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

Blazkowicz’s Conversation with a Marxist in Wolfenstein II

Horton and B.J.’s political debate leaves me hopeful for The New Colossus‘s portrayal of Marxism.

Yesterday, Polygon released a 30-minute gameplay video of the upcoming Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, wherein we had the opportunity to see the dialogue cutscene found in the trailers between main protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, and Horton Boone, the leader of a Marxist resistance movement in New Orleans. Horton is recruited into the Kreisau Circle, but not before he and B.J. get drunk and have a philosophical debate.

Horton talks about his band of revolutionaries, holed up in a battered Orleans building, describing them  as “the outcast, the poor… well, everyone apart from the American God-damn Bourgeois,” the first indication that MachineGames know their Marxist terminology. He introduces B.J. to his friend Paris Jack, “a true believer in Anarchism and a hell of a clarinet player.” Is this left unity in action? One can assume.

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Then, out comes the ‘Horton Special,’ a moonshine whiskey, and the two men discuss the resistance and get pretty heated about their respective political beliefs. Horton is weary and jaded, having planned for a revolution long before the Nazi occupation. He along with many carried the banner of the civil rights movement, campaigned for equality, and protested the US draft, to which Blazkowicz garners anger, arguing that Horton and his ilk should have fought in the war instead of “passing out Bolshevik propaganda and opposing the draft on every street corner.”

This triggers the now well-known revolutionary rant from Horton, in which he talks about standing up against the “imperial war machine of the United States of America and the greedy money men of wall street who was itching to send the children of the proletariat off to die in foreign lands so that they could be filling their coffers.” That, seeing through America’s  exploitation of its people, decided not to co-operate and protest in the way that he did.

It looks like it’s going to be a very faithful portrayal of Marxist and other left-leaning revolutionaries. And with other small details littered throughout the scene, like a hammer and sickle flag in the background of one shot and a propaganda poster asking its readers to “become the hammer,” MachineGames really aren’t shying away from the explicit leftist thought and imagery, and what’s even more interesting to see is that these characters and their ideals are positioned on the side of the protagonists of the game.

Communists have always typically combatted the ideals and actions of Nazism of course, but it’s very uncommon that they’re portrayed as the good guys in film, TV, and video games. Often when they are, it’s to set up a shock twist wherein they betray the protagonists in order to seek their own goals.

But this cutscene has left me feeling optimistic about Wolfenstein II’s resident lefties, and alongside the diverse cast of the Kreisau Circle and the aggressive anti-Nazi messaging in all of the game’s promotional material, perhaps this’ll be the games industry’s first really great triple-A portrayal of the far-left.

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.)