Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for the previous game in MachineGames' Wolfenstein series, Wolfenstein: The New Order.
When we last left William J. "BJ" Blazkowicz, the dude was at the brink of death. He was bleeding out, as a helicopter of all his loved ones flew away to safety. If this weren't a video game, it'd be safe to assume that he died there, dreaming of his imaginary white picket fence life. A life without Nazis in power.
But this is a hyper-fictional world where Nazis won World War II, and BJ Blazkowicz remains an unkillable human machine. His dance with death reminds us that he's still vulnerable, mirroring the opening hours of his last outing, Wolfenstein: The New Order. Yet instead of sitting comatose for nearly a decade, BJ sinks in and out of consciousness now for a shorter amount of time. Once again, it's the presence of Nazis that wakes him up, as if his internal Nazi Killing Sense started tingling.
Nazi killing is what BJ does best. It's his raison d'être. He might as well have guns sewn into his arms like the killing machine that he is. He's tall, chiseled, with a square head and even more square torso. BJ's body was built to sustain and kill. Except in The New Colossus, now it's broken. He's confined to a wheelchair. The only way he can stand and fight as he once was is by wearing a full suit of power armor. (Not of the medieval variety, of course.) BJ can still fight, but he's the weakest he's ever been. Constantly he mutters to himself about how his time's running out. In a moment of vulnerability with his lover Anya, he worries that if he takes off his suit to shower that he'll crumble.
BJ is finally fragile. But not for long.
If The New Order was about BJ finding his will and strength, then The New Colossus is a game about him trying to retain it. BJ and the rest of the Kreisau Circle resistance travel to the United States of America, vowing to ignite a second American Revolution by collaborating with well-known resistance groups that operate out of the country. They always hide in plain sight. Smart mouthed Grace Walker of the Black Resistance Front (and my personal favorite of the new characters that join The New Colossus) is smack in the middle of Manhattan, their headquarters in the atom-bombed out Empire State Building. Elsewhere in New Orleans is the Proletariat Movement.
Aside from the uncomfortable, KKK-controlled city of Roswell, the glimpses we get of America are mostly in ruin. When BJ visits New Orleans, it's in the midst of full obliteration by the Nazis. Manhattan looks like it's straight out of a post-apocalyptic game: a former metropolis, now heaps of rubble thanks to a nuclear bomb. That nuclear bomb, we learn, is what caused Americans to surrender to the Nazis after World War II. New York City being blown to bits changed everything for everyone. Well, except for the white Americans who became complacent to Nazi rule, according to resistance fighter Grace.
But boy, are the Nazis horrified by BJ. They almost affectionately call him Terror-Billy, even erecting an arcade game in his name. (Hilariously, you can even play the arcade game—which is a reversal of roles in Wolfenstein 3D—in the main hub of the submarine Eva's Hammer, in the Club Kreisau area.) BJ's a menace that Nazis fear universally. Arriving in America, billboard-size wanted signs are posted up in his honor too.
A new country to explore and a vulnerable BJ are two of the biggest changes in The New Colossus. Other shifts are of the mechanical variety expected in a sequel. Weapons are customizable now; plus axes replace knives. About half-way through the game, players can nab a "Contraption" according to their central playstyle: Battle Walkers, which give you long-ass stilts to walk on to reach high places or have the literal upper hand in battle; Ram Shackles are elaborate shoulder pads that let you bust through walls and bash into enemies; and the Constrictor Harness lets you squeeze into hard to fit spaces, prime for sneaking up on foes. BJ gets one Contraption in the story, but later on, side missions become available leading you to whichever two you did not choose. Also fitting to BJ's gotta-kill-'em-all mantra, you can equip two separate weapons in BJ's palms for dual wielding, such as a shotgun on the right, a pistol on the left. Whatever works best for ol' BJ.
Even as the first three-fourths of The New Colossus' 12-or-so hour campaign break off at a blistering pace, the game peters off a little bit in its closing fourth. It has its moments still, and gives you additional freedom as you gain access to Ubercommander assassionation missions, additional Contrapation opportunities, and more; and yet, the main missions begin to feel more stale, with less enemy variety popping up and even lesser interesting areas to sleuth around.
At least, The New Colossus doesn't skimp on replayability, so the somewhat lackluster back section doesn't have to be your final impression. Back are the intense difficulty options (all of which are dynamic, thank the lord) to offer players different levels of first-person-shooter masochism. About two-thirds of the way through the game (and post-game too), Enigma Codes become accessible. Enigma Codes are essentially assassination side missions, excuses to revisit old levels BJ's already murdered his way through for more rewards (and to kill a tad more Nazis). The targets are Ubercommanders, essentially the same commanders BJ would take out otherwise in an area, but with a twist.
Also, at the very start of the game you're taken to a flashback of that dastardly choice you make in The New Order: to save Fergus or Wyatt. Saving whoever affects both a special weapon you receive early on (Laserkraftwerk versus Dieselkraftwerk) and your crew's general dynamic and cutscenes. For the sake of my first playthrough, I saved Fergus as I did in The New Order. I'm currently ankles deep in a second playthrough with a livelier, more annoying Wyatt by my side. (I already miss Fergus.)
The New Colossus brings back one of the most satisfying progression systems in first-person shooters, as it was in The New Order too. A progression system that isn't about collecting ability points; that isn't relegated to a choose-your-own style of faux-currency. Instead, BJ only gets stronger in The New Colossus by successfully doing certain things repeatedly, from stealth kills to electric damage. The more BJ does something, the stronger he grows in that particular department. In the real world, people often say "practice makes perfect." In the world of Wolfenstein, that phrase is actually put into practice.
The best parts of The New Colossus lie in the quiet though; in-between stealthing or running-and-gunning Nazi humans, Nazi dogs, and Nazi robots. It's in watching your comrades interact aboard Eva's Hammer, the stolen Nazi submarine that's now a makeshift base for the resistance. It's in doing mundane side missions, like feeding a pet pig some potatoes. It's in a surprisingly somber chapter sandwiched between the typical chapters of just shooting.
The New Colossus is the rare sort of shooter that sometimes even shines more when there's no guns involved at all. Especially in the friendships paved with BJ's comrades through the game's sometimes-silly pulp attitude. Especially in scenes with Anya, BJ's take-no-shit partner. A partner he doesn't need to protect, nor save. A woman who's on the front lines with a rifle just like the rest of the resistance—even with a super-pregnant, protruding belly. The New Colossus reminded me why I loved the quietly lifelike romance from the first game so much in the first place.
And while the writing is as strong as ever, I suppose just shooting a Nazi until they disintegrate into a bloody dust cloud always feels kinda cool too.
I'm a big fan of its Ikea-like tutorials.
Wolfenstein 2 feels like an exercise in how to keep players returning to your game without resorting to microtransactions or needless multiplayer. With lots of difficulties, post-game content that doesn't feel shoehorned in, collectibles, and an alternate path with slightly different cutscenes, there's many reasons to keep killin' Nazis.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus builds on the first game, making for another superb linear first-person shooter campaign. It's an empowering journey that BJ goes on—rising from his near death experience from The New Order to be stronger than ever, befriending others who are just as tough and ready to take back what the Nazis stole from them: their country.