Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Review
“Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about. We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here.” – Pete Hines, VP for PR and marketing at Bethesda Games.
— Wolfenstein (@wolfenstein) October 5, 2017
“I fucking hate Nazis.” – Tommy Bjork, Narrative Designer at MachineGames.
If there was ever a time for American video games to turn revolutionary, to get angry, it’s now. Whereas the counterculture of the 1960s was fueled by a progressive urge to break down the oppressive conventions maintaining white male superiority, the opposite can be said of the atmosphere we find ourselves in today. That is a problem.
Violence, bureaucratic discourse, literal nazism are spreading like a fiendish plague throughout the nation (as well as abroad), rounded out by a questionable presidential leadership which, personal political preferences aside, has undeniably divided the populace. Tragedies abound in recent times, desensitizing news audiences alike, reconfiguring the image of chilling, hateful violence into something almost casual.
Wolfenstein has always been a game about killing Nazis. For decades, the Third Reich has represented a recognizable enemy to overcome across numerous forms of media. An archetypal evil to oppose without moral justification required. Video games are certainly no different, and it comes across almost ironically poignant that the originator of the modern FPS is primarily focused around this very concept.
Wolfenstein has always been a violent game grounded by levity. The premiere title has the player battling Hitler in a mecha-suit. Sci-fi schlock and characters subsumed by male bravado follow in its wake, providing few moments of serious thought provocation regarding the political nature of these mindless acts of murder.
Violent games have desensitized audiences’ moral cognizance as much as news broadcasts detailing tragedies. The mutual reaction to these grievous events is to empathize, to ‘feel bad’ for the victims and their loved ones; and then the topic becomes one of civic examination. This often dissipates that primal empathy, reconstituting those lost lives into little more than statistics feeding an argument.
Violence breeds violence. Hatred breeds hatred. Acknowledgement of his natural cycle bears repeating in spite of its palpability, a sign that repeated instances of such further mitigate the urgency of tragedy. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus does not hold back. It is an angry, merciless simulator, which wears its philosophy on its bloody sleeve. Kill all Nazis. No remorse. And it is all the better for it.
The crux of this sequel’s importance is heightened by the political period in which it is set and when it has released. The 1960s were a decade of civil revisionism, where the voiceless grew tired of subordination and grew strong as a result. The New Colossus reappropriates these intermittent times into the contexts of its terrifying scenario: a world in which America surrendered to the German army during WWII; maintaining the stimulated drive towards liberation, thus commenting on the inherent revolutionist within those monopolized.
If any notable AAA release was going to make a statement against oppression and hatred, it was going to be Wolfenstein, whether it wanted to or not. Fortunately, MachineGames were absolutely compelled to recognize just that notion, delivering one of the most bafflingly cohesive and focused linear narratives ever composed in an FPS.
The New Order demonstrated the developer’s ability to seamlessly infuse genuine heart within a character as lifeless as B.J. Blazkowicz, commenting on the depravity of warfare and how persistent exposure to it consequently dulls our senses. The sequel capitalizes on this, delving deeper into the psychology of hatred by specifically examining his abusive upbringing. Raised to distrust ‘negroes’ by his defamatory, though understandable father, young B.J. nonetheless befriends Billie, who serves not only as an early development of romantic interest, but also a living counter to the discriminatory lessons being forced into his impressionable mind.
It is the decisiveness with the story’s stance against Nazi oppression that feels so truly, genuinely revolutionary. That such a large team can come together to create this cohesive, narratively-focused experience remains something quite rare in the current AAA industry, and MachineGames accomplish it almost effortlessly.
Their own politics reinforce the game’s clear message. They refused to allow development of a multiplayer component as it would distract from designing the solo campaign. Launch trailers left no room for subtlety, promoting the eradication of Nazi scum and by placing it in players’ hands. Their underdog story proves the genuine vision this team has for this ambitious trilogy, and the David vs. Goliath tale presented in their work further cements the developer as a revolutionary act themselves against the greedy business-types ruling over most production neighbors.
And boy does that ambition show all throughout this marvelous shooter. Whereas The New Order was itself a flawed masterclass in pacing, introducing a new ability or style of level design across each new area; the sequel lays off the gimmicks, replacing this construct with stunning storytelling moments that both consistently surprise and thematically examine. While death meant close to nothing to B.J. throughout the first outing; the weight of vital accomplishment has become almost too heavy for him to bear, resulting in a number of discouraging scenes where he beseeches the end of his constant hardship.
Twist after twist renders the audience to push through, confounding expectations to bridge the ridiculousness of gunplay with the seriousness of its narrative. The hero can’t die, he must be saved at the last minute to ensure victory. Yet a significant moment reaching the game’s climax finds B.J. helpless to authority, society, the greater powers that be. In a striking scene of intensely-focused, creative plot development, the developers disregard assumptions, channeling truly progressive connotations through bodily transformation.
Wolfenstein II is largely about the struggle to preserve humanity in the wake of necessary violence. A struggle both physical and mental, the eccentric cast of protagonist revolutionaries are forced to reexamine their confines of comfort; to rise above their situational woes in order to goad the repressed through the promotion of self-empowerment.
