Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus does not pull its punches. Early in the game a returning villain asks, “is this what a hero looks like?” She’s mocking and threatening a wounded, degraded and broken woman. She’s about to execute that woman.
Wolfenstein’s answer is a defiant “yes”. Its heroes don’t look like any one thing because they are many and they are diverse. They are survivors and fighters and thinkers, black, white, American Jewish, British, German, male, female, disabled, disfigured and powerful. They’re also flawed – sometimes too angry, sometimes too selfish, sometimes too afraid to face up to reality – but they are the kind of people you’d want in your corner if the world went wrong.
They’re also the game’s greatest asset and its most potent weapons.
This is, remember, a game about shooting hundreds of people, so for its greatest weapons to be its characters is not necessarily the best news. Usually, if I’m playing a first-person shooter, I’m going to complain about all the times the story got in the way of the action. Cutscenes as clumsy punctuation. With Wolfenstein 2, I occasionally wanted to blunder through corridors and rooms packed with Nazis (and Nazi robots and Nazi zombies and other things) as quickly as possible so I could get back to base and catch up with my pals.
There was a point when I met with another member of the resistance out in the field – the field being a small American town – and realised I wanted to be playing as him rather than as Blazkowicz. He’d infiltrated the town and was working undercover; Blazkowicz only arrives when it’s time for the shooting to start. It’s a sign of how much I wanted to explore the world and to spend time with the characters that I was craving some sort of Mass Effect RPG rather than a straight shooter, but tied up in that is a complaint about the shooting. It’s a mild complaint, but an important one.
Wolfenstein 2 is spectacular, grotesque, cathartic, beautiful, horrible and shocking. It is all of those things regularly and effectively throughout the campaign, but too much of the actual environments where gunplay takes place are variations on corridors and rooms. The most impressive parts of the world and story often frame the action rather than informing it. You might be fighting on an impossible machine, or in an incredible setting, but the flow of combat remains the same, defined by the walls and obstacles in any given room, no matter where it might be.
After the opening sections, which lean a little too heavily on machinery and ruins, there’s plenty of environmental variety but, perhaps fittingly given its roots, Wolfenstein is still a corridor shooter for the most part. That’s fine, and it’s mostly a very good shooter with a couple of caveats that I’ll get to in a second, but I am left with the feeling that The New Colossus is a hair’s breadth away from being one of my favourite singleplayer action games of all time because so much of my time was spent looking down the sight of a gun.
It’d help if it weren’t quite so unforgiving. I’m not talking about difficulty – which can be changed at any time and has seven settings – but rather the flexibility it allows in approaching each scenario. As in the first game, though much more often, a map will often have several officers in play. You can track them down via their radio signals, and it’s possible to sneak toward them, stealth-killing enemies en route.
One mistake and the alarm is raised though, and the officers call for reinforcements, and suddenly all is chaos and mayhem. Maybe I’m crap at sneaking, but I barely managed to stay hidden for much longer than the first encounter with an enemy in any area. Crouch, squat-walk, axe to the back of the knee, neck-snap, ALARM ALARM.
From there, I usually make a bee-line to the officer so I can stem the flow of reinforcements, and that involves lots of tense weapon-switching, grenade-lobbing and contraption-flinging. These contraptions are new. They provide another method of clearing rooms and corridors, added to the pile of other approaches already available, including the use of multiple weapons (now upgradeable in ways that give them specialisations), stealth, temporary heavy weapons snatched from dead super-soldiers, dual-wielding and crunching melee attacks. For me, the apparent flexibility led to diminishing returns the more I diverged from running and shooting. It’s solid running and shooting, and occasionally it feels just right when I’m pinging helmets off with headshots. But it’s a whole lot of sound and fury bolted onto a story and setting that are so adept at varying their volume and tone.
