Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is big, bombastic, and empty
Warning: This article contains major plot spoilers for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.
I remember coming home one night this past October and opening Twitter to something of a hellstorm on my timeline. The official Wolfenstein account had just released an ad making well and clear that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda’s stance on Nazis: they don’t like ‘em. Some understandably don’t enjoy the ways in which this and a couple other Wolfenstein II ads since then have banked on the fuck-fascism zeitgeist of the American left in response to recent events, but personally, I’m appreciative of the sentiment. Plus, I like the modern Wolfenstein games, so this ad had me interested in seeing whether The New Colossus could handle such touchy subject matter with the same level of finesse as its predecessors The New Order and, yes, even The Old Blood had before it.
But with time between myself and the credits of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, I can’t help but feel that the game falls short of this legacy.
Wolfenstein II’s opening hour may be one of the strongest in recent memory. Seconds after an explosion detonates General Deathshead’s compound in The New Order, protagonist B.J. Blaskowicz is dug up from the wreckage and is critically wounded. He slips back and forth between consciousness of the events around him and his troubled childhood, wherein his Texan father attempts to punish young B.J. for fancying a young black girl (named Billie with an ‘ie’ to his ‘y’). His mother attempts to protect the boy from danger, but eventually young Billy grabs a vase and smashes it over his father’s head, who retaliates by forcing Billy to shoot his own dog. Back in the present, after an intense and often hilarious first-person shooting sequence in a wheelchair, B.J. is forced to surrender to the dreadful General Frau Engel and watch as she beheads the beloved Caroline Becker, whom anyone who’s played The New Order can tell you is easily one of the best characters in the MachineGames Wolfenstein oeuvre. The scene is made more horrifying when Engel shoves Becker’s severed head in B.J.’s and the player’s face, making gross kissing sounds to boot.
Newcomers like Black Panther facsimile Grace Walker don't get much of a chance to shine.
It’s a stunning back-to-back sequence of events which have long-term ramifications for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, The New Colossus is never able to successfully follow-up on them. While the game does do a good job of giving Caroline a properly mournful goodbye in the scenes following, it doesn’t give its other, new characters the same treatment. In The New Order, we’re privy to a host of characters early on in the Kreisau Circle hideout and focus almost exclusively on them throughout the game, gradually understanding their personalities and histories. By contrast, The New Colossus newcomers like Black Panther facsimile Grace Walker and lawyer-turned-alien-conspiracy-theorist Super Spesh, to say nothing of a few other marginalized folks on the cast, don’t get much of a chance to shine. Grace, a black revolutionary who survived the Nazi’s nuking of Manhattan, has a wealth of knowledge about combat tactics and espionage and has a child with Spesh, but aside from a tender breastfeeding scene early on, we never get to see another side of Grace, and seems like there should be. When Spesh dies, his death is treated as a footnote and he’s never spoken of again. Such a profound shakeup to her livelihood - Spesh is the father of her child - seems to have basically no effect on Grace, the rest of the crew, or the game’s wider narrative.
Later on, we meet the preacher Horton Boone and his posse of anarchists holed up in New Orleans. In a phenomenally-directed, electric scene wherein B.J. gets progressively drunker off Horton’s ‘specialty’ whiskey in the midst of an argument about opposing the draft and capitalism, Horton’s companions provide a clarinet solo and snipe off-screen Nazis through a window. But while powerful, this scene does not exist in a vacuum; Wolfenstein II basically fails to acknowledge these characters’ existence again once the player leaves them. This doesn’t make the scene lose its directing luster, but it does then fail to build upon the overall experience in a way which feels additive and fortifying.
Both of the above the examples up the ante on The New Order’s resistive, fuck-you attitude through stunning cutscenes (The New Colossus’ are easily best in class) and fast, frenetic action segments which surround them, but they largely miss those tender, quieter moments of self-care and reflection The New Order did so well. The New Colossus does deliver both at times, but it doles out the latter unevenly, and mainly to already-established characters from previous games. This is especially disappointing when contextualized against the glut of characterization the player gets for different Nazi characters, related through ambient dialogue and postcards sent back home found lying about.
