A postcard from the perverted America of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

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Wolfenstein: The New Colossus [official site] is a tale of corrupted icons and waylaid motifs, as Hitler’s propaganda machinery sinks its teeth into the pop memorabilia of 1960s America, and there’s no more wicked instance of that than “Elite Hans” – the Nazi action hero who glares from book stalls, toystores and pinball machines in the game’s Roswell level, which I had a little play of earlier this month. Elite Hans is returning protagonist BJ Blazkowicz’s carnival mirror image: the artwork on one comic even mimics the original cover art for Wolfenstein 3D. Machine Games’ choice of period notwithstanding, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some kind of throwback Nazified shooter to unlock in The New Colossus – a bit of old-fashioned ray-casting to wash down all that glistening high definition viscera.

“We had this idea that the Nazis would paint BJ as public enemy number one,” explains Jens Matthies, creative director. “There would be posters of him everywhere, he would be this terrorist threat that they could use to scare people, galvanise them against the resistance. They call him Terror Billy, right? And so we explained that to the marketing department, and they had this idea: well, what if we make him a physical action figure? And we said: how does that make sense – they wouldn’t make one for their enemy, right? Well yeah – but they would if he was the enemy as part of a larger set of heroes. And so their version of GI Joe is Elite Hans, and the villain, the Skeletor of that toy set is BJ Blazkowicz. And we said: yeah, that’s super-cool – we can put that in the game! It became this virtuous cycle of cool stuff.”

“You mean you had your own marketing staff create promotional materials for National Socialism?” I ask. “That’s an interesting way of spinning it!” Matthies laughs. He glances across the room at the PR man handling our interview, who smiles patiently. “Did you hear that over there? Never mind.”

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Frivolous though they may seem – what long-running shooter series isn’t poking fun at its own heritage, nowadays? – touches like this interest me far more than the latest Wolfenstein’s gunplay. I was more an admirer than a lover of Wolfenstein: The New Order, drawn by its leering Tarantino-esque cutscene direction and relatively thoughtful approach to things like sex and PTSD, but gradually dissuaded by the brutal simplicity of its combat. Additions like pick-and-mix dual-wielding and a jumping ground-pound notwithstanding, The New Colossus appears to be more of the same in that department, albeit polished up during the transition to the latest incarnation of the id Tech engine.

The new demo’s highlight in shootybang terms is its underground train level, a visually spectacular, modestly open-ended experience which sees you crawling beneath multiple-storey armoured cars or scuttling along their roofs. As in The New Order, stealth plays a surprisingly large role – there are radio officers in some areas (their positions hinted at by the HUD) who will summon endless reinforcements when roused, so you’ll definitely want to sneak up and clobber them before tackling the rank and file. This isn’t Splinter Cell, however: for every second you’ll spend scouting out a position you’ll spend at least 10 rampaging down corridors, Dieselkraftwerk grenade launcher in one hand, automatic shotgun in the other. The opposition spans a number of well-worn archetypes, from dudes in juggernaut armour who slowly drive you into a corner, through nimble robots equipped with a short-ranged teleport, to an enormous mech boss you’re thankfully free to avoid.

It’s all very gratifying in the way that only turning a beam cannon on a gaggle of nasal goose-steppers can be, but increasingly, I feel like Machine Games’ heart lies elsewhere, in the game’s backdrop and narrative materials. The E3 demo gave us a seriously injured BJ in a wheelchair – a poignant disempowering of one of the shooter genre’s original forces of nature, only a little undercut by the subsequent bodycount. The Roswell level begins with BJ undercover as a fireman in the idyllic Galveston, wending his way past a Nazi fete to a rendezvous with a resistance fighter in a diner.

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It’s an opportunity to wallow in the right royal mess Machine Games has made of the US of A. Outside a gas station, an officer berates cowed Ku Klux Klan members about their German pronunciation. A local girl moons over a guard, only to get herself into hot water when she sneers at the Fuhrer’s native Austria. Newspapers carry quotes lambasting the press as a cancer, and housewives chat enthusiastically about the revival of slavery. The writing walks a familiar line between giggle-worthy and ghastly, expressive of the inane contradictions that define an absolutist ideology like National Socialism. At one point, you hear a soldier hold forth on the idea that “violence solves nothing”, only to finish by asking his partner whether they’ll be in the same Death Squad.