The whole game is spinning a lot of plates, though perhaps it’s more like juggling chainsaws. From the opening scenes, it’s brutal in both its language and its depiction of violence. Domestic abuse, virulent racism, innocents harmed and murdered. That it then spins off into grindhouse grit and slapstick comedy, before pinballing into melancholy, dread, romance and sentimentality is absurd. I found it to be brilliantly absurd, and laughed, cringed and cried (yes, I cried while playing a Wolfenstein game; 2017 is weird), but be prepared for some real horrors alongside all of the imagined ones.
Even the imagined horrors aren’t too far from reality, of course, and one of the questions I was asking myself going into the game was about its place in today’s world. The marketing hasn’t shied away from drawing parallels with the politics and language of today, and I was half-convinced the game would pull its punches in that regard, if nowhere else. It doesn’t. It shoves its fist right through the skull of questions around white privilege, machismo, racism, feminism and a whole lot more. You’re getting all that and toilet humour too.
What impressed me is that these things are presented as ugly facts and we see, repeatedly, that bullets and bombs are not enough to fix them. Even when the fight turns in their favour, the resistance know that burning the Reich out of the USA, or even off the face of the planet, is one part of a battle that has been raging for centuries.
The entire cast are wonderful, with even my least favourites having at least a couple of great scenes or lines, but Blazkowicz and Anya are the heart of the story. He is broken and thinks his body will fail him entirely soon, she is pregnant, carrying their child. It could easily become a tale of fighting for the next generation, taking hope from what is to come next, but Anya doesn’t allow Blazkowicz to give up on now. Given that the game makes clear he could well be a man in need of a strong father figure, it’s surely intentional that our hero learns more from the women around him than from the men. In Sister Grace, Anya and other members of the resistance, Wolfenstein 2 is home to some beautifully take-no-bullshit women.
And it’s at its best when it’s letting those characters rage and weep and love one another. Just as I found the more ordinary moments of violence the most chilling, demonstrating the banality of evil rather than theatrical alt-reality super-villainy, it’s the quieter scenes that I reckon are the boldest. A black woman leading a resistance group through hell and breastfeeding her baby daughter while she’s plotting the downfall of the Nazi regime and deconstructing the use of ‘balls’ as a synonym for bravery? That’s something I’ve never seen in a game or anywhere else, and as an image and a statement of what this game is all about it’s worth a thousand battles against enormous ubermachines.
I just wish the action were as bold. It’s good, occasionally great, but there are enough small things that bother me that when I do replay (and I will), it’ll be to see more details of the world and collect the hidden things rather than to enjoy any particular setpieces or fights again. Those small things relate to the environments not supporting stealth approaches as much as I might like, damage to Blazkowicz often feeling inconsequential right up until he drops down dead (totally at odds with enemies, who really look like they feel the impact of every blow), and a sense of repetition before the credits rolled. There are exceptional things as well, such as the best enemy barks I’ve heard since Half Life 2 convinced me it had great AI, and flying drones that are somehow brilliant to fight rather than annoying as heck.
It took me twelve hours, though your timing will vary depending how much you want to collect and how tricky you find some of the tougher fights. I actually spent a fair bit of time hunting collectibles; they’re fun things like cards of Reich celebs or records, as well as notes and diaries – they add detail to the world and it’s a world that makes me crave all of its details. For replayability’s sake, there’s even an entire separate timeline to play, which will be familiar to people returning from the first game. You can make the choice again at the beginning here, rather than having to import a save. It swaps out one character for another and does the same with a couple of weapons.
Earlier, I said Wolfenstein 2 is a hair’s breadth away from being one of my favourite singleplayer action games of all time. The hair seems to have become much thicker as I think back, but the truth is that if there were even a handful of first-person shooters this strange and spectacular released in any given year, I’d barely find time to play anything else. In a week that has seen speculation about the future of this type of big budget singleplayer game, for all its flaws, this is a reminder of how powerful and vital they can be.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is out tomorrow for Windows, and is available via Steam for £39.99.