There’s a faint whiff of unlikeliness that clouds the air around developer Machinegames’ Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. The first game in the company’s rebooted take on the classic gaming franchise was an already-improbable project (an unsuccessful Wolfenstein reboot had been attempted only a few years earlier by Raven Software) that found even more unlikely acclaim, both critically and commercially. Regardless, all this unexpectedness pales in comparison to what came next.
Of all the unlikely things surrounding its development, perhaps the craziest thing about Wolfenstein: The New Colossus isn’t the game itself - but the larger context it now inhabits. Somehow, someway, we now live in a world that can find controversy with the series’ long history of painting Nazis as “the bad guys”.
Still, leave it to Machinegames to prove themselves not only up to the task of putting together one the most exceptional first-person shooter experiences in years but also rising to deliver a potent rebuttal to any expectations thrust upon it by the zeitgeist. Unlikely as it sounds, the new Wolfenstein has something nuanced, meaningful and relevant to articulate alongside its usual trademark blend of ultraviolence.
Picking up more-or-less right where The New Order left off, The New Colossus again sees you take up the mantle of former William “BJ” Blazkowicz. Now bruised and battered (but still dead-keen on seeing an end to the Nazi regime that took over the world whilst he slept in a coma), BJ and his crew of freedom fighters set their sights on raising a rebellion in a once-united now-enslaved America.
Despite that lofty premise, the locales you’ll be spending the most time in are New York, Roswell and New Orleans. There are a few other places that your crusade to free America takes you - but those are the main theaters of war across which you’ll be fighting. In each of the game’s missions the goal is - roughly - the same: infiltrate a Nazi base and either steal, save, destroy something of value. Sometimes this is an experimental technology best turned against the regime, sometimes it’s a freedom fighter that you want to recruit to the cause.
Regardless of the goal, The New Colossus gives you an impressive amount of freedom in how you want to get there. Machinegames’ heritage as ex-Starbreeze manifests to great effect here, allowing for multiple approaches. You can go in guns blazing or stealth your way through and quietly pick enemies off one-by-one. Though the overall arsenal of weapons at your disposal here is pretty similar to that of the first game, the melee combat and stealth takedowns are nicely spiced up with the addition of a hatchet.
Even if the feel and flow of the combat plays things somewhat safe, the experience is clearly elevated by strong level design - with areas often feeling more like real, believable spaces and less like video game levels.
These spaces are made further interesting with the addition of the new upgrades that come during the game’s latter acts. Once unlocked, BJ can either tower over enemies using the stilt-like Battle Walkers, smash through walls using the Ram Shackles or slip into slight gaps using the Constrictor Harness.
All told, this campaign shakes out as a fairly lengthy affair. In size, it’s very comparable to The New Order. Like the first game in the series, you’ll have the chance to interact with the different members of The Kreisau Circle between missions. However this time around, the adventure is also a little padded out by optional side-quest content this - giving players more to do and a reason to stick around after finishing the main story content.
Interestingly, the difficulty you play through The New Colossus on will absolutely color the kind-of fun it’s gunfights and action sequences offer. On easy, it’s a frantic and arcadey delight while on higher settings, it’s a satisfyingly but nail-bitingly tight shooter that pushes constantly pushes you to your limits to overcome to odds stacked against you.
More than its mechanics
Although the level design and gunplay in The New Colossus are clear highlights, it’s surprising how much the game thrives on the moments between those mechanics. Like the first game in the rebooted franchise, this one leans into its storytelling and narrative to surprising, albeit great, effect. It takes the time to flesh out the character of both BJ himself and the personalities along for the ride. It goes out of its way to allow you to really breath-in the grim texture of the game’s setting and connect with the emotions, ups and downs of cast who live in it.
The New Colossus effortlessly rolls you from spectacular set piece to spectacular set piece with all the polish and production values you’d expect out of a AAA action blockbuster. However, it’s clear Machinegames understand the value of the mundane. The small things. Sure, the Swedish developer’s Nazi-ridden take on the 1960s is probably not a place I’d like to live. However, the game’s cast of magnetic misfits and charismatic rogue do such a great job of endearing themselves that, if I had to be stuck in such a dystopia, these are exactly the kind of people you’d want to be stuck with.
The game even leans into that in a late-game sequence where the high-stakes drama and action of the main-plot is put on the back-burner for a little bit and you’re given the chance to just hang out. It’s an unlikely approach, but it pays off in spades. In the short term, these sequences are great. In the long term, it helps the game’s larger themes land that much harder.
The political climate and discourse surrounding the release of this game offered Machinegames an unique opportunity and, despite the odds, they prove themselves worthy of it. Without spoiling anything, it's fair to say that The New Colossus’ final verdict on Nazis (or America) isn’t exactly kind, but nor is it an overly simplistic, immature or unfair one. This isn’t to say that the game is bone-achingly serious the whole way through. Iin fact, The New Colossus probably indulges its zanier subplots far more than the first game ever did. Just that Machinegames did not throw away their shot to say to do something new with a franchise that’s often seen as a shallow, albeit-enjoyable set up to a predictable punchline.
The Bottom Line
Even if you’re not looking for something that’ll push you to your limits on difficulty or even if you’re the kind of person who usually plays things “for the story”, Machinegames have built something that’s both meticulously well-crafted and versatile enough to let you make the experience your own.
At a baseline, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a superbly-polished, sharply-written and well-designed first-person shooter that’s tremendously fun to play. However, perhaps more impressively, they’ve managed to execute on a story-driven shooter that’s culturally relevant without being hamfisted about it or defined by it. It doesn’t necessarily lean on the political “moment” we are all collectively experiencing - but it is definitely elevated by it.
Unlikely as it sounds, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is worth far more than its mechanics alone - but if that’s all you’re there for you’ll probably still come away with plenty to like.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is available now on Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC and will be coming to the Nintendo Switch in 2018.