20th Nov2017

‘Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’ Review (PS4)

by Matthew Smail

wolfenstein-2-ps4-cover

“Make America Nazi Free Again.” Just one of the highly emotive straplines used to promote Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus in the past few months and certainly, it feels, the most relevant. You see, whilst it has clearly been in development for some time, MachineGames seem to have captured the current state of world politics absolutely perfectly and then woven them into a plot about an alternate reality in which the victorious armies of the Third Reich ultimately conquered the world, including America.

Not only can you punch Nazis, stab and dismember them, burn them, blow them up, melt them and simply shoot them (when other options are limited) there is also a surprisingly personal story here. That tale is one of a childhood filled with dark memories, abuse and loathing, but it sets the tone for a lifetime of righteous vengeance – which is exactly what the main narrative requires in order for the player to immerse themselves in such unusually wanton violence.

Indeed, from the opening sequence in which BJ Blazkowicz is dragged, broken and very likely mortally wounded to the relative safety of the U-Boat known as Eva’s Hammer, we learn that Wolfenstein II is as much about people, about choices and about morality as it is about obliterating the forces of the Wehrmacht for traditional reasons. The alternate reality setting unshackles the script from the usual respectful horror that surrounds games set during the Second World War and replaces it instead with a cartoonish and entirely hateful set of enemies that range from mutated German soldiers to a resurgent Ku-Klux-Klan and beyond.

Leading the enemy is the returning Frau Engel. Whilst she wears the visible scars of her previous encounter with BJ openly, her mental problems run much deeper. Her hatred for “Billy-Terror” and his meagre resistance is obvious and her love for Hitler and his regime are absolute, giving her a singular and believable focus on capturing him. On the few occasions where she has a chance of ending him, her arrogance and desperation to punish him repeatedly result in his escape, yet she still brings death and despair wherever she goes, which gives her a real bond-villain kind of feeling.

BJ’s friends are a much more colourful – both figuratively and literally – cast, all of whom have a distinct personality. Wolfenstein II sees the return of Caroline, Max Haas, Bombate, Set and of course, a heavily pregnant Anya who is carrying a pair of mini Blazkowicz’s. They are soon joined by Grace, Super Spesh and a number of other members of the New York resistance, all of whom bring with them their own baggage, their own motives and their own personalities. Super Spesh brings comedy relief, warmth and a welcome craziness, whilst Grace brings steel, leadership and context.

Whilst the story in Wolfenstein II is very strong, the game is mechanically superb. I played on a PS4 Pro and was delighted to enjoy not only an incredible looking experience, but also a superbly fluid one. This is a game with some hectic scenes filled with bullets and explosions, but the engine never seems to falter. Across the fourteen or so hours that it took me to complete the campaign, I can’t recall a single moment of noticeable slowdown, despite the game offering numerous large, complex spaces to fight through with some very impressive pyrotechnics and large enemies to fight.

Although every location is visually impressive without fail, my first criticism of Wolfenstein II is probably the fact that there is a little bit of repetition and possibly a lack of variety on some occasions. There is a bit of actual backtracking on some levels and you’ll visit the same location at least twice on more than one occasion. Even when you are seeing new places, there are a few too many grey-blue corridors and control rooms to blast through in between rocket-trains, devastated cities, U-Boats and Zeppelin’s. It may actually be the high points among these locations that cause some of the less exciting localities to stand out, but that’s not the only way in which Wolfenstein II is a victim of its own success.

Elsewhere, it gives the player access to a small but fabulous range of weapons right from the outset, as well as the ability to dual-wield weapons in more or less any combination. This does mean that there is little left to unlock and expand BJ’s arsenal, but when that does happen it is meaningful. There is an understated weapon upgrade system that allows each gun to be upgraded in three different ways. This is achieved through simple upgrade kits, which I found extremely welcome in contrast to the current trend for collecting a million different components to present a bastardised imitation of A-Team style modification.

One of the most satisfying ways to kill Nazis is with BJ’s hatchets, which can be thrown from range for a silent kill or used at close quarters for a more visceral experience. Whilst this is a satisfying way to slash throats, hamstring enemies and even remove limbs (all of which result in an instant kill) stealth is a relatively ineffective option in Wolfenstein II. Most levels feature one or two commanding officers that can summon reinforcements and the game clearly wants you to try and kill them without sounding the alarm. This is often impossible (or at the very least tiresomely hard) so you’ll often find yourself simply keeping quiet as long as you reasonably can before all hell breaks loose.

Despite these small criticisms, by the time the credits roll on Wolfenstein II’s campaign, even the most difficult to please critic would be hard pressed not to be calling this one of the best – if not the best – shooters of the year, if not ever. It has a powerful story that is both as relevant and poignant today as it is in the alternate past in which it is set and it repeatedly hits you right where it hurts. Family, friendship and human kindness fight against tyranny and bigotry – each of them led by powerful and single-minded figurehead.

From the visceral, well paced and challenging gameplay, to the exceptional story and cast, Wolfenstein II is just about the perfect sequel. It is well paced, with a story that features both ups and downs, highs and lows (plus more than a few surprises) and combat that is eye-wateringly visceral and as exciting as it is in any other game. There are a million collectibles (if that’s your thing) and a whole host of replayable elements, making this a game that you can experience at least two or three times over if you wish. There’s no multiplayer, by the way, but that’s fine – MachineGames have achieved what they said they would – create the best single player experience around.

****½  4.5/5

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