Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Wolfenstein: The New Order surprised a lot of people when it released back in 2014 by delivering one of the strongest single-player shooter experiences gamers have enjoyed since Valve stopped making Half-Life games. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was never going to have the same surprise value, but it does serve as a worthy successor to the first game and stands as a fantastic story-driven shooter in its own right.
New Colossus offers a tightly plotted linear story full of shocking twists and turns, graphic violence, and painfully relevant political commentary. The story will take players around 12 to 15 hours to complete, but there are also quite a few optional side-missions that can be done either along the way or after the end of the story that can extend the gameplay to the neighborhood of 20 hours.
This review will avoid story spoilers.
Cinematic story telling
I normally wouldn't start off a review of a first-person shooter by talking about the cinematics, but New Colossus isn't a normal game. The story cutscenes you'll see here are among the very best ever produced for any game, ever, period. The game leans a bit too heavily on them early on, making for a somewhat sluggish beginning, but all is forgiven by the time you're witnessing protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz endure a drinking contest in New Orleans, arguing politics while a clarinet and gunfire combine to make a jazz soundtrack. Right up through the end credits, New Colossus is operating on a much higher level than most games in terms of presentation.
We're all used to calling games "cinematic" as a compliment, implying that they sometimes reach the same heights as film, but few movies have ever tried and succeeded in such wild and audacious ways as New Colossus does. The comparison to Inglourious Basterds is tempting simply because of the Nazi-killing subject matter, but it's particularly apt because New Colossus takes Tarantino-style risks with format experimentation, and matches that director's skill at depicting graphic violence and constant profanity while still managing to be thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful.
New Colossus's dialogue is also top-notch throughout, especially when combined with a roster of immensely talented voice actors bringing the words to life in a collection of colorful accents. This is a powerfully quotable game, with B.J. and Grace (who emerges as a new leader for the resistance movement as a whole) leading the way. B.J. delivers his expected action hero grit along with heavy doses of resignation, despair, and determination, while Grace excels at fiery speeches and hell-raising inspirational commands.
New Colossus has no multiplayer and no open-world to explore, so it's ultimately going to live and die by its story. It's fortunate, then, that it's story works so well. Aside from the expected action movie heart of a tale of heroes fighting back against a world run by Nazis, New Colossus explores the emotional depth and upbringing of B.J. in surprising detail, fills its world with brutal and satirical references to modern politics, subverts your expectations at every turn, and leads to a climax that feels triumphant and well earned.
Some will criticize the game for ending too soon, and it's true that there is much more story to be told in the world of Wolfenstein, but I felt the game did a good job wrapping up its core arcs and setting the stage for compelling story DLC and, inevitably, a third Wolfenstein game a couple of years down the road.
Same old shooting
So now that I've covered all the incredibly impressive storytelling elements of New Colossus that surround the core gameplay, what about all that shooting, huh?
The strange thing about New Colossus, much like New Order before it, is that the FPS gameplay that is what the game really is, at heart, is the least impressive part of the whole package. It's not bad, of course, but it just doesn't offer anything innovative or more engaging than the same essential shooting experience that many other modern shooters have left behind. In New Colossus you get a few different guns to chose from, none of which really do anything surprising aside from your chargeable laser cannon, and fight hordes of mostly human enemies while running through corridors and across open areas.
You can dual-wield, which feels more useful here than it did in New Order, and some cover is destructible, which is a great modern touch, but otherwise there isn't very much about the FPS action elements of New Colossus to distinguish it from games we've been playing for 20 years or more. At a time when titles like Titanfall and Doom pushing the envelope in terms of speed and free movement, the fact that Blazkowicz can't even climb up onto an overhanging ledge in a naturalistic way feels strangely limiting. There's also very little gameplay variation over the course of the campaign and the optional assassination missions. The special gadgets you unlock during the game, which allow you to fit through small spaces, bash through walls, or stand on robot stilts, are steps in the right direction, but don't change up the core formula enough to make a difference.
The shooting gameplay also suffers from a lack of feedback when it comes to damage, a problem a number of early reviews of New Colossus have mentioned. Your screen flashes red and there's some a slight audio cue, but you'll endure far too many deaths that leave your frustrated because, for a few crucial moments, you didn't even realize you were being shot. This is more of a problem for the first half of the game, when your max health is only 50 rather than 100, but remains an annoyance throughout.
All that said, shooting in New Colossus is still good, overall. The action is fast-paced and intense, and the choice between stealth, single-weapon combat, and dual-wielding offers some extra strategic depth. I'm also a big fan of how the game's upgrade perks work, which reward you by making you better at whatever you are already doing. If you perform a lot of stealth kills, you'll move more quietly. If you aim down your ironsights, you'll do more damage that way. The system provides for natural progression that the player doesn't need to micromanage.
Visuals and music
New Colossus had some launch stability issues on PC, and I hit a couple of snags where areas would fail to load until I tabbed out of the game and then went back in, but significant patches have already been released and, for the most part, people seem to be able to play the game just fine at this point. I played through all of the 15 hours it took for me to beat the story mode on a home system powered by an AMD R9 390 GPU, and was able to hit consistently high framerates playing on Ultra settings.
New Colossus impresses graphically, especially in its textures and uses of color and lighting. Standout elements include the splashes of red on Nazi flags and banners standing out against industrial or metallic environments and a sequence where you mow down waves of Nazis wearing yellow hazmat suits in the ruins of New York. The game is also effective at visual signposting, guiding you to your goals through clever design that usually doesn't show its seams. Some environments can get a little repetitive towards the end, especially since the game's optional missions involve re-visiting locations you've already seen before, and this can lead to some confusion about where you're supposed to go, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Mick Gordon has previously earned high praise for his work on the soundtracks for The New Order and Doom, and he delivers another outstanding effort in New Colossus. Guitars and electronic instruments underscore the action, hitting exactly the right aggressive and agonizing notes for a game where you are waging a bloody war against a racist dictatorship.
New Colossus is a game that's going to inspire a great deal of analysis in the coming months, because it's a game that takes its story and the issues it touches on seriously. The game has a sense of humor and isn't afraid to indulge in jaw-dropping violence or dirty jokes, but it's also a game about racism, fascism, and political struggle that really grapples with those issues in serious and mature ways. If you're the kind of person who doesn't like politics in their games it shouldn't be hard to ignore the real-world relevance of New Colossus, but you'll be missing a great deal about what makes the game so vital and powerful.