Some Displeased Rambling on Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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I have a very bad habit of impulsively buying things. It’s something I’m not very proud of doing, but it’s an irrational impulse that I’ve never been able to master. If I had to guess, I would say it is something that draws from the concept of “shopping therapy” as well as a childhood fear that if I don’t immediately possess something, it will disappear and I will never see it again (a fear borne out time and again by reality, alas).

My latest unfortunate acquisition has been Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the followup to Machinegames’ surprise 2014 hit Wolfenstein: The New Order. I originally wasn’t even planning on buying this game, but seeing some gameplay videos shortly after release tripped a few circuit breakers in my mind, eventually resulting in me being out a serious chunk of change for yet another video game. At the time I bought it, I rationalized my decision by arguing that, just as Wolfenstein: The New Order (which this article will abbreviate to TNO) had proven to be far more interesting than the initial sales pitch made it out to be, the same would hold true for The New Colossus (henceforth abbreviated to TNC).

Naturally, fate made me a liar once again.

Before I begin, I would recommend that everyone reading this first take a look at my original review for Wolfenstein: The New Order on Ferretbrain right here. I want to jump right into the discussion of this game without having to explain a lot of background, and that review covers both the premise of the Wolfenstein series as the whole, the concept of TNO in particular, and elaborates on why I found the game so intriguing. I also happen to think it’s a decent game review, so go ahead and give it a skim; I’ll be waiting right here.

All done? Then let’s begin.

TNC opens in early 1961, and things could be going better. B.J. Blazkowicz, mortally wounded from the events of the last game, has been convalescent for five months, just as the submarine he and the anti-Nazi resistance group he has been hiding out with comes under attack. While Blazkowicz manages to fend off the Nazi invaders (much of the time in a wheelchair, no less), there are casualties. The greatest casualty of all is Caroline Becker, leader of the sub’s resistance cell, who ends up being executed with a fire axe by General Irene Engel, a promoted secondary antagonist from the first game. After the battle, Blazkowicz mourns with the resistance as they prepare to enact Caroline’s final plan: orchestrate a general uprising in Nazi-occupied America and use the liberated country as a base from which to launch a great attack against Nazi Europe. The rest of the game mainly revolves around B. J. raising hell across the occupied states while killing Nazis in increasingly horrible ways.

The problems I had with TNC can be broken down into four basic categories. First of all, while most of the gameplay remains unchanged from TNO, the few changes that have been made have all been for the worse. Many players online have complained that the difficultly has been ramped up to the point where the traditional run’n’gun gameplay of Wolfenstein is simply not viable, and players must make do with popping off shots behind cover. While I didn’t notice this as much because I always play my games on the easiest setting, I did notice that the changes made to the game’s stealth system have made it a far less viable playstyle. While sneaking around a room to assassinate Nazi commanders before they can summon reinforcements was a great way to encourage cautious gameplay, in TNC the commanders are placed so far away from you and you have been made far more easier to detect that you may as well not bother with stealth. The game also mucks with its replayability in a serious way. At the beginning of the first game, you were given a Sophie’s Choice between two characters you had grown to like in the course of the first level. Whichever ever one you spared would fight by your side throughout the rest of the game, teach you a lock-picking technique that could change the way you played through levels, and granted you access to a particular type of personal stat upgrade and another unique side character to chat with. The game was even designed such that you could replay the game and take the other choice while still retaining all your character and weapon upgrades. In TNC, the choice is preserved, but all it changes is a few cutscenes and which functionally identical weapon you get. Replaying levels is now handled as an in-game system that seems to have been designed to tack more hours onto the game, and making a different choice requires you to make another save file and start grinding all over again. To top it all off, the game is filled with endless collectibles that have little purpose besides bumping your completion percentage closer to that magical “100%.”

Sadly, the story does little to make up for the gameplay. In all honesty, it’s a bit hard to figure out what the game is actually about. While General Engel does execute Caroline at the beginning of the game in a pale imitation of the first game’s opening (suffice to say, the game reuses quite a few story beats from TNO), she doesn’t make much of an impression on the player. She remains, as she was in the first game, little more than a simple sadist, and lacks the charisma or sheer malignancy to stick in the player’s mind, despite having her face splashed on every billboard you see. As a result, the Nazis come across more as gristle to chew through rather than an evil to defeat, and the world of the game loses some of the horror that TNO handled so well.

The only time the game is really in any focus is during its first half, when the story revolves around Blazkowicz coming to terms with his mortality. A lot of time is spent in flashbacks to his childhood, depicting the hateful, self-pitying, terror that is his father and his compassionate Jewish mother. (I’m giving this game a lot of shit, but one thing I will praise is its positive depiction of a mother-son relationship, something we see very little of in any form of media these days.) Alongside these flashbacks are Blazkowicz’s own ruminations of how he simply can’t take much more of this life, and how he’ll never grow old with his partner Anya or see their unborn children grow up. Matters finally come to a head in the middle of the game when he makes a sidetrip to his abandoned family ranch in Mesquite, TX, where he runs across his aged father, who has done very well for himself under the new regime by selling out “undesirables,” his wife among them, to the Nazi authorities. After freeing himself of his inner demons by murdering his racist father with a hatchet, Blazkowicz is captured by the Nazis, tried, and finally executed by General Engel herself at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial Hitler Building in Washington D.C. while a crowd of thousands on the Mall cheer his death.