The New Order demonstrates a psychological understanding of the allure of violence. Prompting players to murder countless human beings simultaneously emphasizes B.J.’s (aka the player’s) inclination to mindlessly dehumanize these people as mere obstacles to be overcome; targets to be shot. This concept equally assumes an inherent predatory nature, prompting gamers to seek out more enemies to kill as a means of progressing.
It’s not exactly ‘Fun’ for the protagonist, and his gruff internal monologues often display this; however it is a necessary method of combatting the oppressive powers seizing control of the world. And it is consuming him, with every murdered Nazi he leaves lying on his path towards a hopeful future of serenity.
When you have something to fight for, you become a slave to the philosophy. A restless mind ultimately forces itself to enjoy the process, lest it succumb to the madness of violent repetition. A numbing of the mind, so to speak, as a necessary means of coping with chaos.
The New Colossus does not disregard this concept, but intelligently builds off of its predecessor’s central arguments, to develop its own thesis regarding the importance of rebellion. The Nazi enemies become mere targets to murder because of a predestined dehumanization, the cruel coercion of social pressure (in this case, one inspired by unjust hatred) literally transforming them into something less than human. Dehumanizing others consequently results in the internal dehumanization of the individual.
Which only further demonstrates the narrative’s focus on metamorphosis. Whereas enemies are interpreted to negatively describe their moral corruption, the heroes of this tale mutate and develop their physical bodies to overcome subordination, empowering themselves through physical change as well as mental. B.J. begins the game a cripple, shooting through Nazis whilst awkwardly maneuvering in a wheelchair. His disabled limbs are later granted inhuman power through technological enhancement: ‘angel wings’ granted by a lost comrade, further supporting a metaphysical relationship between mental and corporeal capabilities.
Upon losing his head, B.J. now assumes an entirely new body, entirely dehumanizing him physically while mentally he remains steadfast as ever. Which sparks one of the game’s greatest allusions: the body can withstand almost anything thrown at it; it is the mind that needs convincing.
B.J. grows tired throughout the events of Wolfenstein II, a far cry from the motivated soldier in the previous installment. But the needs of the many outweigh the merits of his own strife, and he soldiers onwards towards a conclusion that may never come. The multiple twists in storytelling encourage the player to emotionally respond in the same manner, positing the notion that regardless of the outcome, good is being done with every Nazi blown away.
And gosh is it Fun. These two titles seamlessly orchestrate a design philosophy promoting juxtaposition as a central conceit. Gruff internal monologues from the protagonist are presented during firefights where he dual-wields shotguns against a massive mechanical, fire-spewing wolf. MachineGames have created one of the most complexly-woven characters out of Blazkowicz, all while retaining the run-and-gun excitement of any modern FPS.
Stealth here is applied very deliberately, fueled by an impressive realism that trumps about any other title steeped in mechanics of the genre. Alerted enemies do not simply forget Terror-Billy’s presence after an exhausted search for him. This gives the entirely-optional stealth segments significant urgency, forcing players who choose this route to be ever so careful when sneaking through enemy territory.
This system is incredibly rewarding, especially when eliminating a Commander and defeating any further threat from entering the picture — rather if instead he were to raise an alarm sending in backup. But levels are meticulously designed to reward the frenetic shooter of course, as well, allowing plenty of space to ebb and flow between various enemy types, grabbing ammo and health when needed, all while retaining interesting environments to explore and meander through once the action has momentarily subsided.
Whereas DOOM’s (2016) promotion of laidback moments (intended for item-hunting and lore investigation) entirely contradicted the hyperactive combat which the entire premise was designed around; The New Colossus is far more human than it lets on, which grants the quieter moments used for reading journal entries and finding collectibles a more reasonable vestige of side objectives. There is choice to the method of gameplay inscribed here, but strict focus is placed on both as means of progression, foregoing any sense of unintended contradiction.
While The New Order revelled in delivering level after level of engaging new gameplay tropes, Colossus chooses to focus primarily on designing specific modes of development throughout a rather beautiful variety of memorable settings. Every new locale presented offers interpretable paths forward but with the level of sophisticated worldbuilding originally shown off in the predecessor. Only here, the game never forces a hackneyed water sequence, or forced stealth section, etc. and thus the experience feels far more cohesive as a whole.
Many modern shooters force the player into situations that disregard their own style of play, as The New Order arguably did on occasion as well. This can have narrative implications; but Colossus actively rebels against this divergent philosophy, maintaining entertainment and dispelling repetition through multifarious design layouts, opting to make suggestions alluding to the bigger picture in its own, more sophisticated and altogether unique methods.
Collectible items like “readables,” concept art, and lovable oaf, Max’s toys add a larger context to the design of the game, as opposed to other titles which force their inclusion as a laborious means of providing extra content. Finding them implores exploring the wonderfully constructed terrains of the multifarious levels, each of which demonstrates the developers’ keen skill in maintaining consistent diversity, and thus entertainment.
If the philosophy behind the design of The New Order forces players to grapple with various contrivances introduced every sequence, The New Colossus aims to liberate players from such ploys. It offers an environment to progress through how they deem best fit. And the worldbuilding is all the better as a result.
