Review – Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

 

Visceral Nazi-killing catharsis that brings with it a rich and relevant narrative

I’ve written a lot about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. I’ve talked about how its audience has changed with the times, and about its depiction of Marxists. I’ve now played the game at last, and I can safely say that it absolutely did not disappoint me.

You reprise the role of B.J. Blazkowicz, hardened badass World War II veteran and arguable figurehead of the Kreisau Circle, a resistance group fighting against the Nazi regime. You find yourself in a critical state after the events of the previous game, when General Deathshead pulled the pin on a grenade that you were caught in the blast of.

“whether intentional or not, carries with it a myriad of parallels to the current political climate”

You awaken on the Eva’s Hammer, the u-boat stolen in The New Order, from a five-month coma, having had organs removed to facilitate your recovery. Frau Engel, formerly a secondary antagonist and now Lieutenant General of the SS, mounts an assault against the u-boat, and you emerge from your comatose state, fighting your way wheelchair-bound to the surface. Caroline Becker, leader of the Kreisau Circle, is killed, and you obtain her Da’at Yichud Power Suit, and escape.

This is where we encounter the first point of online debate in the critique of The New Colossus. The injuries Blazkowicz sustained are terminal, and for the first half of the game, the only thing keeping him alive and functional is the power suit. To reflect this, throughout this period the health bar is halved.

Very interesting and understandable from a narrative perspective, but it does impact the difficulty, and in some cases, the enjoyment of the game. It almost becomes an example of where ludonarrative dissonance perhaps should have been deployed, as fellow games journalist Jim Sterling pointed out. There’s a reason games have recharging health bars and an often almost superhuman ability to dodge bullets and soak damage; these unrealistic aspects in a game make the experience more enjoyable.

That’s not to say The New Colossus isn’t fun. On the contrary: the fluidity of the movement, the power and impact of the gunplay, and the visceral satisfaction of the hatchet executions all leave me wanting more of what Wolfenstein brings to the table in the other shooters that I play.

I’ll echo what other critics have said regarding the difficulty of stealth. It seems the Wehrmacht have upped the ante when it comes to perceptiveness. This makes outright stealth playthroughs, and even my favoured play-style of picking off officers quietly and then rushing in for a final assault, incredibly challenging, even on easy difficulty (through which I played the entire game). It’s still fun to try it, but at least in this regard it can sometimes feel like you’re limited in your options of approach.

“these unrealistic aspects in a game make the experience more enjoyable”

Your arsenal feels smaller than in The New Order, though part of this is due to the lack of any significant time jumps showcasing an improvement in technology. And they make up for a slightly-trimmed selection of weapons by expanding the options you have regarding upgrades. Where The New Order allowed you to stumble across, say, a suppressor for the handgun, The New Colossus opts instead to allow you to find upgrade kits in the world that give you the option to purchase a selection of up to three upgrades for each weapon. With the handgun for example, you can buy a suppressor, an extended magazine, and a magnum upgrade that acts as a secondary firing mode, upping the damage, but also the recoil and the noise.

The diversity brought in by these secondary firing mode upgrades effectively gives you two weapons in one, as they can really change the feel and the situational suitability of each weapon. Early in the game I barely touched the Sturmgewehr (assault rifle) but after unlocking its marksman scope, it became the weapon that I used the most.

I touched on the narrative earlier, and despite how satisfying the gameplay elements of The New Colossus are, the story of the game is definitely its strongest aspect. MachineGames have gone a long way to develop a rich, complex, and dark world that, whether intentional or not, carries with it a myriad of parallels to the current political climate. I talked about the potential in modern gaming to tell more nuanced and thoughtful stories in another piece about Wolfenstein, and it’s nice to see that the trailers and teasers we saw of the characters, themes, and events of The New Colossus leading up to its launch didn’t betray this potential.

The New Colossus gives us a very honest and realistic (as realistic as dieselpunk fire-breathing Nazi robot dogs can be) image of a Nazi occupation in America and its inevitable resistance. There were many in American society, especially in the early twentieth century, that would likely either have welcomed Nazi rule or quietly complied out of convenience, and a resistance against this regime would have reflected the opposite; the outcasts and the marginalized.

We see B.J., a man with Polish-Jewish heritage, fight alongside Marxists and Black Liberation fighters to rile up the people of America into pushing back against the status quo, and these are, realistically, the people who would best act as a force for change in such circumstances.

But that isn’t to say The New Colossus is a serious, humourless game. In fact, at times it can be incredibly funny and entertaining in a way that doesn’t create a tonal disconnect. The Nazis are comically evil, but not in a way that renders their monstrous nature cartoonified. The resistance are a group of society’s beaten-down, but they still have fun and enjoy themselves.

“as realistic as dieselpunk fire-breathing Nazi robot dogs can be”

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus isn’t a perfect game. But it’s a really bloody good one, and one that’s incredibly important right now, however convenient its timing may be. If you’re going to play a Triple-A game before the end of the year, make sure it’s this one.

Steam Link || £39.99 / $59.99 / €59.99

Complex Narratives, the Rise of Fascism, and Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein is no longer appealing to the target demographic that the series has historically adored it, and there are two main reasons why.

