The compassion & cruelty of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

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.

38 Comments

  1. JarinArenos says:

    The New Order was a shockingly well-constructed game, so I’m looking forward to giving this one a shot.

    • DarkFenix says:

      Agreed, TNO was one of the largest and best surprises I’ve ever had in gaming. I went in expecting the comedy nazi killing but otherwise a probably bland, repetitive shooter. I ended up with an excellent, complete experience that left me eager for more.

  2. int says:

    Pic 3: I think it’s Debra Wilson from MadTV!

  3. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    I didn’t realise this one was being subtitled “The New Colossus”. I mean, I know Anya is supposed to be super-pregnant and all, but calling her a colossus is just rude!

  4. Eightball says:

    I’m excited to play another videogame where a virile white man saves America from rampaging foreigners!

    • haradaya says:

      This is probably the one (reboot) series you shouldn’t write off as just that

      • Eightball says:

        Write off? I’m unironically excited to play a videogame where I get to play as a strong white man defending his beautiful, fertile wife and his white unborn child while liberating my country from repulsive foreigners.

      • Inkano says:

        I don’t understand how anyone can see Wolfenstein as anything but that. It was almost silly how, despite having almost entire planet under nazi control, we still end up fighting not just any nazi, but german kind of nazi.
        Same goes for BJ’s character too: TNO wasn’t even subtle in presenting him as idealised US soldier straight from WW2 propaganda posters, complete with corresponding worldview.
        While trailer does indeed show KKK members, everything else doesn’t promise any real change from that formula.
        That said, can’t really blame them, as TNO still ended up being great probably because of that.

        • rgk says:

          In The New Order and The Old Blood, there were German characters against the Nazis. I’d say it was far more subtle than most depictions of the WWII Germans in the media and especially in games.

        • Sandepande says:

          Wolfenstein, being the game that it is, doesn’t exactly rank high in an authentic representation of Nazi-occupied world (I don’t know what would, but I have a feeling Wolfenstein isn’t one of those), and thus it is only appropriate that in a fairly cinematic game about blowing away Nazis, they speak German, or in a pinch, Posh British, just because that is the only true way.

          Other nationalities can be collaborators, traitors and whatever, but for a convincing Nazi, you need that harsh Teutonic style and precision. Others just feel cheap rip-offs.

    • waltC says:

      What’s the color of his skin got to do with anything at all?

      • jonahcutter says:

        Nothing. It’s an established character. Posts like this are just using it to very publicly proclaim how morally superior they see themselves as.

        Posters like this will literally never be pleased. Your best bet is to ignore and/or laugh it off and get on with having adult conversations with people interested in discussing the work, and not just hijacking the discussion to push their ideology center stage.

        • Blinky343 says:

          From his other comments, he’s trolling in the other direction

    • Synesthesia says:

      Is this some 4-d dogwhistling i’m missing?

      Or maybe you are just one of those people that gets super offended by antifascists.

    • NotGodot says:

      You know that Wolfenstein is, and has always been, an elaborately crafted Jewish revenge fantasy, right?

      • Eightball says:

        Cool it with the anti-semitic remarks goy.

        • NotGodot says:

          I know you’re trolling, but I find it really interesting. It’s about the absurdity of white supremacist racial “science”, and arguably has its roots in the Israeli reinvention of Jewish identity.

          The New Order really leans in on this too, with the plot twist that yeah, there was a secret ancient Jewish conspiracy. And you know what? It kicked ass!

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        phuzz says:

        You don’t have to be Jewish to want to shoot nazis. Not being Jewish certainly didn’t stop several of my grandparents generation from killing a few.

      • aldo_14 says:

        Assuming I bought that argument (I don’t) – what exactly would be wrong with that?

    • Shinard says:

      Sorry, trolling confuses me. It’s not a hard thing to annoy someone else, and generally it takes more effort and intelligence not to annoy other people in everyday life. But trolls, like you, seek to deliberately “fail” (I know, not quite accurate, but you know what I mean) at social interaction and see that as a success. I guess it’s a bit like deliberately scoring an own goal – OK, most people don’t do it, but it wasn’t particularly difficult and no-one else is impressed with you. Meanwhile, the player who put in more effort to score a proper goal (making a funny comment, or having an interesting conversation in this metaphor) might be doing something more common, but they still get more respect for it.

      So… congrats?

      • Eightball says:

        Thanks, although seeing as half the comments under the article are responding to my low-effort imitation of progressive dogma I think I’ve done ok on the scoring front.

  5. Kinsky says:

    I really tried to understand the hype behind The New Order, but it still eludes me completely. It was proclaimed to be a powerful return to old-school sensibility, but it commits many of the same sins that have plagued the shooter genre for the last ten or so years: overbearing barely interactive scripted sequences that instakill you if you don’t do the one thing the game tells you to, linear levels with exploration that boils down to finding an extra box of ammo tucked in a corner the game doesn’t railroad you directly into, combat bound to scripted arenas, checkpoint-only save system. In fact, just about the only “old school” design decisions it exhibits are the lack of regenerating health and a snap-to-cover button. The cutscenes were dull, the characters were dull… Frau Engel’s purity test in particular had the feel of a bad imitation of an Inglourious Basterds scene. And crediting it with intelligent juxtaposition of themes is a bit generous, I feel – if anything, the game is a dissonant mish-mash of reveling in comical and excessive violence because Nazis are The Worst People, while also periodically stopping itself to somberly reinforce that yes, Nazis are, in fact, The Worst People. Maybe this new one will be better, but if this is the foundation it’s building on, I remain skeptical.

