By Mike Malpiedi
(Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers in this review that relate to certain plot points in the game.)
Wolfenstein 2 is the game I didn’t know I needed this year. It honestly blew all my expectations completely out of the water… It is just that good. What is undoubtably the the best aspect of Wolfenstein is its engaging, emotional, and thrilling narrative about a group of American rebels and outcasts banding together to do the seemingly impossible: stand-up to the unstoppable Nazi war machine and give America its fighting spirit back. Wolfenstein 2 elevates the story-telling from The New Order by providing a stellar combination of compelling voice-acting, excellent character development, insightful social commentary, and a truly despicable villain. One of the best narrative changes in The New Colossus is BJ’s characterization. Billy is more fleshed out this time around and we get to see him experience a wider range of emotion and development.
Billy starts the game broken and vulnerable after just starting to recover from the wounds he received at the end of The New Order. This component of the story happens to effect the overall gameplay since BJ’s wounds take a toll on his total health and ability to regenerate; for the first half of the game you have a base of 50 health instead of 100 and can only recover up to 10 health points. It’s a nice touch, and helps to give an added weight to the overall gameplay experience. You can actually feel BJ’s vulnerability as you attempt to fight off wave after wave of Nazi soldiers. For reason I won’t disclose, BJ gets access to the crazy Da’at Yichud armor from The New Order and it helps supplement the lack of health by giving 200 armor, but even regular Nazi grunts can still make quick work of BJ if you aren’t careful. While Terror Billy still strikes fear into the hearts of Nazis, he is far from being in prime condition and the game does a wonderful job of merging gameplay and narrative so you can really feel this juxtaposition of myth and reality. BJ’s inner monologue only further reinforces this state of weakness and insecurity as he contemplates his own potential death and the impact it could have on the love of his life, Anya.
BJ’s storyline and backstory-related flashbacks also create a powerful commentary on masculinity and violence as well as American racism. During his flashbacks, it is revealed that BJ’s father is a violent racist who only married his Jewish mother for access to her family’s wealth. These scenes are vignettes that speak to how BJ’s father attempts to use violence and abuse as tools for teaching him how to “be a man.” They also speak to how racism and toxic ideologies are taught to younger generations by showing how BJ’s father attempts to ruin and vilify his friendship with a young African American girl. What these flashback vignettes do best is present that, even as a child, you can still choose to oppose your oppressor by living the life you want to live. BJ never adopts the same toxic ideology as his father; never disrespects, abuses, or treats woman as lesser; and, while BJ absolutely utilizes violence, he only uses violence to protect those he loves and to ensure freedom for others. Each of these scenes are harrowing (one scene involving a dog is particularly painful to experience) and offer a depth of insight for Billy’s character that was lacking in The New Order.
The supporting characters in The New Colossus are, once again, an absolute joy and are much more diverse than the previous installation. Returning characters such as Anya, Wyatt, and Fergus are given some of the best scenes in the game. Not only that, but whether you choose Wyatt or Fergus (which the game makes you do again at the beginning) effects the overall narrative since certain scenes play differently based on this choice. And each new character introduce in The New Colossus is a breathe of fresh air. Seriously this game has everyone, southern anarchists, black revolutionaries, clarinet playing gunslingers, alien conspiracy theorists, cat-monkeys… all coming together to fight tyranny.
It’s a thing of beauty.
These new characters, such as the black revolutionary leader Grace and the anarchist rebel Horton, prove to be incredibly skilled in causing mayhem for the Third Reich and show how heroes are born from all walks of life. This is a particular theme that the game explores throughout its story while questioning the Nazi’s ideal of the aryan hero. This idea of a true hero is something that is brought up frequently by the game’s fiendishly sadistic villain, General Engel, who mocks BJ early in the game for being in such a weakened state. What Wolfenstein 2 proves, however, is that heroes are the battered and worn survivors who persist despite the wounds they have taken and endure because they must.
Speaking of Engel, this antagonist is another thing that The New Colossus gets so right. She is a welcomed upgrade from the previous game’s villain, Deathshead. In The New Order, Deathshead was just a caricature of a Nazi mad scientist who was pretty boring and barely present in the game, but Engel is much more threatening and maniacal presence. If you thought she was scary in The New Order, just wait until she reintroduces herself to you in The New Colossus. I think I will leave it at that actually and let her show you what’s she is all about (hint: she’s messed up). Engel’s daughter, Sigrun, also makes her introduction in this game and her character is interesting because through her we see the types of abuse that mothers can inflict on their daughters through her relationship with General Engel. Wolfenstein 2 is very much a game about redemption and Sigrun’s desire to denounce her Nazi heritage by helping BJ’s crew dismantle the regime provides quite a few intriguing points of conflict and development during the story.