As October creeps ever-closer, so does the release of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, MachineGames’ sequel to the 2014 revival of the iconic nazi-killing action series. Wolfenstein has been a mainstay of video games since the third title in the series, Wolfenstein 3D, revolutionized the first-person perspective by introducing simplistic, fast-paced gun combat into the series’ anti-fascist formula, and practically inventing the FPS genre back in 1992.

And once again, it’s bringing a revolution to the industry: or, more accurately, to an alternate version of 1960’s America where Germany won the Second World War. Nazi flags fly in the streets in place of the star-spangled banner, Klansmen talk with SS officers about catching up on their German lessons, and game shows like “German… Or Else!” are broadcast to every television set in the United States. And we, dear old B.J. Blazkowicz, fight alongside a unified resistance movement to try and bring freedom back to the land of the free.

And that’s all well and good, you’d rightly assume. If you asked someone to list things that they could kill in a video game, Nazis will almost always be one of their first three responses. Their historical hatred and acts of genocide has cemented their ideology as one of society’s generally-agreed true evils.

But in the past decade, far-right mentality–not limited to Fascism and white supremacy–has experienced somewhat of a mainstream resurgence. It’s always been there, creeping in the shadows and manifesting with subtlety in power structures across the globe, but until recently it hasn’t been worryingly-common to see them marching in the streets brandishing swastika flags. The normalization of such bigotry can no doubt be attributed to a fast-growing movement spawned by the likes of the National Policy Institute and 4chan: the Alt-Right.

The loosely-defined group of extreme right-wing thinkers purposefully evade any definitive goal or official organization, allowing them to dodge critique and paint the left as paranoid and reactionary. But in observing the beliefs of many who claim ownership of the term, much of the Alt-Right stands for one thing: the advocacy of a socially-conservative white ethno-state. They’ve always walked the fine line between what is considered socially risqué in a liberal-centrist society and outright Nazism, aiming to present a less-threatening image, tidying up their language; opting for dog whistle terminology like “identitarianism,” and “preserving Western values.” But in doing so, they’ve shifted the global political spectrum far right enough that bona fide fascism is beginning to be seen as simply a “differing political opinion,” and as such, more and more have begun to openly espouse the rhetoric of groups like the National Socialist Party of America.

Now, how does this all relate to Wolfenstein II? Well, Wolfenstein as a series and the countless first-person shooters that have spawned from its legacy have always marketed to a stereotype target audience: the young, hyper-masculine “dude-bro” archetype. This demographic is seen to have an undying love for fast-paced, action-packed, gun-running violence, and for a significant portion of the genre’s history, this was almost always directed at video games’ favourite villain, the Nazi.

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And for a while, this was absolutely fine. But, as with many things, we can apply a Venn diagram, and there’s a large intersection between the target demographic of the FPS, and the target demographic of Alt-Right recruitment: insidious propaganda campaigns designed to appeal to both the impoverished white working class and the middle-upper class yearning for a sense of purpose, making promises like “reclaiming the honor of your ancestors.”

Of course, nothing definitive or factual can be said of the circumstances without conducting studies and surveys, but we can at least theorize that a chunk of the typical first-person shooter demographic may have fallen victim to the temptations of the Alt-Right. This in turn may introduce these same people to other flavours of pie in the far-right pie shop, so to speak, possibly explaining fraternal groups like the Proud Boys.

And with the FPS genre focusing more on the modern day and futuristic landscapes in recent times, it makes sense that we haven’t seen this politically-incidental backlash until recently. Only now that video games are really returning to Nazis as the central villain in their worlds are we feeling the heat from Alt-Right gamers. The comment sections of The New Colossus’s trailers, the replies to tweets from the Bethesda and Wolfenstein Twitter accounts, and threads on forum sites like Reddit and NeoGAF are worryingly filled with comments decrying the game for encouraging the murder of ‘people with different political beliefs.’

But killing Nazis isn’t the only part of Wolfenstein II that’s fueling far-right outrage. Many are also critical of the diversity present in the resistance, and accompanying the defense of Fascism are accusations that Bethesda are pandering to ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice warriors.’

Those that Blazkowicz will ally himself with in The New Colossus are quite the varied bunch: people of colour, those experiencing varying degrees of disability, and even a positive portrayal of (genuine) Communists. B.J. himself even fits into this crowd, as a now paraplegic jewish person who only finds himself on his two feet and slaying Wehrmacht thanks to a futuristic exo-suit. And in reality, these are groups of people that would and do in fact lead the charge against Fascism wherever they see it.

The representation in Wolfenstein II is an example of how far video games have come in their ability to convey rich and complex narratives. In Wolfenstein 3D, due to technical limitations and societal perspectives on what video games should be allowed to explore, all you really did was run around a castle and shoot SS soldiers. But now that we have even bigger studios with teams dedicated to storytelling, all existing within a slowly-maturing industry, the stories that we tell in games have a heightened potential to show us more of the intricacies and details that one would find in the real world.

