Hands-On with Wolfenstein 2: one of the smartest, most-entertaining, games you'll play in 2017

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus just might be the most fun game you’ll play all year. It’s unlikely to be the best or most critically acclaimed. Heck, it probably won’t be the best game on the day it releases - October 27 - as it has the unfortunate honour of launching at the same time as both Super Mario Odyssey AND Assassin’s Creed Origins. It probably won’t even be the hottest shooter, as Destiny 2 is already looking stunning. But in terms of pure, smile-on-your-face, satisfying fun… Wolfenstein has the edge on everyone else.

Everything in it is geared around gratification and entertainment. The shooting itself is a joy, as anyone who picked up the original reboot - New Order - will attest. Not played it? Why the hell not? What’s wrong with you? Smooth, quick, relentless Nazi murder combines with aggressive stealth and explosive set-pieces to deliver a campaign that’s an absolute joy to blast through. Instead of reinventing the bloody wheel, Wolfenstein 2 simply offers more of the same, with a host a fresh weapons and a horrifically satisfying hatchet attack thrown in for good measure. No, it isn’t remotely realistic, but holding a beefy automatic shotgun in each hand and gunning your way down a corridor of comically evil bad guys is a thrill. As is silently hunting down a Nazi offer and chopping his legs off with a single swipe of a hatchet, silencing him permanently and removing the potential for him alerting more troops when you decide to whip out the big guns.

As you’d expect, weapons can be upgraded, and most combinations (so, not the heavy, heavy guns) can be dual-wielded. The creativity in your play doesn’t come from skill trees or gadgets - it’s about how you modify your weapons, how you use the immense force at your disposal, and how you traverse the game’s detailed, multi-pathway combat areas. And how much you really want to vaporise Nazis in showers of blood.

It’s Goering to get messy

If it all sounds like mindlessly glorified violence, then it is. Well, minus the mindless part. The shooting is extremely well polished in this demo, where I play both the opening level with BJ in a wheelchair (first shown at E3, and you can read our impressions here) and a stage set a little further into the game, in Nazi occupied Nevada. Yeah, Area 51 essentially, although they call it Area 52. Keeping things simple, which Wolfenstein absolutely does, is a real art form and the accessibility of the game should absolutely not be mistaken for ‘mindlessness’ or lack of ambition. It’s clear from this demo alone that everything has been finely tuned and perfectly balanced, from the weapons to the level layouts, in order to provide maximum entertainment. Nazi mechs, which assail me from time to time, are intimidating but far from invincible. Taking out Officers before they spot you is tricky, but not frustratingly so… and there’s always the option of just one-man-armying your way through anyway. Ammo placement, health distribution, secret bits and pieces? They’re all carefully considered. This is the old-school shooter, polished to an immaculate degree.

However, Wolfenstein 2’s secret weapon isn’t actually one of its weapons (although the hatchet comes close). The world building, and sense of place is stunning, and the characters inhabiting it are far more than shooter stereotypes designed to further the plot. In fact, this is one of the most interesting, memorable supporting casts since GTA 5 - each non-player character being both pleasingly over the top and wonderfully human. During the opening level we see Frau Engel calling BJ Blazkowicz out as he attempts to escape the U-boat on which he had been recovering. Obviously no match for her army, he submits to try and save his crew. 

What’s most memorable about this scene, however, is the interaction between Engel and her larger daughter, Sigrun. While Frau Engel is clearly the monstrous big bad of Wolfenstein 2, she’s also a mother and the harsh way she treats her daughter illustrates that work/home life tension we all struggle with. While she’s one of the highest ranking officers in the Nazi army, she’s a shitty mother, but one who keeps trying to better her daughter via her own unique methods (she berates her for eating too many cakes, then invites her to murder one of BJ’s crew with an axe, even chanting “Cut, cut, cut” as Sigrun reluctantly raises the axe). Wolfenstein is expert at creating an amazing, dystopian alternate universe and populating it with memorable yet utterly believable characters. It’s a very strange place, but one we can instantly associate with. Again, it seems like a simple thing, but it requires an enormous amount of craft.

The Reich stuff

The story itself - from what I can tell - is a classic resistance narrative. The Nazi’s win WW2, invade America, conquer it with superior tech and numbers… and a small group of fighters are now punching back. There’s a mysterious suit that enables BJ to walk again, which I’m yet to learn more about, and a whole plot around blowing up ranking German politicians and high-ranking military officers. It all feels like a necessary framework for the violence to exist within, the world itself and your actions telling more of a story than the actual game.

In all, The New Colossus is a thrilling prospect for October. While it’s in no way revolutionary, it seems to be doing the things all great games do with considerable aplomb. It’s both extremely violent and wonderfully light-hearted; an old-school slice of FPS with some extremely modern, well-observed themes and ideas. If you enjoyed the new Doom or wanted a bit more action from the BioShock games, this is for you. More than that, it’s heaps of fun, and it could be one of the most entertaining things you play this year.

Andy Hartup