Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a disappointing follow up to The New Order. The story in The New Colossus features two of the craziest scenes ever included in a video game, and yet for most of its fifteen hour campaign, the story meanders from destroyed city to destroyed city—and then back to the first destroyed city—as BJ recruits new team members in anticipation for a big fight that never happens. Presumably, that’s being saved for the next game. Add in boring level design, annoying controls, and some drastic difficulty spikes, and you have a game that frustrates instead of providing cathartic relief. It’s still fun to shoot Nazis, though.
The rebooted Wolfenstein series takes place in an alternate timeline where the Nazis won World War II and took over America. The New Colossus picks up five months after BJ defeated Deathshead at the end of The New Order. BJ wakes up from a coma to find Eva’s Hammer—the U-Boat used by as the Kriesau Circle’s base of operations—under attack by Frau Engel. Despite BJ’s injuries, The New Colossus wastes no time throwing you into the action, putting you in the unusual position of blasting your way through Nazis while confined to a wheelchair. After the first chapter, BJ acquires a suit which lets him walk again, however he’s still close to death the entire time, as signified by his reduced health of only 50%. This serves as a regular reminder of BJ’s weakness, even as he throws hatchets into Nazi skulls while dual wielding machine guns.
Whereas The New Order took BJ all over Europe and eventually to the Moon, The New Colossus keeps events nearly entirely in Manhattan and New Orleans as the Kreisau Circle tries to boost its numbers by recruiting other resistance groups to work alongside them. The end goal is to free the US from the clutches of the Nazis, however that is being held back for the third game. The main difference between the start and end of this story is that you have more people in your squad. The New Colossus is very much the typical middle episode of a trilogy. The New Order introduced us to the characters and the third part will be the epic conclusion. The New Colossus is just getting the pieces into the right positions and, as a result, it lacks any major drive to push the story forward.
Machine Games seemingly noticed that the story was a touch bland, so it added in a couple of story beats that are equal parts insane and brilliant. They’re the sort of moments that shouldn’t have made it past the brainstorming stage and yet in Wolfenstein they somehow fit in as beautifully as such disturbing events possibly can. In three months’ time, I’ll have forgotten most of what I did during this game, however those two particular cutscenes will live long in the memory.
Those excellent scenes sum up a major problem with The New Colossus; anything remotely interesting happens in the cutscenes, which are far too long and total about 25% of your playthrough. You spend way too much time watching people sitting around tables talking about the next steps or bashing you over the head with sequel bait. These cutscenes are occasionally broken up with a few seconds of interactivity, but that just reminds the player how much time they’re spending out of the action. At one point in the final act, I went an hour without shooting anything at a point when the story should have been powering through to its conclusion. That’s inexcusable for a Wolfenstein game.
While the cutscenes are too long, they are beautifully acted, with every character immediately memorable regardless of how much screen time they get. Grace, leader of the New York resistance group, commands the screen whenever she’s present, especially when in heated and hilarious arguments with Fergus and Sigrund. I still wish the cutscenes were shorter, however the actors couldn’t have done a better job with the lines they were given. The comedy’s a bit more hit and miss. There are some decent jokes and visual gags, however there’s a strange reliance on literal toilet humor to break up tense moments which I could have done without.
The cutscenes might be slow, but the action certainly isn’t. BJ is fast; much faster than he was in The New Order, and almost as fast as Doomguy. When the levels open up, you can sprint around pumping Nazis full of bullets, melting them with a laser, or slamming a hatchet into their heads. Sound good? Of course it does. The adrenaline pumps through your veins and you enter a flow state, buzzing around killing Nazi after Nazi, the twisted smile on your face getting bigger with each excessive splattering of blood. But then you die. Again. And again.
The New Colossus is difficult. Only the lowest of its seven difficulty settings could be described as easy and even then it’s only easy for experienced gamers. I played most of the game on the third setting but had to temporarily reduce it to the second during an extreme difficulty spike. The autosave points can leave you in almost unwinnable positions, so I had to constantly make my own manual saves. Nothing pulls you out of your Nazi-killing zen than bringing up the pause menu every thirty seconds.
Likewise, I’d have rather done my Nazi killin’ without having to press the square button every few seconds to pick up health, armor, and ammo. Whereas the excellent Doom (2016) gave you all consumables on contact, The New Colossus makes you pick them up manually. This is presumably so that players can pick and choose when to take advantage of the overcharge mechanic that lets you stock up on health which then starts ticking down to the cap of 50%. In theory, being able to choose when you pick up health items lets you time the overcharge for immediately before a combat encounter. In practice, I can’t imagine many people want to bother with that amount of planning in what is supposed to be a fast-paced FPS.
Unnecessary stealth sections also stifled my enjoyment. Many combat encounters have commanders who sound the alarm if you are spotted, encouraging you to stay hidden and pick enemies off silently. Ideally, you would kill the commanders before they call in reinforcements, however stealth mechanics are limited to a silenced pistol and the ability to peak around corners. You can’t interact with the environment or enemies in any meaningful way, so the best you can do is memorize enemy routes and hope no one notices the dead bodies (which you can’t hide). I would typically get a couple of cheap stealth kills and then run to the commander to kill him, before going back to finish off the rest of the Nazis. I’m not sure if this is the intended way to play the game, but it’s better than sneaking all the way through a level or fighting unending waves of spawning enemies.
In the second half of the game, BJ acquires a new suit that bumps his health up to 100%, but by that point you’ve already overcome the game’s toughest challenges. You also get access to one of three new abilities: ram through weak walls, climb higher, or crawl through small vents. None of these abilities make any tangible difference to your playthrough other than a tiny change to how you get past locked doors. The addition is pointless and the passive elements attached to the abilities, such as your health not ticking down in overcharge until you start taking damage, end up being more interesting than the main mechanic they are supposed to complement.
With very few exceptions, the levels are drab affairs that specialize in corridors and stairways in crumbled buildings. There isn’t much point in having a fast character like BJ if you never get the chance to stretch your digital legs. You spend more than half your time in Manhattan and New Orleans which are both wrecked and barely distinguishable from each other. Roswell is the most visually appealing level, with Americans in KKK outfits cheering on Nazis and doing their best to impress them with their rudimentary German. It’s a hauntingly beautiful level so it’s disappointing that you never get to engage in any combat before being bundled into an underground factory interior that looks like every other factory interior in video games over the past ten years.
There were moments when I loved playing The New Colossus, especially on a second playthrough when I lowered the difficulty. There’s an automatic shotgun which is one of the best shotguns in any game. And you can dual-wield them. Let that sink in. You can shoot two phenomenal automatic shotguns at the same time. At Nazis. But then you have to run over dead bodies three times to pick up all the ammo and armor. Or you die from an enemy you can’t even see despite being at full health. Or you run into a section that has two commanders to hide from, forcing a switch from dual automatic shotguns to a single silenced pistol. And then you remember: The New Colossus is an ordinary shooter punctuated with crazy, adrenaline pumping highs. Those highs are far too infrequent to drag the game out of mediocrity.
The New Colossus didn’t need to be this disappointing. The New Order was a good game that set the stage nicely for the sequel. When The New Colossus drops the difficulty spikes, boring stealth sections, and lets you out of narrow corridors, it becomes a thrilling shooter up there with Doom and the best moments from The New Order. Unfortunately, Machine Games seems determined to bring you out of the moment at every possible opportunity. Killing Nazis shouldn’t be this frustrating.