Say what you like about BJ Blazkowicz, but the man knows how to kill him some Nazis. It’s really only fortunate for the alternate-history Nazis of the new Wolfenstein games that they managed to put him into an extended coma at the start of Wolfenstein: The New Order, as it seems impossible that they could have gone ahead and won WWII while he was upright. Hell, as the opening passage of play of sequel The New Colossus magnificently illustrates, even “upright” is entirely optional when it comes to BJ’s prowess with a Nazi mow-down. The man has skills.
The New Colossus picks up right where The New Order left off. BJ has dealt once and for all with the maniacal general Deathshead, but is severely wounded himself. It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that a rescue arrives, but Blazkowicz won’t be able to just walk this one off. Another long layoff – interspersed with some gobsmacking interactive scenes from B.J’s unfortunate childhood with a super racist, abusive Dad – ensues, and as gaming’s favourite Nazi hunter comes back to his PTSD-ed senses, the resistance movement he has helped to build is under direct attack. Once again he’ll need to start getting stuck into his work, and he’s not going to let a paltry detail like the fact his legs aren’t working stop him.
This opening sequence is really The New Colossus in a nutshell. Within 10 minutes or so of starting the game you’ve had themes of domestic abuse and shocking racism presented in a genuinely affecting way, and then it’s straight on to gunning down Nazi stormtroopers from your wheelchair. “You can do a lot with a hatchet...” BJ growls, finding the fire axe early on that will serve him as a melee weapon for the rest of the game, “...and a Nazi”. Sure, it’s super corny, but it’s also super great, because damn, as a player, you really want to give the Nazis in New Colossus a good hatcheting. There are a lot of FPS games in which you get to dispose of bog-standard grunts over and over again, but few of them have managed to make the process so very… cathartic. The game readily acknowledges that this kind of evil is genuinely appalling, but also leverages that to offer some seriously satisfying payback.
BJ and his crew of motley, memorable characters from the Kreisau Circle resistance take the fight back to his homeland in New Colossus, tiki-touring a surrendered and occupied United States conquered by the Nazis largely via the superior technology they reverse-engineered from an ancient organisation known as the Da'at Yichud. He makes stops in a post-nuclear-strike Manhattan, New Mexico, Texas, and a walled-in New Orleans, and sees action in some Nazi mega-vehicles. Between missions he heads back to giant U-boat Eva’s Hammer, the resistance’s base of operations, to chill and interact Mass Effect style with the Kreisau Circle gang.
The game sticks with the “play it your way” philosophy that was offered in The New Order. BJ will typically find himself between larger areas that have one or two Nazi commanders wandering around somewhere, with a distance and directional indicator for each. Stealth is almost always a viable option. Having upgraded from New Order’s knife to the aforementioned hatchet, BJ’s able to sneak up and deliver some truly brutal insta-kills, and can also hiff the odd spare axe with deadly effect for a silent takedown at distance. Even armoured enemies can have a fuel line quietly snipped to open the possibility for a later explosive surprise. If he takes the commanders out silently, he can keep things on the down-low and move on.
Trigger an alert, though, and these high-ranking fascists will hotfoot it for an alarm panel, sending a tonne of troops flooding into the area. Fortunately if it’s gone wrong or (like me) you don’t always have the patience for first-person stealth, Blazkowicz also has the firepower to go in two guns blazing and perforate the Wehrmacht good and proper. Now, BJ has a weapon wheel available for each hand, so any combination is possible. A shotgun and rifle combo might suit, or you might simply want go for two submachine guns to output the maximum number of bullets.
Guns are also upgradeable throughout the game as you find improvement kits scattered about, so you can increase the usefulness of favourites to suit your play style. The environment and opponent types tend to dictate the most effective approach, so it’s important to be adaptable with your weapon choices, although also easy to settle into a favourite default combo for long stretches of the game. Scavenging heavy weapons including lasers, auto-shotguns and fireball-launchers from emplacements and tough enemies is also key to success. BJ may be an A1 Nazi killer, but he can’t take huge amounts of punishment, especially when he’s without armour. The game is also not great at visually conveying how much hurt you are taking in a sustained fight, so for both these reasons it’s always important where possible to hit first and hit hard.