Oh, and there is another despicable villain that makes an appearance part way through the game, but all I will say regarding that is this appearance makes for one of the most unnerving yet deeply satisfying moments I have ever experience in a video game. Alright, moving on…
MachineGames also succeeds at making their Nazi nightmare reality feel more alive and captivating. Interactions between characters on the U-Boat are incredibly human and unique; a moment where Super Sesh expresses his joy over seeing a working toilet was particularly hilarious and genuine. Every location from New York, New Orleans, to Roswell looks and feels completely different. Each city presents a specific viewpoint revealing how the United States has fair under Nazi rule. New York is a wasteland after the devastating explosion of the atom bomb. The only rebels in the area are, quite accurately, the black revolutionaries. Meeting this group in New York creates excellent commentary on how black Americans have always been rebelling against injustice while the majority of their white counterparts easily become complacent under tyranny. This complacency later presents itself in Roswell which is made to look like the perfect “All-American” city except with happy white Americans cheering on the Nazis troops as they march through the streets. New Orleans is the most fascinating location in the game, in my opinion, since the city has been turned into a massive ghetto where the Nazis keep all the minorities and rebels.
What makes all of these locations so captivating, and deeply unsettling, is that they speak to truths that are present within the real world (whether Bethesda and MachineGames wants to acknowledge it or not). This terrifying Nazi controlled America is honestly plausible, and given the rise of the Alt-Right movement and visibility of Nazism in America there is an added sense of weight that you cannot help, but feel as you walk through each of these cities. While games are often sought as a means of escape from reality, it is always a pleasure to see a game that isn’t afraid to say something about human society (in this case American society) and this blurring of lines only made the experience of Wolfenstein 2 stronger for me. The sense of urgency these characters feel as they desperately attempt to save what little of their country they have left is something that many of us in the US can feel universally now.
While the game’s story and world are undoubtably engrossing, there were moments where the Wolfenstein 2‘s gameplay got in the way and pulled me out of the experience. To be more specific, there are many moments in the game where the difficulty is borderline unfair even on normal difficulty. Many other players even turned the difficulty down to easy just so they could enjoy the excellent narrative. I’m all for challenge, but often times a level will throw tons of armored soldiers and super soldiers with very few avenues to take outside of fighting them head on. You might be thinking “Well that sounds like a blast! Isn’t that why you play Wolfenstein?” and that would be a fair stance if each enemy in the game wasn’t an obnoxious bullet-sponge (tip: get the armor piercing round upgrade for the Sturmgewehr immediately… Trust me!). This difficulty detracts from the narrative experience when you get into the second half of the game especially since BJ is given some major upgrades, but you don’t fully feel all that powerful when you are actually in combat.
It also doesn’t help that the level designs make you feel like you have a stealth option when there truly isn’t in most cases. There my be a vent or duct here and there, but the vast majority of the time you will be spotted immediately as soon as you peak out of hiding. And don’t even bother sneaking if there are super-soldiers in the area, they will seriously always catch you and then it becomes an awful fire-fight.
The autosave feature in the game can be a bit of a bother as well. There were quite a few times where the game saved itself in the worst possible place. For example during the court room sequence the game autosaved in a spot where I was in the crosshairs of three armored Nazis with shotguns, so whenever the game reload I was, more often than not, immediately gunned down. I cannot tell you how many times I died during this level… let’s just say I wasn’t happy and many expletives were yelled at a high volume.
Despite these minor inconveniences, the overall gunplay in The New Colossus is pretty satisfying. Once you have the right momentum going it can make for very kinetic and frantically fun experience. There is nothing quite like rushing through the war torn streets of New Orleans as tear through Nazis left and right with dual-wielded shotguns. The weapon options and upgrades feel great and provide plenty of ways to eliminate the Nazi menace. Speaking of weapons, thank all the gods of the nine realms for giving BJ a hatchet. The hatchet alone is one of the best additions in the game and I hope they keep it as the go to melee weapon in future installations.
The New Colossus comes with a surprising amount of replayability which is a nice touch. The game includes plenty of collectibles, end-game missions, side missions, and alternate storylines to keep completionists busy for some time. I know I’ll be giving in another run-through simply to see Wyatt’s acid-tripping shenanigans.
What is the most impressive about Wolfenstein 2 as an overall experience is its ability to balance moments of vulnerability, horror, compassion, absurdity, and self-reflection without even breaking a sweat. Wolfenstein 2 proves that action games can be both ridiculously violent fun while also telling a compelling story with impactful social commentary. This is a game with a lot to say, and while it might falter at times, what it says is no less bold and insightful. The New Colossus is a game that asks its players to not turn a blind-eye to the horrors of tyranny and realize the power that they have even in their most vulnerable state. It is a game that shows us how heroes come from all walks of life and that in order to make a better world we need to stand together. It’s a game about looking into the traumas of your heritage and learning how to oppose its toxicity.
And yes, it’s a game about making America Nazi fucking free again by any means necessary.
Wolfenstein 2 is a bloody, rebellious walk-up call that isn’t afraid to wear its politics on its sleeve… and it is absolutely all the better for it.