Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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Game * MachineGames * Fuck Nazis * 2017

Synopsis

Uh, hmm. This one’s gonna be tough to get a proper handle on. The new Wolfenstein, the direct follow up to 2014’s The New Order, is a whole situation that deserves to be considered from a good many different angles. Oddly enough, probably the least interesting aspect of the game is how it functions as a game. That’s not really a knock against it, I generally enjoyed my time playing, but at the same time the minute-to-minute running around bits seem rather beside the point of what The New Colossus is doing. What is it doing? Blowing your fucking mind, early and often, that’s what. Look, I understand that it’s 2017 and it’s hard to be surprised, shocked, or pushed by stories anymore. Especially by a goddamned Wolfenstein game. Yet here we are, with a singular video game experience that pulls so many kinds of bananas narrative tricks on you that in should feel cheap and exploitative, and yet somehow someway Wolfenstein pulls it off. Every screaming bonkers moment in the game, and there are many, feels absolutely earned. What is even more nuts is the fact that the protagonist, as well-written and solid as any video game protagonist in recent memory, is BJ fucking Blazkowicz, otherwise known as the pixel-face at the bottom of the screen in Wolfenstein 3D.

The story of Wolfenstein II is by far the most important thing happening here, and as such I’ll hold off on getting into the details of said story for past the break. It’s impossible to talk about this game without spoiling the entire bonkers story, and while I usually don’t get too cranky about spoilers, holy shit this game. All I can do is encourage anyone who enjoys video games to play this fucking thing. Now, before I get into some of the more, ah, striking plot points, there is still a game here. It’s still a shooter, and if you’ve played the previous game (which is also pretty good!) you know what to expect here. The template hasn’t changed. You proceed through a variety of detailed, striking levels and you shoot every Nazi you see. You shoot em with big honking German guns in their stupid Nazi faces until nothing is left but enormous piles of filthy Nazi corpses. I suppose there’s a little more to it than that.

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Yes, the game is hard, but sometimes you’re rewarded by exploding Nazis so hard they hang themselves from the ceiling. It’s that kind of game.

First of all, this game is hard. It’ll mess you up but good if you’re not prepared for the difficulty, which mostly stems from unlearning typical first person shooter tropes. If you play this like Call of Duty, you’re gonna get wrecked, early and often. I played at the default setting, and I died a lot. Like, a lot. I should disclose that while I love games I’m generally pretty bad at them. Most of the time I can bang my head against a thing until I eventually fluke my way through, which I did a few times over the course of the campaign. Wolfenstein expects you to move. Do not stop for any reason. Sprint, jump, serpentine, and never stop shooting. That’s all well and good, but there are a few frustrating aspects to this gameplay. First and foremost, if you start getting shot you best get out the way because you will get chewed up instantly. I went from full health and armor to fucking dead in about three seconds all the time, because the game does a terrible job of letting you know when and from where you’re getting hit. There’ll be a little red flicker, but by the time you see that you’re done. This would be less annoying if it were easier to pick up health and armor, but for whatever reason that mechanic is very touchy. So yes, there are a few unfriendly design choices which make the game pretty difficult. Here’s what you do, though. Play it on easy.

Turn the difficulty all the way down and enjoy this bonkers story. Shooting Nazis with duel shotguns is still fun, arguably more so if you’re not dying every six seconds. If you come at Wolfenstein as a cathartic experience, I think you’ll have more fun with it. The last couple of years have been real motherfuckers, and sometimes killing virtual baddies just feels like the right thing to do. Besides, turning down the difficulty will allow you to take your time in the environments without fear of instant death. There’s a lot to see and do, and many of the random details hidden throughout compliment the main narrative. Obviously there are a lot of massive set-pieces that are going to dominate conversation, but part of the reason those work so well is because Wolfenstein allows the player to fill in the corners of the world, to create a sense of place. Between most missions you get a while to catch your breath. All you’re doing is wandering around your base and interacting with people, which also allows for some more in-depth characterization for ancillary characters, which in turn provides for the big moments to have more impact. Wolfenstein II is a statement game, and I encourage anyone who enjoys the medium to play it. If you’ve already done so, please continue past the break, because holy shit.