The references to indigenous fascism are all pretty on-the-nose in the era of #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, but Matthies insists that the game’s fiction pre-dates Donald Trump’s rise to power. Machine Games has been wanting to take the Nazis to America since it first laid hands on the license. “We’ve been enthusiastic about that since 2011, when we were talking to id Software and we had this opportunity to work on Wolfenstein,” he says. “We came up with this idea, what if the Nazis won the war and it’s now the Sixties and they have this technology, and then it dawned on us – the Sixties, that’s when everything happened in Western culture basically! Everything from civil rights movements to the Beatles, Woodstock, the Summer of Love.

“So you have all these moments that are of cultural significance to the world, and how would that look if the Nazis had taken over and started subverting all of that? And so that was super-interesting and we were already then starting to think about all of the Americana of the era, and we quickly realised – we can’t do this in the first game, just in a level where BJ goes to the US, because it’s too big and it’s too significant for him, to have his mortal enemy take over his homeland. This needs its own game. So we were always building towards it – if we had the opportunity to do a sequel, that’s where we’re going to go.”

At times, The New Colossus almost feels like it wants to be an Arkane game, its surrounding universe so grotesquely elaborate that the bare act of aiming a gun comes to seem a distraction. The bubbles of contemplation created by that stealth emphasis are, you could argue, a foundation for something more in the Dishonored vein, with a broad play of variables serving as an incentive to soak up the detail of the universe. It’s certainly the aspect of the new game that has me fascinated, at the time of writing. Perhaps that’s the ultimate destination for the series under Machine Games, to slowly relegate the first-person shooting to second place as it burrows ever deeper, and with ever more self-awareness, into the spectacle of fascism.

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

35 Comments

  1. Eightball says:

    >the Sixties, that’s when everything happened in Western culture basically!

    Is there a law that says games developers must be overgrown children?

    • sandman2575 says:

      : )
      I felt a need to comment on the same, but this pretty well sums up my reaction.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Not any written law, no, but rather a natural law, having to do with a person’s willingness to be taken by enthusiasm and a necessary immunity to cynicism which is important to anyone who wants to create – and also a short attention span for conversation, because sitting and thinking through every statement you make is, of course, sedative to enthusiasm.

      It’s a witless observation taken out of context like that, yeah, but then look at the world they built from it. That willingness to “run with it” *is* somewhat necessary to creative types, and it’s just unavoidable that you sometimes run through few screeen doors that way.

      Besides, it’s obvious what the guy means.

    • Merus says:

      I think it’s reasonable in context, especially given what we’ve seen of Machine Games’ work on their alternate history thus far. It’s clear from the first game and what they’ve shown us of this game that they’ve done their homework – compare the worldbuilding in New Order to, say, HBO’s Confederacy, which was recently announced and almost immediately criticised because its premise made no goddamn sense.

      There was a fair amount of social change in the 60s compared to the 50s, as the generation who grew up during WW2 start coming of age. There are absolutely going to be profound differences.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      Sure, right next to the one that say internet commenters must always deliberately interpret off-the-cuff quotes in the worst possible light.

  2. Cyrus says:

    Great to see they continue to develop real singleplayer games, can’t never have enough of those.

    • gabrielonuris says:

      Yeah, and with actually developed levels and weapons instead of the lazy excuse of procedural shenanigans.

  3. Laurentius says:

    I find it offensive that evne under german nazi rule USA can still be cool with that 50s/60s americana. How about just showing it as massively exploited shithole.

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      phuzz says:

      I’m confused, are you saying that the game looks too much like the current day USA, or not enough?

      • Aetylus says:

        I think both? I think its useful to remember that the USA is both very cool and a massively exploited shithole depending which bit of it you look at.

    • poliovaccine says:

      I mean, from the anecdotes they give in this article, to me it *does* sound like a massively exploited shithole… but yeah, I’m also curious what you mean exactly? What do you mean by “cool with 50s/60s Americana,” in specific?

      • Laurentius says:

        City looks like rose-tinted glasses view of USA in the fifties (country that fought war and won) slapped with nazi iconography,artifacts and violnce. This is wierd to me at least, it’s not hard to find photos of really poor districts from New York. I would imagin conquered USA would rather be massively expolitd and getting poorer and place getting really run down. Not shiny and new, thid is like The Founder but with nazis.

