Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is as punishing as it is cathartic

If we’re to believe the marketing for Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, the game is all about the harmless catharsis of mowing down nazis—both robotic and otherwise—with barely a thought for whether one’s ammo is running out, or whether the nazis might shoot back. But anyone who played The New Order knows that, actually, the nazis shoot back and they shoot back hard. Wolfenstein: The New Order was a tough shooter, the type that required you to keep an eye on both your health and ammo counts, and anyone expecting that to change with this sequel will either be pleased or hurt to discover that it hasn’t.

I played two missions: one was the introduction shown at E3, where BJ is stuck in a wheelchair and must escape some monstrous airborne fortress. The second was new, taking place in Roswell, New Mexico. BJ’s nazi-smiting crew has a collaborator there called Speshie—a classic manic conspiracy-theorist masquerading as a burger diner owner. This burger diner, it turns out, sits upon a tunnel which chisels directly to a top-secret Nazi base. Naturally enough, this underground base is where the Nazis are experimenting with alien technology. The task falls upon BJ to get in there with a portable nuclear bomb and, well, you know... “destabilize the fucking country and let the people know the fight is back on.”

Armed with a portable nuclear bomb, our BJ shouldn’t feel fragile. But after a short dash through a tunnel, I’m in a cavernous underground train station sentried by Nazis and their moronic robot dogs. There’s a Nazi to my right, on a lower platform, and because it’s been a few years since I played the New Order, I aimed my pistol and shot him in the face.

As you might expect, this did not please the dozens of other Nazis stationed around the arena. Nor did it please their robot dogs, and it especially did not please the oafish laser-wielding tank guys I still get tense thinking about. See, MachineGames’ take on Wolfenstein isn’t the stupid power fantasy the trailers lead us to expect: unless you’re very very good—which I am not—Wolfenstein is partially a stealth game. Fail to remove the alarm-sounding Nazi in any given area, and you’ve got hell to pay. And I paid it, for a good 40-odd minutes. I died over and over and over again. Until I restarted the mission with stealth in mind.

That’s my fault, of course, but it’s a good reminder why Wolfenstein: The New Order managed to succeed, despite how unfashionable single-player shooters were in 2014. It harkened back to the days of not only collecting medkits and ammo but also keeping stock of where medkits and ammo are, lest you need to backtrack for them. This rhythm, along with the need to take out alarm-ringing Nazis in relative quiet before raining hellfire on the rest, is unchanged in this sequel. In fact, from what I played of The New Colossus, not much has really changed at all. It doesn’t layer on new features and systems like video game sequels are expected to nowadays. It just continues the story.

During a period where novelty is such an indispensable weapon in a game developer’s marketing arsenal, it demonstrates that MachineGames has a lot of faith in the template. Blame it on the industry, or blame it squarely on my own expectations, but The New Colossus’s determined lack of show-ponying novelty—it’s lack of new carrot-on-stick loot systems, it’s lack of granular cosmetic upgrades, it’s lack of fancy multiplayer adornments—came as a shock to me. But not in a bad way. It’s possible that MachineGames is the only studio capable of getting away with this in 2017.

That’s not to say the game is just an expansion, because the new setting (Nazi-occupied America—see Andy’s story for more on this) is awash with new varieties of fascist scum to annihilate. You can duel-wield just about every weapon you find in The New Colossus, too—an explosive weapon in one hand and a shotgun in another—but for all its action hero bluster, I always found the slow and tactical approach to work better. During one section atop a hurtling subterranean freight train, I sidled between crates and crept beneath walkways to carefully dispatch foes. Watching other journalists take the more offensive approach was excruciating, as they tended to die fairly quickly (and in the pre-release build I played, the loading screens were laboriously slow). 

So those who missed the first Wolfenstein reboot hoping for something along the lines of Doom 2016, this game won’t deliver that breakneck pace. And to be honest, there were moments in this preview where I really did feel trapped in some seemingly insurmountable situations, gated off awkwardly by autosaves (hint: use manual saves if you’re averse to repetition). But thematically, the high-tension difficulty of this game is quite fitting. Because, yes, it is a marvellous power fantasy to blow digital fascists to smithereens, but it’s also important to not feel too empowered. I don’t want to apply too much gravity to a blockbuster action video game, but Nazis have become as rote an enemy as zombies and aliens. We shoot them in Sniper Elite, in earlier Wolfensteins, in Medal of Honor, and in the forthcoming Call of Duty. We shoot them all the goddamn time. Except fascism is far from an imaginary, fantastical threat. It’s far from a mere historical threat, too. It makes an awful kind of sense that BJ is as prone to failure as he is. It makes sense that he must work hard.

And while The New Colossus is as stylised and smart as a Hollywood action film—all amusing quips and recognisable character tropes (hello, wack conspiracy theorist)—dread does linger at the periphery. Indeed, the reason MachineGames is capable of creating successful, narrative-driven, single-player shooters in 2017 is because they’re very good at telling stories, very good at playing fear and levity off of one another. In the prologue of the Roswell mission set in the town’s small commercial centre—a Nazi harries two Americans in Ku-Klux Clan garb about their proficiency in German. And it’s funny—in a very grim way—but as you walk away, through a modest American town swathed in Swastikas, a feeling more alarming sets in: this is terrifying. Don’t play The New Colossus expecting a bunnyhop in the park.

 Fancy some more Wolfenstein 2 reading? Check out Andy's favourite bits