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There’s so much to talk about here that I didn’t even talk about my favorite character, Sigrun Engel on the right there. She’s great.

Discussion

Wolfenstein II starts subverting your expectations immediately. The game begins right after the conclusion of The New Order, in which you nearly got blowed up real good. As it is, BJ Blazkowicz is hurting bad. Severely wounded, having flirted with death, BJ appears down for the count. And then the Nazis show up. BJ might be a world-class Nazi killer, but here he is, confined to a wheelchair and wearing a hospital gown. His health is capped at 50 – a neat game mechanic trick that underscores the player’s inherent physical weakness – but hey, there are Nazis on the boat and fuck that noise. So the first level of the game tasks you with rolling your ass around the mega-U-boat from the first game and killing Nazis from your wheelchair. Eventually, you purge the Nazis from your floating headquarters, but oh no General Engel (the psychotic antagonist from the first game) is here in her giant flying fortress and now you’ve got to wheel your ass over there and handle some shit. It goes poorly. The leader of your little resistance cell, Caroline, is basically butchered by Frau Engel and hoo boy here we go.

A good video game story embraces its gameness to tell its story, and this is something that Wolfenstein does even while telling its linear, kind-of-but-not-really movie story. The evil Nazi lady beheading the friend of the protagonist right in front of him is horrible. The same action has a little more impact when the scene is in first person, and Engel holds the head up to your face, mocking you with it before chucking it aside. Likewise, there are some significant flashback scenes where the forced first person perspective is designed to fuck with you as viscerally as possible. BJ Blazkowicz had a rough childhood. This kind of characterization probably isn’t necessary in a game like this, in which crazy, over-the-top moments are par for the course, but Wolfenstein insists on humanizing its characters. All of them, and that includes the player character. BJ’s father was an abusive asshole. Just a real piece of shit. We know this because the game puts us in the position of Blazkowicz as a child attempting to weather the storm of regular abuse by this angry racist motherfucker. There’s a point early on where, after slapping your (Jewish) mom around and telling you how worthless you are, the old man takes you down into the torture basement and straps you to a sawhorse with a rifle in your hand. You are then told in no uncertain terms to shoot your beloved dog as punishment for being weak.

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Wolfenstein is not entirely bleak and upsetting. There’s quite few scenes of levity and other tonal shifts that keep the story from bogging down in grim nihilism.

I did not shoot my dog. After calling me a few names, the old man does it (offscreen). This is one of many fucked up things that happens over the course of the game, and the most impressive thing about it is how the game avoids feeling cheap and exploitative. The scenes with BJ’s father could have easily felt like a pointless attempt at shock value, but the game – again, fucking Wolfenstein – deftly avoids this by providing context and characterization. This isn’t the only flashback featuring the father, and it’s not the only information we get. You pick up bits of context here and there, and over the course of the game it becomes clear what kind of man BJ’s father is. He’s a piece of shit, obviously, but a well-rounded piece of shit. Luckily for me, I can’t speak from experience about abuse, however BJ’s father isn’t a stereotype. He’s not a literal monster. He’s just a weak, cowardly man with fucked up moral values. He’s bad at running his business, and he is incapable of self-reflection. It’s always someone else’s fault – usually his wife or his son – it’s always someone else keeping him down. The Jews, the blacks, someone else is responsible for his own failures. There’s even a memory in which the father comes into the room when young BJ is having a nightmare and is cool about it – he picks up a BB gun and he and the kid go down into the basement to hunt monsters. Taken alone that scene would be adorable, in context it just demonstrates how confusing and horrible abuse situations are. Abusers aren’t always absolutely evil; they’re weak, conflicted, and prone to blaming others for their own shortcomings before taking their own frustration and self-hatred out on those weaker than themselves.

