With fascist figures influencing the world, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is as timely as a first-person shooter video game about fighting Nazis can be. How effective is its message conveyed through story and gameplay?
There is an important legacy to the Wolfenstein name. Wolfenstein 3D basically started the 3D first-person shooter genre in 1992. That name, however, had become irrelevant since then, as its World War II setting and white-bread protagonist BJ Blazkowicz were used as a template for a lot of FPS games for years. It wasn’t until Wolfenstein: The New Order came out in 2014 and surprised gamers that Wolfenstein mattered again.
It wasn’t because of innovative gameplay, although The New Order was certainly solid in that department. What wowed fans was its nuanced narrative.
As a direct sequel to The New Order, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was then burdened with the challenge of being as good or even better than its sleeper hit predecessor. Its marketing that capitalized on the political climate in the US only served to raise the stakes.
The New Colossus wields its storytelling and gunplay like dual shotguns to blow away those expectations and then some.
Horrifying alternate history
The New Colossus picks up right where The New Order left off. There’s a short video recap for the events of the previous game for players who missed it. It’s 1961 and the Nazis are at the height of their power. They won World War II and have taken over the United States of America after dropping a nuke on Manhattan, forcing the US government to surrender. Protagonist BJ Blazkowicz is with his ragtag resistance group from Europe. On board a captured high-tech German U-boat, they’re sailing to American soil to start a revolution and liberate the nation from Nazi rule.
Sounds like a hopeful premise to start with, no?
The New Colossus hacks that hope with a hatchet in the most shocking intro to a video game I’ve ever seen. In the first half hour alone, it features extreme graphic violence, domestic abuse, animal cruelty, racial and homophobic slurs, aggressive sexually suggestive behavior, and body shaming.
It’s understandable that some might find all this immediately off-putting and done for cheap shock value. However, considering the atrocities that the Nazi party, the Ku Klux Klan, and other racial supremacist factions committed throughout history, it’s critical for a game that has those groups in power to depict them for what they truly are: evil people who hold beliefs that cannot be reasoned with yet are rooted in very real human frailty.
Brutal combat for brutal difficulty
The game establishes its villains in the beginning so effectively that you can’t help but want to bring them down. Fortunately, you build up a small arsenal to do so in supremely bloody fashion. You get throwable axes, machine guns, explosives, and lasers to maim and murder Nazis. There are upgrade systems to improve your weapons as well as your character’s base abilities like movement speed and health regeneration.
You’ll need to take full advantage of these mechanics to beat these virtual fascists. The New Colossus is unforgiving in its difficulty. Most levels begin with you in stealth, but sneaking around is tough because of how most levels are structured. You’re either going through narrow hallways with just a couple of paths or wide open arenas with very little cover.
Like in The New Order, there are commanders that you’ll have to eliminate to keep them from calling in reinforcements. Unlike in its predecessor, these commanders are almost always hidden away at the very end of the sections you’re traversing. So what usually happens is you get spotted after taking out a couple of guards, the commanders sound the alarm, and waves of heavily armored soldiers swarm in for a gunfight.
Seconds of sustained gunfire will kill you. Making matters worse is there’s little feedback to indicate you’re taking damage. It’s very easy to get gunned down without you expecting it. Recovering health is finicky, too. While you can walk over health packs on the ground to restore your life, most of these items blend in the background and are up on shelves and desks. You have to manually look at these pickups and press a button to use them, and the seconds you take to do so can be enough to eat bullets from all sides.
The answer is to never stop moving and always pull out two firearms. Only through relentless mobility and ferocity can you reliably overcome these encounters. It helps that sprinting and shooting in The New Colossus looks and feels good. You can blitz across rooms while carrying an automatic shotgun in one hand and a grenade launcher in the other. Every blast from your guns explodes in a rhythmic song of righteous fury.
Momentum-driven human drama
This philosophy of constant, confident movement rings resoundingly in the cinematics. The New Colossus rarely lets up on dropping atomic plot bombs. The entire cast crackles with character in every cutscene. The dialogue and delivery pop and snap like a Quentin Tarantino flick, with motion capture rivaling the Uncharted games for expressiveness. The industrial metal soundtrack, courtesy of DOOM (2016) composer Mick Gordon, rips and tears to hype you the hell up.
It’s not just bluster, either. You take commands from the leader of a militant African-American organization and partner with a socialist armed rebel group. Both parties holler at the social injustices that are deeply ingrained in America’s racist and hyper-capitalist culture, long before the Nazis came along. In fact, The New Colossus reveals just how poised pockets of American society are to fully embrace white supremacist authority, which apparently isn’t so different from reality.
What is most impressive though is the game’s deep dive into protagonist BJ Blazkowicz’s psyche and personal history. He cuts the perfect Aryan figure; a white, blonde, blue-eyed, square-jawed, deep-voiced, musclebound manly man. But The New Colossus takes the time to explore his emotional vulnerabilities, his sources of inner strength, and how his core values differentiate him from the insecure, paranoid, and destructive narcissism of Nazi oppressors.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a double threat of ultraviolent action and ballistic fiction. It swings from hilarity to horror with rockstar swagger while maintaining pitch-perfect solemnity in its soliloquies. 25 years since the series debut, Wolfenstein proves that it’s always relevant to resist.