If you’re not aware, The New Colossus refers to a poem dedicated to the Statue of Liberty, which Wolfenstein protagonist William B.J. Blazkowicz read aloud at the end of The New Order – itself a reference to the political regime the Nazis wanted to impose on Europe. I mention it because it’s indicative of Wolfenstein II‘s attention to historical detail and generally phenomenal production standards. This is a game that was clearly made with love.
It seems odd to say the game has excellent historical detail when the whole point is that it’s set in an alternative 1960s America where the Nazis took control. But it does an amazing job of taking existing sixties cultural touchstones – the Black Panther movement and The Beatles, for example – and transposing them into a twisted world. The records you can find scattered about – all of which are playable – are just one example of this. In this world, The Beatles never happened: instead we have “Mond, Mond, Ja, Ja” by Die Kafer.
In terms of actual gameplay though, not much has changed from The New Order. Many of the same weapons are present, and old Terror-Billy does most of the same things he did before, with the exception of a few gameplay-altering ‘contraptions’ he gains access to later on. The old-school health packs are present and correct, too, although they don’t feel quite as revolutionary as they did in The New Order now that games like Call of Duty: WW2 and DOOM have binned regenerating health and adopted the idea.
As in the first game, you’re encouraged to adopt a stealth approach, at least initially. But with no snap-to-cover option or system for monitoring enemy movement and vision, it’s pretty damn hard to stay hidden for long. Not that this is a bad thing – Wolfenstein is at its most fun when you’re racing around, shotgun in one hand, machine gun in the other, shooting ten bells out of Nazi robots.
Trouble is, I didn’t feel like much of a gung-ho Nazi-killing super-soldier – at least on the normal difficulty level. Often, my progress came down to save spamming, eking my way a little bit further before dying rapidly and reloading. This game is hard. But I was relieved to find I’m not the only one who found the game tremendously difficult – Matt Geradi over at the AV Club made the point that Wolfenstein II gets so much better when you play on easy mode. And it really does – I had a whale of a time with it after I knocked the difficultly down a couple of notches. Not just because it made me feel more like the ‘Terror-Billy’ the Nazis in the game talk so fearfully of, chopping and shooting my way through dozens of elite soldiers, but also because the real pleasure of Wolfenstein II is getting to the end of each shootout so you can watch the utterly bonkers story unfold.
The whole thing is like an insane roller-coaster ride. I don’t want to spoil the plot for you, but it really is fantastic. All I’ll say is that you start off rolling around in a wheelchair, gunning down Nazis on a submarine, and it just gets crazier and crazier from there. And whereas in most games I find myself just willing the cut scenes to end so I can get back into the action, often wincing at the stilted dialogue and cheesy acting, here the cut scenes are possibly the best thing about it. The acting is superb, and the characters – although almost caricatures – are some of the most memorable in a modern video game. You actually care about what happens to them. It’s a kind of miracle that for a game with such an over-the-top setting, the developers have managed to craft some of the most sympathetic characters I can remember. Towards the end, I found myself racing through the levels just so I could get to the end and see what events would unfold in the next cinematic.
It also feels bizarrely contemporary and relevant, which is an odd thing to say about a video game set in an alternative, Nazi-run version of sixties America. But a lot has happened in the couple of years since the release of The New Order, and with the alarming rise of the far right in the USA and elsewhere, suddenly it all doesn’t feel quite so far-fetched any more. Indeed, there are a number of barely veiled references to the Trump administration, not least to a ‘Great Wall’ to keep out undesirables. There’s an excellent article by Simon Parkin in The New Yorker that does a good job of summing up Wolfenstein II‘s sudden, unexpected relevance to today’s politics:
“The recent rise of nationalism in Europe and North America has emboldened the far right to such an extent that conservative pizza-makers feel the need to publicly demand that Fascists stop buying their products. Thanks to the movement’s successful co-opting of young, disenfranchised men—a big video-game demographic—the use of Nazis as cannon fodder feels, ludicrously, somehow transgressive and confrontational.”
And to be honest, I found gunning down the viciously evil Nazis in this game to be surprisingly cathartic. After months of powerlessly watching the emboldened far right act with seeming impunity, it was like I had some way to release all that pent-up anger and frustration at them. Goddamn Nazis.
Wolfenstein II is not without its flaws. Some of the collectibles feel a little lazy, like the star cards (although others like the records, are fantastic). The ‘peep’ option when behind cover feels like a finicky, poor alternative to a proper cover system, especially when you find yourself holding down L1, L2 and R2 to fire down your sights from behind a wall. But this is just nitpicking. Wolfenstein II is by far one of the best games of 2017, a year that has already seen some astonishingly good titles.
Just play it, it’s bloody great.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the PS4 version.