Forget what you know about Wolfeinstein II: The New Colossus. It’s better than that. Yes, it’s coarse and crass and bombastic, just as pre-release footage promised. Yes Nazi heads go flying. But really, it’s a glorious crime caper in the mold of Ocean’s Eleven, sprinkled with the wit of an Inglorious Basterds; a tale told with swagger and spliced with humanity, capable of catching you with a well-timed fork out of the blue.
Its predecessor, The New Order, was a dish of good ideas that wound up feeling a little undercooked. It was daring to be different but also trying to pay lip service to the Wolfenstein legacy. This time around, the wildly talented bunch at Stockholm’s MachineGames have turned up the heat. That doesn’t mean bigger explosions and bigger baddies, mind you. It means a sense of place and a real sense of confidence. Set in 1961, the player is treated to a horrific alternate version of America, weakened by nuclear bombs and now under German occupation. Nazi soldiers saunter about in gunmetal uniforms, rationalizing their rule and channeling their inner Tony Robbins. The weakened populous feeds off scraps, doing their best to learn the language of their oppressor. This symbiosis is both sickening and intensely human.
Where does that leave you? As series mainstay B.J. Blazkowicz, you’re public enemy number one: an uber terrorist written into folklore. You pick through the rubble of New Orleans, New York, Roswell, rousing resistance fighters who join you in severing the head of the Nazi hydra. One of the problems with The New Order was that its locations began to look like cut and paste jobs. MachineGames has addressed that with issue aplomb, injecting distinctive personalities into its alternative-reality settings. Environmental details are gorgeous, texture are crisp and hi-res, and shards of dappled light will take your breath away. Better yet, it all runs at a buttery smooth 60 FPS, even on the standard PS4. Powered by id Tech 6, the underlying engine is capable of rendering exquisite detail at almost no cost to the framerate, and The New Colossus never pauses to load unless you die. Cutscenes and gameplay flow seamlessly, a massive boon in a game that’s got a story to tell.
When bullets go flying, the scene is equally spectacular. Shrapnel bursts from a three-pronged automatic shotgun. Bullets zing from the pistol. Lead is squeezed from the throaty muzzle of the machine gun. All the while, Nazi soldiers line you up, finding flanking positions and calling on superpowered machines that jetpack towards you in a terrifying burst of speed. There are six standard guns plus a selection of heavy weapons to pick up in the midst of battle; a varied arsenal that can be upgraded and retrofitted with extended magazines and silencers.
Stealth doesn’t fare quite as well. The commanders from The New Order are back and they’re stationed at specific spots in every level. They can be found by following a blinking waypoint marker atop the screen. Go in guns blazing and they’ll call in reinforcements immediately. But sneak past their goons and snuff them silently, and you’ll find the going easier. At least in theory. Sneaking around an open map with clear lines of sight is fun. But too often, you’re plunged into narrow rooms starving you of a good view of the map. Here, stealth devolves into a game of luck. There simply aren’t enough skills at your disposal to make stealth feel reliable – you can’t move bodies for instance, or lie prone – and so your best intentions are thrown out the window. I wish MachineGames had used the commanders more sparingly. It’s often better to simply deactivate the HUD and play the game on the screen.
Out of the line of fire, you return to Evas Hammer, a U-boat and hub world home to several side missions and populated by a distinctive band of characters. The supporting cast are brought to life in generous, colorful brushstrokes. There’s the return of girlfriend Anya, womanizer Bombate and mild-mannered scientist Set Roth (whose bumbling demeanor is often hilariously contrasted with the the vicious realities of warfare). Then there’s the new blood: Grace, Sigrun, Horton. Grace is a particular highlight. In one scene she debunks the maxim that you’ve got to have balls to be brave, offering up a cutting riff on the subject.
You get to know the characters as the story unfolds and it really feels like you’ve been on a journey with them by the end of it. The New Colossus is an ensemble story: part buddy cop comedy, part crime caper, part war film. It’s a testament to the wonderful cutscenes that its every bit as engrossing as the films it draws inspiration from. The midway point of the plot is a highlight, with two snippets of foreshadowing coming full circle. To say I was picking my jaw off the floor is an understatement.
Supposedly the singleplayer shooter is a dying breed. Unless you’re offering a large open world or bolting on multiplayer, people don’t want to pay the cash. Yet some of the best games ever made have been solo excursions, like Half-Life 2 or The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (incidentally, a lot of the Riddick team are now working at MachineGames). The really good ones feel like they’ve taken you places, offering up escapism at its finest, and The New Colossus continues in that vein with a 20-hour story of the highest order. There’s plenty to do once you’re finished, and an alternate playthrough to pick through (a branching path is introduced at the game’s onset). For people who want their games big and meaty, there’s plenty to chew on.
MachineGames has found their footing then. The New Order was full of good ideas, but never totally sure of itself. By contrast, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has all the confidence in the world. It’s a surprising story in many ways: funny, warm, and full of humanity. Though there are repeated nods to the past (a Wolfstone 3D mini-game here, a cheeky on-the-rails sequence there, and even a modern-looking version of the BFG) there’s something resolutely modern going on too: you get the sense that great writing and awesome technology has gelled at the right moment. The result is not only a first-class shooter, but a truly first-rate crime caper.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Bethesda Softworks.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a bombastic, absurdly enjoyable action romp packing a story that's part Ocean's Eleven, part Inglorious Basterds.