    • Kasjer says:

      Some of this criticism is fair, however, I feel that you have missed the point. Oldschool shooters often contained secrets which were just a stash of ammo because ammo was scarce – and in this game, I’ve often found myself being short on ammo for best guns. Collecting grenades for assault rifle felt as good as doing the same in Half-Life. Levels are linear but you can approach them as you wish. You can play this game as stealth one for majority of it, you can go in guns blazing, you can play this as tactical cover shooter, trying to flank enemies and chipping their health away fron safety of cover. You can destroy much of the enviroment.

      As for characters – to me they were memorable. Interludes in base were great break from action, characters were expressing gallows humor and standing up against evil in face of uneven odds and all of that…

      Only thing I would change in the game is having to press action button to pick things up. From technical standpoint, fixing the issues regarding enabling of AA and higher levels of AF would also be nice.

    • ansionnach says:

      I agree with you on a lot of these points but I still found the core loop quite a lot of fun, even though it was repetitive and didn’t have many modes (running about shooting things and sneaking about a little). It seemed to be aware of its heritage to a degree in a way that even that Wolfenstein 3D wasn’t in that getting discovered could be very bad for you very quickly. Maybe that was accidental though, and Machine Games weren’t aware of the original Castle Wolfenstein Apple II games from the early eighties? They’re probably still the best and most cerebral Wolfenstein games (maybe not too hard, though!)

      I enjoyed the build up of the characters until it became apparent that the intention of this was to confound and patronise by showing us that the regular old-fashioned guy was just plain wrong in the way he saw the world. It was also very annoying that you bomb a bridge that’s currently being used by a lot of civilians. Tried to not do this but the game wouldn’t let me. Would have stopped playing entirely if they pulled a Spec Ops: The Line-alike and hit you over the head for doing something you were railroaded into.

      Speaking of railroading, it’ll be a bit hard to stomach the “here’s a woman that you love” bit in the new game so I’ll probably just skip it. She turned out to be quite a psychopath.

  6. Stevostin says:

    “The cutscenes were dull, the characters were dull…”

    To you sure, but not to most. To most, it’s probably the exact opposite. I remember thinking those were some of the most memorable character in any video game – the villain is actually frightening in a way they rarely are in movies… Well, at least to me.

  7. wackazoa says:

    Truthfully I find the way Wolfenstein is written to be more appealing than say, COD WW2. I enjoy history, from my dad who was gonna be a history teacher before getting into the family business, but the ultra “accurate/realistic” stories walk a very thin line that most cant stay on. If those stories veer off just a bit the wrong way they can get accused of whitewashing or even trying to reform the image of the war and its participants.

    With Wolfenstein it can go in any direction it needs to for story points, or even make stuff up entirely for gameplay. And yet because it only glances the “real” it is not usually in any trouble of getting flak from what it uses. And even through the absurd they still keep a respect for the macro of the topic.

  8. Michael Fogg says:

    ***SPOILER WARNING FOR W:TNO***
    Wait, Frau Engel? Didn’t she get her skull crushed (and subsequently thrown off a cliff) by a mech halfway through the previous game?

    • loganmist says:

      Further Spoiler W: TNO!!!
      Wait… didn’t BJ take a grenade to the chest and then, oh yeah, become enveloped in a nuclear explosion that took out Castle Wolfenstein?

    • Cvnk says:

      I couldn’t remember but there’s a video of that scene on YouTube. No, not crushed. And getting tossed off the cliff? Meh. Antagonists have survived worse.

    • Faldrath says:

      Nah, she actually appears later in the game: link to wolfenstein.wikia.com

      She doesn’t look too good, though.

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        Grizzly says:

        That machine doesnt crush skulls, it rams a pin inside the head of the person being held (like the way we slaughter cattle/that thing from No Country for Old Men). Frau Engel lucks out and gets a bolt in her jaw instead.

  9. Gordon Shock says:

    The first one felt neither hot nor cold. I forgot it as soon as I was done with it and there is nothing in this one that makes me want to go anywhere beyond the “Cool, I’ll get it on a Steam sale”.

    I am not sure but from the E3 trailer it seems to me that Bethesda is giving in to repurposing assets as I swear that I saw glory kills in it.

    If it is so that this is bad. Glory kills were a complete blast on Doom and I am sure as hell that I saw them in the trailer. I really don’t want them to milk a great mechanic across different franchises just because they can.

    • Daymare says:

      Why would you buy the second part of a game you didn’t care about? Aren’t there enough games for you to play that you DO care about?

  10. LennyLeonardo says:

    Very excited for this. I adored the first game, and the optional drug trip with Jimi is one of my favourite cutscenes in any game ever.

  11. rgk says:

    Any difference in the health system? This is what makes the difference between “Very good” combat and “Great” combat (DOOM, F.E.A.R. – the player has some agency over their own health in the middle of the fight and is not forced to take cover).