We saw resistance movements resembling that in The New Colossus in Nazi Germany. They were small and often disorganized, but they were certainly there. Red Orchestra, a group of anti-fascists, Communists, and Anarchists, assisted in the production of anti-Nazi propaganda and aided Jewish people and other targeted minority groups in fleeing the country. Not to mention the countless attempts on Hitler’s life throughout the period of the second world war. And it’s this aspect of a Fascist occupation that we can realize in games, with more dedication and time put into them, and it’s exactly what’s being realized in Wolfenstein II.

This no doubt contributes to the greater outrage surrounding the game. But it also has another impact: it’s making it more appealing to the progressive left. Whether intentional or not, MachineGames have, in their fleshed-out depiction of a Nazi United States, given the voiceless and the downtrodden some representation in a fight against Fascism. If it weren’t enough that one could enjoy killing Nazis with giant guns as it is, we can now do so alongside people that we feel stronger connections and a greater degree of empathy with.

Through a mixture of a global political shift, a rise in Fascism, and a greater ability to construct narratives in video games, the target audience of Wolfenstein, be it intentional or not, has shifted. No longer is the demographic the hypermasculine with a penchant for violence. Wolfenstein is now a game for the exploited, the minority, and the unashamed anti-Fascist.

(Special thanks to my editor Wesley Elkins for helping me with what was a very lengthy job.)

 

Nothing Else About E3 Matters Because There are Communists in the New Wolfenstein

We’re right in the middle of E3, a week-long extravaganza showcasing what every big triple-A games publisher has to offer for the coming year and beyond.  But none of it really matters, except Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus because it’s got Communists in it.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, which took series protagonist William “B.J.” Blazkowicz through an alternate timeline 1960’s Europe where the Nazis’ technological advancements secured their victory in World War II. The New Colossus brings us to the United States of America in the same timeline, and from the trailer we can see that the US Government have welcomed the Nazi Occupation open-armed, with SS Officers drinking strawberry milkshakes in diners, and making sure Klansmen have been keeping up on their German lessons.

Now, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m a bit of a fan of Communism. Shocking, I know. And as a result, when a piece of media, especially video games, portrays Communism in a positive light, I get a warm feeling deep inside of me that reverberates throughout the very core of my being. So, it’ll come as no surprise the immense joy that I felt when I watched the reveal trailer for The New Colossus, that premiered at Bethesda’s E3 conference last Sunday.

It has Communists in it, which renders everything else about this year’s E3 completely unimportant.

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There are a lot of other things to love about The New Colossus‘s reveal: the diverse cast of minority and disabled characters, including the fact that Blaskowicz himself is paraplegic (we can see badass action missions in the trailer where Blaskowicz is wheelchair-bound), the poignant commentary on the shared views of the Third Reich and many Far-Right organisations in the western world (the aforementioned Klansmen), and the abject hilarity of the Alt-Right’s sheer anger over the game’s objective of killing, I quote, “people you disagree with.”

But, I’m all about that on-brand content. So for me, more important than all of that, is the group of American Communist Revolutionaries that Blaskowicz seems to recruit into the Kreisau Resistance. We see as-of-yet unnamed men and women with red-banded arms engaged in distanced gunfire, surrounded by what looks like vintage distillery equipment, as Blaskowicz sits down to share a bottle of whiskey with the assumed leader.

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The old man talks with fury about the Imperialist war machine of the United States, the greedy moneymakers of Wall Street, and the families of the Proletarian masses. They even have a Constructivist propaganda poster on the wall, with a rising sun backgroup and hands clutching a hammer. And look at that man with the claranet. That’s fucking amazing.

That’s the most important thing to take from this year’s E3. Not the tactical opposition to fanatical religious cults in a Southern American state in Far Cry 5. Sure there’s Boomer, the Fangs-for-Hire who nicks guns off of your enemies and gives them to you. He may be a very good boy, but is he a Communist in The New Colossus? Nay I say!

Not the revamped gameplay and fascinating new setting of the upcoming Assassins Creed Origins. Yes, Eagle Vision is actually the vision of an eagle now, and the main protagonist doesn’t have a painfully out-of-place American accent like Altair in the first Assassins Creed. But even worse, Communism didn’t even exist in Egyptian times! Ridiculous.

And not the much-awaited unveiling of Beyond Good and Evil 2 and Michel Ancel’s resultant tears of joy. Yes, BG&E2 looks like literal gold embezzled onto a screen and Ancel’s muted outburst of pure emotional catharsis was one of the most beautiful parts of the Ubisoft conference, nay, the entirety of E3. But you know what London slang-spouting anthropomorphic monkeys don’t beat? Communists in The New Colossus.

Killing Nazis has always been a timeless conquest in video game history. They’re the perfect enemy. And I look forward to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus‘ continuation of the medium’s tradition. But, as proven in actual World War II, the most effective force you can throw at a Nazi Occupation is a big handful of Communists, which makes me ever-more eager.

[This is a disclaimer that I’ll be adding as a footnote to all of my work from now on: any nonsensical connections made between video games and Communist themes, zealous and self-righteous dictator-esque behaviors, and perceived support and/or apologism of oppressive regimes like the Soviet Union are purely instances of self-satire as a means of comical introspection, and in some cases have no basis in truth or personal belief.]