None of this stops Blazkowicz from killing that sonofabitch when he gets the chance, however, and it feels fucking great. At its heart, this is what Wolfenstein is best at. The game provides context for the evils of its world, which in this case is Nazis taking over the United States. Obviously, that’s bad. That’s why killing scores of them in a video game is fun. They’re trying to oppress me with guns, therefore using their own guns to prevent them from doing so feels right. But this is 2017, and goddammit if nothing is as black and white as saying “Nazis are bad” anymore. Still: Nazis are bad, America, Jesus Christ. To its credit, Wolfenstein leans all the way into its anti-Nazi messaging. Even more to its credit, the game does so in a way which provides the same kind of complex context as the situation regarding BJ’s abusive father. In some ways, the entire Nazi invasion of the United States feels like the end result of a nation-wide abusive relationship.

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The game excels at these grand moments. Yes, the scene itself is shocking, but there is a deeper sense of unease seeing the National Mall used as a Nazi spectacle.

Wolfenstein knows that America is a complicated, difficult place to understand. In its treatment of Nazi rule, the game does not choose to be culpable to American exceptionalism and simply espouse easy clichés in lieu of actual commentary. There is a good deal of subtlety at play here, which again is crazy because this is a game where you get your head chopped off on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on live television only to have it collected and grafted onto a new body. Yet here we are, dealing with all kinds of issues surrounding race and inclusion and complicity in dictatorial rule. And somehow, Wolfenstein pulls it all off. The environments play a large role in this, especially in areas lie the Roswell episode, when the player is encouraged to listen to conversations and read correspondence and what eventually emerges is oh hey, many Americans are in fact complicit in the Nazi takeover. Not necessarily because they like it when Germans take over, but because many of the values held by the Nazis are not exactly opposed by an upsettingly large number of Americas. Even when such support is clearly not in their best interest.

This is a game where the idle NPC conversations are well-written and occasionally important. One of the more memorable exchanges happens in that Roswell level. You’re there to infiltrate the Nazi command center and blow shit up, okay, video game stuff. Yet as you’re walking along incognito, you overhear a conversation between a Nazi official and a couple of KKK dipshits. Now, in the fiction of the game, the KKK have been recruited by the Nazis to help facilitate an easier integration between America and the Nazis. They’re a good fit, you know? But the crux of this conversation isn’t how well the two parties fit, it’s the vast difference between a ruling Nazi party and a subservient Ku Klux Klan. It’s clear that the KKK have had a resurgence under the Nazi rule, and they’re ostensibly enjoying the new power and the ability to walk around openly in their idiot-sheets. But when they’re confronted by the Nazi official, they’re put on the spot. The official humiliates these two bumpkins, chastising them about their inability to learn German. The Nazis are happy to exploit these rubes, but they absolutely do not respect them. Any power the KKK has in the new world order is fleeting at best. They’re expendable, but despite knowing this the KKK dummies continue to embrace the Nazis because it’s easier than the alternative. It’s more important to be openly racist than to improve their own station in life, I guess.

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Americana means a lot more than small town diners and folksy parades.

By the end of the game, Wolfenstein makes it clear that nothing about BJ’s life is simple or easy. It would have been so, so easy to just keep Blazkowicz a non-stop murder machine, not thinking about anything but killing the next Nazi. And sure, he has some of those moments. He’s Terror-Billy after all. Yet forcing him into contact with a contingent of Black Power activists, and a deeply weird and awesome group from New Orleans, and jamming them all together with the rag-tag Europeans from the first game, creates an opportunity for BJ to understand that “America, home of the free” may just have some caveats to it. At the same time, those ideals are still worth fighting for, even if not every American necessarily lives up to those standards. I cannot wait to see how this all turns out, so I can only hope MachineGames is allowed to finish up its opus here. They’ve absolutely earned it. Wolfenstein II ends on another scene of brutal violence, which again is nice and cathartic, and you get a stirring speech (if you play the Wyatt timeline, that is). Yet the game is clearly not finished, there is a lot to consider moving forward. If the next game is about liberating America, are we going to have to fight other Americans who find Nazi rule comfortable? Probably, and that’s a razor’s edge to try and walk. So far, the Wolfenstein team has earned their shot. Hopefully they pull it off.

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