No one was really expecting that much from Wolfenstein: The New Order when it came out a few years back. It was a nice surprise to find that its bloody, satisfying combat and memorable, well written characters helped make it one of the best shooters on the PlayStation 4. Now that the sequel – Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – has arrived, many are no doubt interested to see if developer Machine Games could deliver again, and this reviewer is very happy to say that recent proclamations regarding the death of big budget single player titles have proven to be somewhat premature.
Picking up straight after the events of The New Order, hero B.J. Blazkowicz isn’t the man he was. Badly wounded in his showdown with General Deathshead, he doesn’t know how much fight he has left in him. With his partner Anya pregnant and the Nazis still dominating the globe, he quite literally drags himself out of bed to do the one thing he does best: kill Nazis. To say the story opens in a very bleak place would be a mild understatement, and as you’re given further insight into BJ’s mind via some pretty dark inner monologues, as well a glimpse into his past, you’ll understand better what drives a character who continues to get progressively more interesting.
At the start of the story you’ll also have to remake a key decision from the first game, and as with The New Order, this choice does have an impact on some of the content in your game. While it doesn’t affect the main story beats, it’s actually worth a second play-through just to see the differences in the cutscenes on each timeline – not to mention a chance to try out the unique weapon that you get based on your decision.
Whichever timeline you pick, the game ends up going to some pretty dark and brutal places, but as was the case in The New Order, there’s a certain levity to the whole thing with absurd black comedy pervading the campaign from start to finish - it even goes as far as delivering one of the funniest scenes to appear in a game for a while. What’s even more surprising is that this scene only manages to be the second most memorable thing to happen during the 10-12 hour story.
In fact, the whole presentation in The New Colossus oozes quality in just about every aspect. With nicely rendered environments and character models, it manages to maintain a rock solid framerate no matter how hectic the action gets. On top of this, the well written and voice acted cast of characters are a particular standout on the aural side of things – BJ’s comrades in the resistance are particularly good - and they once again help bring weight and emotional depth to the story.
The alternate reality setting serves as a great playground for the team working on the New Colossus to let their imaginations run wild as they build their version of 1960’s Nazi America. As a result, it’s a fascinating world for you to tour, whether you’re picking your way through the nuclear wasteland of Manhattan or breaking through the wall built around New Orleans – a structure used to keep undesirable elements from getting into Nazi America.
Whether it’s by design or not, current affairs in 2017 give certain parts of The New Colossus added impact. The complicity of large swathes of the population to Nazi rule just doesn’t seem so far-fetched these days given the rise of extreme right wing views across the world, and even BJ himself exclaims that he can’t easily tell who’s a Nazi anymore. This is highlighted during one mission in particular where a stroll down Main Street America shows the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, a community openly collaborating with the Nazis, and the sad few who appear to support the regime publicly are privately hoping Terror Billy – BJ’s nickname in Nazi propaganda – continues on his spree of destruction.
Unfortunately, this is the only sequence that allows you to interact with the wider populous, which is a shame, and while it does feel like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into everyday life in Nazi America, when the time comes to break out the guns you’ll be up against Nazis, plain and simple. There won’t be any discussions about the pros and cons of National Socialism, there are no shades of grey here: They’re Nazis. They’re evil. Kill them.
When compared to The New Order, the combat in this sequel doesn’t do a whole lot differently. While the levels themselves are largely linear, certain parts do open up enough to allow for some exploration, and since there’s often a couple of routes through - as well as plenty of collectables lying around - there’s some benefit to poking around in every corner.
Stealth also makes a return, and in most areas you’ll start by trying to stealthily take down enemies - especially the commanders, who will call in reinforcements when alerted. While stealth is viable, the hyper alert enemies - on top of a lack of tools to aid you moving undetected - means that trying to play primarily this way can become a little frustrating. A save anywhere system allows you to use trial and error for every small step, but you’ll quickly learn that you’re better off blasting your way through when things go wrong rather than waste your time trying to finesse your way to an objective.
Fortunately, when things do end up going loud it’s really not that disappointing, as the combat manages to be consistently enjoyable throughout the campaign. Each weapon has a satisfying punch when using it, and the ability to dual-wield any weapon – except for the two-handed heavy weapons - means that catching a group of Nazis clustered together and unloading on them never gets old. Weapon upgrades also let you make your favourite armaments even more potent, and you’ll take real delight in being able to ricochet shotgun rounds, or unleash your fury for longer when you install a bigger magazine.
However you decide to play the perk system will also reward you for it. Whereas in the previous game once a perk was unlocked that was it, this time they’re tiered – albeit with an eventual cap – and as you keep ranking them up your strength in each area will continue to rise. Whether it’s increasing you crouching movement speed by performing stealth takedowns or increasing the ammo you can carry by getting dual-wield kills, you’ll certainly need these perks levelled up quickly on higher difficulties as the combat can be quite tough at times. Even on the level suggested for the experienced gamer you’ll need to be pretty careful, as getting blindsided can lead to a swift death. As a result, if you’re after a loose run-'n'-gun experience, then you’ll probably want to play on one of the lower difficulties.
As a change of pace from the frequently frantic combat, in between missions you’re given a chance to explore Eva’s Hammer – a u-boat that acts as the resistance's base of operations. Here you can spend time interacting with the other members of your group, as well as pick up a number of optional side missions. These operations provide a way to revisit locales from the story with different enemy positions and provide a great way to unlock additional perk tiers. Since they also remain accessible once you’ve completed the story, they offer a way to continue playing after the credits roll in the absence of any multiplayer.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a quintessential single player shooter, and contains one of the best campaigns in recent memory. Rammed full of memorable moments and brilliant characters, it takes you on a horrifying yet fascinating ride through a Nazi dominated world that – as a result of real world events – feels a touch less like fantasy this time around. While the story is undoubtedly the star of the show, the viscera drenched combat, satisfying weapons, and rewarding perk system more than hold up their side of the bargain. The single player game is dead, long live the single player game.