Regardless of the recent politicization that has accrued around the Wolfenstein series, “The New Colossus” delivers the year’s best first-person shooter, single-player campaign. It marries the emotive writing that MachineGames brought to their previous entries in the series with a campaign that’s more finely tuned than its predecessors. Memorable cutscenes and hypnotizing acts of ultraviolence predominate. This is the first big-budget shooter since “Doom” (2016) I wanted to replay after I watched the credits. That impulse was partly informed by the fact that “The New Colossus” presents two alternate timelines for players to choose from which are reflective of events that happened in “The New Order” (2014). A cruel choice, handed down by a Nazi, means that one must sacrifice a companion at the start of the game. For the duration of the campaign, one can either enjoy the good company of Fergus, a ribald Scotsman, or Wyatt, a genteel Harvard man.
In the alternative history of the recent Wolfenstein games, the Nazis have taken over the United States. At the end of “The New Order,” William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the hero of the series, was gravely injured in a fight with a Nazi general. “The New Colossus” opens with Blazkowicz drifting in and out of consciousness as his friends attend to his condition. If you’ve seen Terrence Malick’s film “The Thin Red Line” (1998), or almost any of his other films, you’ll have a sense of the kind of introspective moralistic musings to which Blazkowicz is inclined. “Mother,” he says, as scenes cut between the brutal childhood that he endured under his racist father and his present circumstances. “Am I acquitted? Was I righteous and just? Good enough to witness the awe of heaven?” Brian Bloom, who returns to his role as Blazkowicz, is adept in his role. His deep voice rolls from steely bravado to tenderhearted yearning, like a polished sea-tossed rock.
When Blazkowicz wakes from his coma, the U-boat his friends have requisitioned is under attack. Your first moments playing the game involve zipping around in a wheelchair shooting Nazis. No matter how good you are, Blazkowicz, ever the self-sacrificing mensch, eventually surrenders to a vicious high-ranking Nazi who captures two of Blazkowicz’s friends. Said Nazi, Frau Engel, is a villain that leaves the smell of sulfur in your nose while her awfulness ignites the screen. She bears a gargantuan grudge against Blazkowicz for disfiguring her face and killing her lover in “The New Order.” For payback, she kills one of Blazkowicz’s friends and desecrates her corpse. This gruesome scene is counterbalanced by the care with which Blazkowicz later treats his friend’s mutilated body, which he returns to his friends for a proper send-off. For a game that revolves around a massive amount of bloodletting, a welcome degree of resources have been poured into creating moments of human connection A decent amount of time can be spent wandering around your home base and watching the interactions between your comrades, many of which are hilarious and touching. Moreover, if you linger in the shadows before charging in to annihilate your foes, you’ll hear some of the Nazis engaging in conversations that suggest that at least some of your antagonists are more than inveterate brutes.
Although I enjoyed the narrative beats in other recent Wolfenstein games, I was never overly fond of their action sequences which I recall being filled with jarring difficulty spikes. “The New Colossus” doesn’t have the sort of frustrating, bullet-sponge, endgame bosses of “The New Order” or “The Old Blood.” Its overall difficulty curve struck me as sensible insofar as it impresses upon the player the need for caution in the beginning while Blazkowicz ’s body is in beat-up shape, but is more accommodating of guns-blazing, derring-do later on, after a radical surgery improves his condition.
I’ve seen some online commentators complain about the shooting in the game on account of how quickly Blazkowicz can be gunned down. Ignoring the thematic reasons I’ve cited for the hero’s frailty, I noticed that I had to alter my playstyle coming off a generally more forgiving shooter like “Destiny 2.” As with the earlier Wolfenstein games, there is no regenerating health so you have to be diligent about scouring environments for life-extending items. “The New Colossus” rewards stealth and tactical approaches that are mindful of seeking out the most advantageous positions from which to launch assaults. Having to think a little bit before you shoot sits well with the game’s overall vibe.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.