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The compassion & cruelty of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

A world worth fighting for

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The early stages of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus [official site] show the same blood, guts and heart that were key to the first game’s success. Described by Bethesda’s Pete Hines as “fucking bananas”, it’s a game of extremes, but it’s the care that it shows for its characters and setting that stand out as unique in the field of alt-history Nazi war-shooters. Alongside the silliness, the gore and the pulp fiction roots, there’s a core concern for humanity and its loss.

In the opening stages of the game, Blazkowicz is in a wheelchair. The events of The New Order have left his body ruined and he’s lost time again, waking five months later to find himself in a fresh hell. He’s aboard a U-boat that has been captured by his resistance pals, but subsequently boarded by Nazi forces seeking to eliminate him. The Nazis are led by Frau Engel, who you may remember from the tense train sequence in The New Order, as well as later encounters. She’s obsessed with Blazkowicz, known on the propagandistic airwaves as Terror Billy, and could have blown him and his companions out of the water if she wasn’t determined to capture and humiliate him.

It’s all going to end with a messy public execution and there’s a strong sense that Blazkowicz is going to have to watch his friends suffer and die if he doesn’t hand himself over. He has no qualms about surrendering, partly because he’s convinced he can come up with a plan no matter how close to the chopping block he gets, but also because he doesn’t want to be responsible for anymore deaths. Apart from all the Nazis he guns down from his wheelchair.

Even a severely wounded Terror Billy is a dangerous thing. The controls are magnificent, in this section, the wheelchair lurching forwards as Blazkowicz struggles to control it one-handed, spitting bullets from an SMG in his other hand. The chair clatters into walls, rattles down stairs, and the whole sense of body and weight is superb. Grab a guard from behind and you’ll sometimes grab them and smash their head into mush against the armrest of the chair.

Stealth kills from a squeaky wheelchair. There’s a gruesome comic effect as well as a desperate, violent catharsis. The Nazis talk in hushed tones about the legend of Terror Billy; one of them was part of clean-up crew dealing with the aftermath of one of Blazkowicz’ assaults, and they speak of the thousands he has murdered. And then, there he is, rolling through the galley, improbably alive and not-kicking-but-still-killing. He’s a furious avenging angel, wings clipped but essence intact.

He feels almost supernatural, his torso seemingly reconstructed and cratered with the wounds of both invasive surgery and war, but the Nazis bring him crashing back into reality. My time with the game ended with other resistance members brought low, so broken and abused that they barely had the strength even to resist anymore. These are characters we’ve spent one game getting to know already, and it doesn’t look like they’re all going to make it out alive. And it doesn’t look like death will come easy, or in a blaze of glory.

Wolfenstein pivots between comedy gore and harrowing violence in a way that should be intensely jarring, but in these opening scenes at least, it somehow works. There’s a scene where splendid Set Roth, the Galen Erso of Wolfenstein’s world, activates traps to stave off an attack while explaining the situation to the just-woken Blazkowicz. He’s trying to summarise five months of horror and tragedy, a brave man in a terrifying time, while Nazis fizzle and explode as they try to circumnavigate a sparking electrical barrier. The conversation is in the foreground and the explicitly humorous slapstick deaths are in the background, a seemingly incidental detail (though animated with great care) caught on camera as if by accident.

The scene is a fine summation of this interpretation of Wolfenstein. A world gone mad, to which the valid responses are extreme violence, wild laughter or absolute despair. And all the while, compassion is the thread that holds everything together.

How does compassion fit in a world of deathcamps, totalitarian rule, racism, prejudice and tech-horror, where the resistance commit their own acts of terror and we’re invited to cackle at cartoonish evisceration? It’s in the softening of Blazkowicz’s eyes when he’s reunited with his pregnant lover, in the hope that they might still make a world worthy of their children, even if they might lose their lives or their humanity to do so. And it’s in the most surprising character introduced in the U-boat level.

Frau Engel’s daughter, Sigrun, could have been a disaster. She’s introduced as what seems like another broad comedic visual, a plump Fräulein in too-tight clothes, tottering behind her severe mother. Engel berates her daughter for eating too much cake and is alternately embarrassed and disgusted by her, and that’s where the compassion creeps in again. To her mother, and the new regime, Sigrun is just one more imperfection in a world that needs to be cleansed. A disgrace to the Aryan ideal. And she’s bullied and brutalised (emotionally for now) and is eventually the only person brave enough to question her mother, and by extension the entire Reich. Uniformed men laugh and jeer at her, betraying their own cowardice.

Sigrun isn’t a joke, she’s a potential hero. And that’s the beauty of Wolfenstein. The resistance members are those the Nazis would immediately brand as imperfect, because of the colour of their skin, their faith, their ideology, their body-shape, or the simple fact that they’re willing to resist at all. In the trailer, Blazkowicz has to convince the resistance that he’s “not a Nazi”. He’s marked as a possible danger and threat – blonde hair, blue eyes – but he’s quickly accepted. The resistance might have been taught to fear the blonde and blue after years of occupation and cruelty, but they don’t hate or reject Blazkowicz. They just need to know that he’s safe, and figure out that he is by tricking him into an act of selfless heroism. There’s an echo of Engel’s impurity test from The New Order, which relied on sneering arrogance and racist ideology. In this new test, compassion wins out, again.

I get the very distinct impression that Machine Games won’t be pulling any punches in their depiction of Nazi-occupied America. We’ve already seen Klan members enjoying their new day in the sun, brought into the daylight by the protective shield of the Reich’s repulsive beliefs, and that suggests Blazkowicz and his allies will be gunning down some American symbols as well as the swastika and the Totenkopf.

What little I’ve played is beautifully executed, and already brimming over with imagination and violent delights. But the most striking note is the sense of heroism in the face of atrocities, and the compassion that somehow manages to survive the cruelty of terror and war. There’s sincerity alongside the strange spectacles of this make-believe war, and just enough kindness to make the cruelty feel all the more real.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is out on October 27th, 2017.

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