The way you play also affects your perks, improved and added abilities that aid your chosen play style. Take out a certain number of enemies by stealth, for example, and you can improve your speed while crouched. Rack up dual-wield kills, and you’ll increase the amount of ammo you can carry. These perks tend to accumulate naturally through play, but if you’re particularly devoted to stealth or mayhem, you’ll find the game encouraging your methods.
Using this combination of stealth and firepower, BJ makes his way through several large levels that often offer multiple routes, or twist things up a bit with time-pressure mechanics from environmental hazards. He tackles more narrowly-focussed and shorter sections as well. Some inspired art direction is on show throughout these destinations, which run the gamut from the haunting ruins of Manhattan to an abandoned farmhouse heavy with unhappy memories and the Nazi-flavoured version of the colourful '60s pop sci-fi look. Wherever he is, BJ has to contend with not only Nazi grunts but dogs, androids, drones, heavily armed and armoured super soldiers, and various terrifying war machines. Story developments help to keep things interesting with gameplay too.
It’s important to try and keep spoilers out of descriptions here, because The New Colossus’ story really needs to be experienced first-hand and fresh if possible. It’s a heady mix of themes of regret, loss, revenge, love, the banality of evil, parenting, and hope streamed via pulp sci-fi, versions of America’s '60s civil rights struggle and hippy culture, and just about every B-movie and exploitation film trope Machine Games could think to throw at the screen. Memorable lines ("Come and f**king get me, you white ass fascist Nazi pigs!"), characters, and moments abound.
One bravura mid-game sequence that consists of a couple of levels and plenty of cutscenes stands out in particular. It offers the sort of emotional roller coaster and literally jaw-dropping plot developments that more games should be capable of. And yet, somehow the game only ramps up the awesome madness from there, offering a political philosophy debate in the middle of a firefight scored by live jazz clarinet and an insane, brilliantly written audition that is both tense, hilarious, and bitingly satirical. And all through it are the eminently killable Nazis, ghoulishly lopping off heads or having guard duty conversations about how they wish they would be assigned to one of the death squads.
The game is not afraid to take a few potshots at certain segments of the United States, either. It portrays the post-war US as a place where active resistance to the Nazi regime largely comes from those on the fringes of American society, while a complacent majority either chafes only quietly under Nazi rule, or worse, actively welcomes it. BJ slinks past KKK members trying desperately to ingratiate themselves with the Nazis, and ordinary citizens who have embraced the new regime complaining about how you can’t get good slaves. Collectable files including Nazi memos and propaganda newspapers make further satirical pokes that only seem to hit home harder in the light of recent developments in American politics and society. It may be accidental, but The New Colossus has ended up landing as a timely game, which only makes it more of a memorable play experience.
Although multiplayer is absent, the Machine Games team has done their best to make the campaign very replayable. One do-over at least seems virtually compulsory, as the beginning of the game asks you to re-make The New Order’s choice of saving either the character of Wyatt or Fergus. This not only has a massive knock-on effect for the way the game’s story plays out, but also even affects what weapons BJ has available.
Mid-game, BJ also unlocks the Enigma Machine. Enigma cards can be collected from defeated officers, and BJ can then use them in a decoding mini-game to locate Nazi elites around the States and further afield, then head back to previous locations to assassinate them. These missions are inessential but worth a look – especially for completists, who will be busy scouring the landscape for collectables like concept art, toys, and even records, the latter of which offer complete songs from Nazi-world versions of The Beatles and others.
Get bored by all that and you can even head for the lounge area on the Eva’s Hammer, where an arcade cabinet houses "Wolfstone 3D" – a playable, complete version of Wolfenstein 3D. ("These graphics are so realistic!" BJ exclaims.) A score-attack mode has now also been released, challenging players to play through selected levels with maximum style and efficiency, so there’s plenty to keep you engaged for a while after the credits roll for the first time.
The New Colossus ends very much as a middle chapter: lots of loose ends, the Nazis far from beaten, and plenty more for BJ to do. It’s not nearly as unsatisfying as this can be though (cough cough Halo 5 cough), because you understand the magnitude of the task. The success of the game is that you want to leap straight into the rest of the job, because the Nazis aren’t going to defeat themselves, damnit. BJ’s got a fight to finish, and I can’t wait to see what insanity occurs next when he does it.