…then the resistance recovers his head, grafts it to a stolen super-soldier body, installs a bunch of contraptions in said body that render Blazkowicz more Inspector Gadget than man, and the whole thing eventually culminates in Blazkowicz sneaking onboard the Third Reich’s Venusian aerostat by disguising himself as an actor auditioning for the role of B. J. Blazkowicz in a new film written by Adolf Hitler, who shows up in person as a senile, pants-shitting gremlin who shoots Ronald Reagan in the face and no I am not making any of this up it is all in the game God help me.

I could go on with how the game drowns you in new characters that the writers seem to think are delightful rather than shrill stereotypes, but you really don’t any more than last paragraph, do you?

To calm things down a bit, the allohistorical vision of Nazi-controlled America the game presents is also a little threadbare. The potted history of TNC‘s America is that the country continued fighting the Second World War despite the loss of all its Eurasian allies until 1948, when Washington was compelled to surrender after a Nazi atomic attack on New York City. The occupation authorities treat most of the white population with kid gloves, and by 1961 most of the American people have grown acclimatized to Nazi ideals. The showpiece for this the game’s Roswell level, which is a slice of 1950s-esque small-town Americana where the residents fuss over their German lessons, brag about receiving a permit to conceive, slave auctions are the norm, and Klansman walk the streets with pride. Meanwhile, Blazkowicz and the resistance find new recruits with a black revolutionary cell squatting in the husk of the Empire State Building that seems to be modeled after the Black Panthers, and with another cell in New Orleans led by some sort of weird Marxist preacher-man.

It’s this depiction of Nazified America that seems to drawn the most ire online, with accusations of “pandering to the SJWs” on some of the web’s more disreputable sites. For myself, I thought the basic premise of this America didn’t quite work. My own initial reading is that TNC‘s America was heavily influenced by both the surrender of Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Vichy France. Suffice to say, I believe these events and polities were not the correct models to use, primarily because they were the results of long-running historical and cultural trends that would not have be present in the American case. I also found that the game had the unexpected and uncomfortable effect of putting me, someone who doesn’t have much patience with bellicose expressions of American nationalism, in the odd position of arguing that the game is not being fair to Americans. I understand what the developers are trying to do, depicting an America where its populace can be led into conformity by bread and circuses, and where the racial prejudices of interwar America are brought to full and evil flower. If we’re looking at analogies, you could say that TNC is a liberal reinterpretation of William Overgard’s 1980 novel The Divide, a novel that also depicts an occupied America led into lassitude and collaboration by economic incentives, but where the brave heroes are individualistic patriots. However, I feel like the developers painted their world too broadly, creating a sort of left-wing consolatory fantasy where the only good white person is a dead white person, and radical minority groups who have been carefully bleached of their radicalism are the true inheritors of Washington’s legacy. Admittedly this was probably was not the intention of the developers, but I must admit that it is hard to avoid drawing that conclusion.

However, I found that my ultimate problem with The New Colossus, the one that will keep me from replaying it or trying its sequel, was a moral one, of all things. Throughout The New Order, the violence of the game had this uncomfortable undercurrent to it. There were plenty of collectible letters written by various Nazis which had them talking about their lives in mundane terms, not seeming to be any more evil than you or me. The close-up takedowns were visceral and unpleasant, particularly when you could see the final moments of pain and fear in a soldier’s eyes. The game also recast you as an out-and-out terrorist, and at times it was seriously hard to convince yourself that your targets were strictly military targets. It was a discomforting element I found intriguing, and I was wondering if the second game would push this theme even harder, perhaps to the point where the player seriously questions whether they should continue playing.

As it turned out, my speculation was for naught. TNC just reiterates the dissonances of TNO, and at this point it seems like there is no intention of ever resolving them. For all the characters of the new Wolfenstein trilogy, Nazis are fundamentally inhuman, and killing them can only ever be a good thing. Indeed, the moral universe of TNC ends up being unintentionally warped as a result of this mindset. The clearest example of this is the game’s depiction of nuclear weapons. One of the first areas you explore in the game is the ruins of Manhattan. You spend time walking through collapsed buildings, trodding through the dried bodies huddled in abandoned ferries and subway tunnels, and staring at a skyline of twisted girders. You even meet characters who speak of the horrors of the Manhattan bomb in hushed tones. A few hours later you’re joyfully nuking Roswell and New Orleans like it ain’t no thang (New Orleans in particular is the worst; you don’t even launch the bomb at a military target, you merely toast the city to propel your submarine with the shockwave back into the Gulf of Mexico to evade pursing Nazi forces.) The game makes excuses about how no civilians were actually harmed in these incidents, but I can no longer believe these lies, and I can no longer justify my actions to myself.

There were, of course, a few things I liked about The New Colossus. I liked both the “Ram Shackles” contraption, which let me shoulder my way through walls and body-check Nazis so hard their bodies explode, and the “Battle Walker,” which finally gave me the tallboy experience Dishonored denied me. I liked the silliness of seeing Nazi commanders walking the wasteland wearing peaked caps and leather trenchcoats over their yellow hazmat suits. My favorite level of all was the ghetto city of New Orleans, surrounded by an immense concrete wall, half-consumed by swamp and crammed with shanties, while fire-breathing panzerhunds prowled the streets and helicopters circled ominously overhead, a great location with no story suitable for it. However, a few bright spots cannot redeem Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. For the sake of myself, I will simply end B. J.’s story with his death at the end of The New Order, and leave the rest to silence.

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1 Response to Some Displeased Rambling on Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

  1. Pingback: Burgundian Lullaby – Some Thoughts on The New Order: Last Days of Europe | The Futurist Dolmen

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