Too often, the action setpieces fail to generate consequences which have far-reaching, tangible effects on Wolfenstein II's portrait of America under the Axis powers.
Nobody is going to argue that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus shouldn’t have bombastic setpieces. But these moments, which seemingly exist outside of a broader context to anchor them in, speak only to some invisible coolness quota which The New Colossus seems hell-bent on reaching. Too often, they fail to generate consequences which have far-reaching, tangible effects upon Wolfenstein II’s portrait of America under the Axis powers. Nowhere is this problem demonstrated more clearly than in one of the most frequently-discussed collection of scenes present halfway through the game. When B.J. visits his childhood home in Texas, we learn through flashbacks more about B.J.’s childhood love Billie and that B.J.’s estranged father Rip Blaskowicz had sold out his Jewish mother to the Nazis. B.J. tears his arm off in anger, just before Rip reveals that General Engel has been listening in on their conversation this whole time. She destroys their house with her floating warship, kidnaps B.J., kills Super Spesh when he tries to break him out of captivity, displays B.J.’s captured body on live television, forces him through a court session where he will inevitably be sentenced to death (he dreams of breaking out and finding his estranged mother in the other room in a beautiful, tender moment), then slices his head off at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in front of an army of chanting SS soldiers.
What an absolutely daring and thoughtful meditation on the true nature of heroics, powerlessness, and steadfast resistance that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus could have been if only it had stopped there. But no, it turns out that B.J.’s crew back at the Eva’s Hammer hideout had other plans. When Frau Engel drops B.J.’s head into a pit of fire, it’s revealed that there is a repurposed Nazi drone ready to catch his head and spirit it away to their hidden compound, where a team are ready to recover B.J.’s head with tubes feeding it oxygenated blood. His head is surgically attached to a new body, the player’s health meter goes up a bit, and that’s it. Time again for more missions. There is almost no long-term consequence whatsoever to this stunning sequence, which retroactively robs something as harrowing as a first-person beheading scene of its staying power. Maybe I’m just being morbid here, but generally speaking when you cut someone’s head off, that’s it. They’re done. Wolfenstein II’s wackiness here becomes burdensome to its other, more serious and grounded side and the two thereby diverge like oil and water.
Later on, B.J. goes to Venus (yes, the planet; they do outer space again here) to pose undercover as an actor auditioning for the part of B.J. in a biographical film falsely chronicling his capturing at the hands of Adolf Hitler. None other than the Führer himself arrives to decide on who should play the role. Doped out of his mind on drugs, he blithely shoots actors who misspeak to him or audition poorly, barfs on his office carpet, and attempts in vain to piss in a bucket on the floor. He then watches B.J. and co. audition for the role inside a transparent glass box while lying on the floor like a child from exhaustion. It’s a comical, shocking scene when watched in the moment, and I get it: Hitler fucking sucks. I’ll take any and all opportunities to trash the guy in idle conversation whenever I can. But then when the game set me out on a generic, forgettable shooting sequence later on, leaving me time and space to think back on the scene that had just transpired, I felt little more than, “Okay…so what?”
After a disappointing encounter with two robots at the end of the game, B.J. nonchalantly kills Frau Engel in a cutscene. When B.J. and crew take over the TV broadcast to tell the people to rise up against their fascist oppressors, it’s implied that their revolution has finally been set in motion…but the game is over at this point. The credits play, soundtracked by a godawful metal rendition of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, and the player is shown images of the proletariat taking it to the man (as if all it took to buy into the notion that hey, maybe these Nazis aren’t so great was a few people showing up out of nowhere on TV to tell you so). It had its chance to demonstrate true resistance by the common man in its core narrative, and blew it. So…what?
Much has been said about the ways in which The New Colossus 'goes there,' so to speak, but in this moment it pulls punches.
