazkowicz previous massacres before a montage of mid-section cheap shots and brutal executions left me snickering a few times.
The moment you grab a machine gun in one hand and push your wheelchair forward with the other, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’s atmosphere swallows you. The New Colossus isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind visually. It looks good, but it’s not the graphical fidelity that stopped me in my tracks every so often and left me just taking in the surronding environment: it was the game’s art direction and general level design that left me most impressed.
The design of the vessel you’re desperately escaping from has a very somber, industrial grey look and steam from machines that make trekking through it uneasy. This simple and sepulchral design is juxtaposed with ominous red flashing lights, sounds of alarms, and the crows of Nazi soldiers with bullets flying through them. I mentioned before that controlling Blazkowicz can be a hero-trip sometimes, but that doesn’t mean MachineGames doesn’t occasionally ramp up the tension, drench you with a disconcerting atmosphere, and remind you that you’re taking on the world-conquering Nazi war machine.
After the completion of this introductory chapter I was fast-forwarded to further in the game and planted on a mission taking place in Roswell, New Mexico, famous for the Roswell UFO incident and the heart of many supposed UFO conspiracies. Without granted much story context, one thing was clear — it (obviously) wasn’t chosen by accident.
And the Roswell chapter (or at least parts of it) couldn’t look or be anymore tonally different than the opening of the game. The chapter starts as you look down a long dusty main street that not only looks but feels like classic 60’s America, with cherry-red luxury convertibles and era appropriate advertising. Except it’s been Nazi-fied.
Beyond the absurd amount of Nazi flags and propaganda decorating the shops, gas stations, and buildings: Ku-Klux-Klan members are chatting on the sidewalk, flying robots are checking people’s identification, and there is chatter about selling slaves at an auction later that night. There is a palpable Orwellian vibe that uncomfortably lingers over you as you explore the celebratory streets of Roswell, and only heightened the more I paid attention to the environment’s smaller details.
Meanwhile cutscenes in both this chapter and the first chapter only add to and enrich Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’s tone. As would would expect, the game’s voice acting and facial animations are high-grade, but it’s the writing and general narrative tone the writers have gone far that sticks out the most.
If you’re a fan (as I am) of legendary director Quentin Tarantino: of the narrative style and tone of his films, their aestheticization of violence, and his relatively avant-garde approach to characters — then you’re going to enjoy your time with The New Colossus. The inspiration of films like Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained are quite obvious, though not tapped into too much too the point of feeling unoriginal. I didn’t get to view a great deal of cutscenes, but the few I was made privy to all left me captivated from start to finish, which considering my ADD, is no small feat.
The most noticeable difference between the two chapters is that Terror Billy has regained his health and strength and is wheelchair-less. But the end result is still the same: piles of dead Nazi soldiers at your feet. Without the wheelchair hindering your movement I also found stealth resurfaced as a more viable and enjoyable strategy to deploy.
Like the first game, meticulously making your way around and taking one enemy at a time feels rewarding each and every time your plan is fully executed as envisioned. And whether it’s kneecapping someone from afar with the incredibly fun to use throwing knives or just performing one of the game’s brutal and often beautiful gory executions keeps things feeling fresh, and prevents the common rinse and repeat pitfalls of many stealth games.
In a similar fashion — though perhaps not as highlighted or focal — to fellow Bethesda studio Arkane and its games, The New Colossus often presents you with multiple approaches to each task. Beyond the choice of stealth or rambo-style, there are environmental objects such as electric microwave traps or gas tanks to utilize, or even just multiple paths towards an objective.
However, like the first game I often found myself a victim to the allure of the chaos. And again, like The New Order, it’s in moments of pure mayhem that The New Colossus really shines. Shootouts, scrambling for ammo as terrifying Nazi Dogs chase you, and using your full arsenal of diverse (and sometimes zany) weapons simply creates for some of the most tense and satiating experiences you can find in any first-person shooter. I also noticed that you can now sometimes pick up ammo by just running over it (something that was disappointingly absent from the first game), which allows for the momentum of intense battles to carry on unhindered or just saves you from some annoyance when scavenging.
I still standby that Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of the best shooters this generation. Going into this preview, I expected Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus to be merely more Wolfenstein, but refined. And I was right. What I wasn’t expecting was just how much it was going to be refined. It’s clear MachineGames knew everything that didn’t and did work with the first game, and for the sequel they are just leaning more into the latter, which is the series’ idiosyncratic tone, it’s brutal and intense gameplay, and it’s willingness, commitment, and execution to sometimes being utterly, but delightfully, outlandish.