Be it the decimated streets of ‘NeuYork’ after the nuclear blast forcing US to surrender; the sinking city of New Orleans, which has been ravaged by alligators, and haunted by a history of citizens too afraid or dedicated to flee their homes before the Order’s invasion; the white-washed town of Roswell, recently celebrating the anniversary of the national takeover with a parade, while KKK members meander amidst Nazi commanders; or Venus, yes the planet, which in typical Wolfenstein sci-fi schlock serves as the next step in planetary colonization outside of Earth; the sheer scope is impressive.
These locations feature rich backstories, with context feeding the massive extent of the Nazis’ terror reign. Wolfenstein II is also a difficult experience, with satisfactorily challenging combat testing the abilities of players alike. This is a big part of why it succeeds as an ambitious modern shooter: most of the mechanics are familiar, though systematically inclined to support an intense and everlasting struggle. B.J. may feel like a supersoldier in TNO; but even with advancements to his body in TNC, he is just one man against the world, the oppressive powers whom, as the game effectively suggests, may be unstoppable.
The developers are even clever enough to not allow their levels to go to waste. Collecting enigma codes breathes Life back into those already explored locales, granting new perspectives while giving the player a chance to hone their skills. Call them side quests, call them minigames, call them challenge maps; they are not merely gratuitous busy work. This additive mode expands the mythos long after the main plot has concluded, even including dialogue and a dramatic finale of its own: a tense venture through a pitch black underground system full of malicious androids.
It’s missing a feature, allowing the ease of travel between these levels without having to return to the hub world first — meaning there is plenty of time spent sitting through loading screens. However, the mere inclusion of such extra content is something worthy of praise. And is certainly exemplary of the effort put into the overall product.
Now, unfortunately there are instances where the main plot doesn’t necessarily reach its full potential. The KKK are briefly alluded to as a dominating force in the southern US, but the game never illustrates this point organically. Also, a large group of revolutionaries are enlisted alongside Grace and Super Sesh, but none are as fleshed out or even characterized as those two, posing as random NPCs that will occasionally spout small talk.
These are grave examples of telling, not showing, which certainly take away from the ingenuity regarding player-character interconnection. A relationship between young B.J.’s adolescent befriending a black girl is never expanded upon or even referenced when his older self becomes involved with Grace, a scenario too intriguing and obvious it seems a glaring thematic omission.
There’s this underlying sense of a world too big to fully develop within the contexts of a single title, which happens to further emphasize how ambitious the game is. However, many of these missing details could have easily been included, though perhaps only within scenarios that might have spoiled the concentrated flow.
Most gameplay issues arise as mere nitpicks. Often B.J. will throw hatchets instead of meleeing enemies (both actions are assigned to the same button). Sprinting through ammo pickups sometimes automatically collects them and sometimes simply does not. For such a challenging game, slow loading times can frustrate whenever the player dies. And often those deaths occur suddenly, when unperceivable explosions immediately knock down B.J.’s full health to nothing.
But criticisms aside, the complex mechanics prescribed here are commendable. One of the most impressive features is the way B.J. manipulates his aim around obstacles in the player’s way. Leaning in and out of cover, around walls and crates, has never felt better in an FPS. Plus, the character’s speed directly instigates rapid movement and quick-thinking from the player, similar to DOOM’s methods of demanding action only without sacrificing personal player preference. There are still options for stealth, which have also been modernized to allow for a stimulating experience.
All in all, The New Colossus bridges the gap between gameplay and storytelling in a manner reminiscent to the groundbreaking BioShock a decade ago. It is the story of a man who, through physical alterations, develops into a killing machine, intent on igniting a revolution which may deem unfit to succeed against the powers in control. Unlike BioShock, Wolfenstein II subverts eternal representations of empowered masculinity by implying the cause may not be worth fighting for, if so much is at stake in the process.
But Colossus also celebrates a state of mind that refuses surrender. Revolution is a necessity under the laws of a tyrannical force in order to preserve humanity. A society can fall under the wicked spell of hatred through manipulation and propaganda; but the preserved self-empowered must be willing to rise up against such forces because of the very fact that they are alone. That loneliness can make one feel small, insignificant, and cause capitulation in the hearts of the individual. But the strongest know that only victory or death will erase their thirst for liberty, and any Life without freedom is simply not one worth living.
A familiar argument, but expressed through a medium that often fails to properly illustrate such an idea effectively. Wolfenstein II exhibits such a remarkable degree of complexity — in design, in gameplay, in storytelling — seemingly effortlessly, one could be forgiven for noticing none of the heartfelt nuance as they massacre their way through thousands of fascist bastards with the speed and impression of a one-man army.
Fortunately, The New Colossus is a beautiful, angry, flawed brute, its voice is loud and heard, its philosophy worn on its sleeve like a medal of honor. There is no mistaking its intent, and no missing the point of this audacious spectacle of revolution and bravery in the midsts of chaos. It is an exceptional experience, scene after scene proving an ability to adapt to the harshness of repetition, something its medium is often vulnerable to succumb to. One of the finest sequels, and most important games in general to grace this or any other generation.