I might have been able to look the other way on Wolfenstein II’s narrative failings had it managed to capture a strong sense of place which defines it as a singular work when positioned next to The New Order, but here too it falters. The New Colossus was sold as sort of a first-person shooter equivalent to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle – what does America look like under a fascist regime? What does it say about America’s true nature if such a portrayal ends up resembling its lived history? MachineGames does not allow itself nearly enough time to adequately answer these questions posed by the game’s impeccable marketing. While it makes sense that Wolfenstein II’s Manhattan is barely recognizable and largely devoid of people from an aesthetic standpoint, having been nuked prior to the events of the game, New Orleans being so lacking in identity and local, period-appropriate flavor is jarring. On the lead-in to that mission, Grace informs B.J. that New Orleans has become a ‘ghetto,’ having been segregated off by the Nazis. But when you get there, it’s just more crumbled buildings, flood waters, Nazis to shoot, and the occasional alligator to surprise-attack the player. There are no people visibly existing, surviving here; you’ll hear some ambient background audio of gunfire and people screaming, but that’s about it. Much has been said about the ways in which The New Colossus ‘goes there,’ so to speak, but in this moment it pulls punches, hesitating to pay more than mere lip service to the ways in which the marginalized would be affected by such a regime. It feels like squandered potential.
I say ‘lip service’ because The New Colossus does manage to slightly get it right in one oft-publicized sequence in Roswell. Here, B.J. goes undercover as a fireman carrying a concealed nuclear weapon through a crowded parade celebrating the Nazi ‘liberation’ of America by the Germanic hegemony. Peppered throughout this sequence are flavorful vignettes which showcase interactions between Nazis, KKK members, half-converted American citizens trying to assimilate so as to not be detained, and full-on devotees to the Reich. In one segment, an SS member scolds a pair of white robe-draped KKK members for their poor German. A woman successfully appeals to a Nazi in ridding America of ‘jungle music’ like jazz and rock n’ roll (historically pioneered by black artists and later appropriated by whites) but then unintentionally incriminates herself by criticizing the Nazi’s usage of Austrian composer Mozart - Hitler is Austrian, as is this particular Nazi’s grandmother, and so she is reported for treasonous language. Elsewhere, an aunt and her niece discuss the young lady’s wedding, just before the aunt asks her niece to inform her father about an upcoming slave auction over cocktails.
Between this tragically short-lived segment and the sadly shallow presence of black revolutionary Grace Walker, it’s clear that The New Colossus does have a passing interest in commenting on race in America, but not a particularly deep one. This sequence and the game as a whole end far too early to sufficiently dig into such subjects; I spent eleven hours playing Wolfenstein II, which might seem like quite a long time for MachineGames to spend interrogating themes of resistance and race relations, yet so much of the game takes place in Nazi U-boats and space stations. You don’t even get to shoot at a KKK member unless you try one of the game’s ruthlessly dull side missions. Its portrayals of American cities often might as well be interchangeable with any other number of location-agnostic, post-apocalyptic works of fiction, and it’s hard not to feel like the locations being held away for the game’s upcoming downloadable content roadmap diminish potential for any such commentary out of the gate.
I never imagined I would compare The New Collosus to BioShock Infinite’s Disneyland-style portrait of America, yet here we are. While that game dealt in ‘both sides are bad!’ false equivalencies in a way which Wolfenstein II thankfully never does, the ways in which it fails to leverage its more over-the-top elements against its thoughts on modern resistance mirror Infinite’s tepid racial discussions being overshadowed by its labyrinthine, multi-dimensional timeline bullshit.
I never imagined I would compare The New Collosus to BioShock Infinite’s Disneyland-style portrait of America, yet here we are.
There are obvious hooks for a sequel here, and I do hope MachineGames gets to finish the story it’s started. But The New Colossus’ position as the middle step-child of the franchise ultimately hurts it from a narrative standpoint. In times like these, when simply existing as a citizen in America means being bombarded by a constant, directed stream of depressing, mental health-deteriorating bile, the world needs and deserves works of art which thoughtfully tackle themes of modern existence. Recent games like Night in the Woods, Tacoma, and NieR: Automata for all their faults deftly manage to analyze and interrogate race, capitalism, and modern ennui in ways which Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus similarly tries to but just can’t. ‘Fun gameplay’ (and let’s be honest, The New Colossus struggles here too) and breakneck moments in a vacuum aren’t enough. The time for thoughtful action is now; let’s not miss the U-boat.