        • Zenicetus says:

          I think the scenario is the 60’s not the 50’s. Compare what Western Europe and the UK looked like in the immediate post-war period, or even Japan, to how far everything had been rebuilt and modernized by the 1960’s. So I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to imagine an occupied Amerika would look like this, twenty odd years after the end of the war.

          • Laurentius says:

            So nazi would run a reverse Marshall Plan for USA? Okey, this is beyond ridiculous. There is nothing in nazi ideaolgy to suuport for such policy and there is everything to go against it.

          • Zenicetus says:

            The “everything we have that goes against it” is based on a Nazi Germany under economic stress during wartime. We don’t have any models for how they would have handled an occupation after a successful war. America’s industrial capacity would have been an attractive thing to exploit, and you don’t do that by letting the society and worker force run down and fall apart.

            Remember, the way London was portrayed in TNO wasn’t a slave camp in a ruined city. It was people under a boot heel of long-term occupation in a rebuilt city. There was a mix of restored pre-war buildings and fascist architecture. Cars moving through the streets, normal pedestrian traffic etc.

            That one image above probably doesn’t tell the whole story. I expect we’ll see some hulking neoclassic/fascist architecture with Nazi flags mixed in with the bright 1960’s Americana, to set the theme.

          • Laurentius says:

            @Zenicetus

            Sure, we don’t that for sure but we do have models for how it would run. Economic rationale was not a thing in nazi ideology, social darwinism up to genocide was. Greed and predatory exploitation was also there. Plus we do know pretty well who nazi leaders were: Goring, Rosenberg, etc. We do also know that nazi ideology time and time again fortunately undermined their goals.

        • poliovaccine says:

          Ah, I think I see what you mean – you’re saying it looks too idyllic to be a Nazi-occupied America. I get that. Though I think by this point reconstruction has definitely happened, and it sounds like the society is pretty well good and opperessive/oppressed.

          But also, I think part of it is just that you might be thinking 50s and 60s Americana “looks cool” and so that’s painting a rosy tint on things, and I do get that, but really that’s kinda just how the world looked then – cars were made to last and with lots of ornamentation, people dressed more formally and plenty of cheap materials of today legit didn’t exist then, architecture had none of the quick, cheap analogues of our world today as well, and anyway it’s just laterally *different* than our own world, which is always novel and interesting and “cool” in some respect.

          Cus I do get what you mean (if I’m getting you right), but I don’t think Nazi-occupied America would necessarily be any poorer or slummier – I mean, once they own it, it’s theirs to tend to and take pride in after all, and if anything even remotely complimentary can be said of the Nazis, it’s that they sure placed a value on their spit n’ polish. Though that might be more a compliment to Germans and Austrians in general than Nazis in particular, now that I think of it… sooo yeah, nope, still no compliments for the Nazis.

          Anyway, it’s rather topical to be able to illustrate how a society can be oppressed in spite of having wealth and essentially positive outward appearances. I mean, in reality’s case, a large part of that is *because* of and *attached to* all that wealth.

          Anyway, I think a fair bit depends how their lore decides the Axis won, how much combat or bombing was supposed to have occurred on American soil, etc, etc. But there’s nothing to say an occupied country needs to actually *look* like shit for conditions of life and its society to be repressive and shitty.

          • Laurentius says:

            Let me tell you something, third reich did not make germany population and country richer during time of peace, in fact many economical and social indexs droped, sure bigger then in crisis after 1929 but way off even pre 1914. This was shity totalitarian goverment. Spoils of war, massive exploitation and pillage brough prosperity for a short time. I don’t know why nazis would rebuild America instead exploiting it further and further, there is no indication of that sort of thinking in nazi ideology.

          • Josh W says:

            Pretty good point really, judging by Vichy France, there would likely be lots of central planning without any assumptions of equality, with food and resources being diverted back to the centre of the empire. Even without any sense of resistance in order to secure an immediate victory, the resentment they would cause would be vast, leading to lots of bad work and intentional sabotage. I think it would probably be a mess.

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          MajorLag says:

          You know what else? The Nazis didn’t have humanoid robots, and the technology didn’t exist to make them by 1960. If I accidentally buy this game I’m immediately returning it!

  4. duns4t says:

    I enjoyed TNO very much, but hope they discard the main annoyance I had with that and Old Blood: those (often unmarked) mid-level transitions that prevent you from going back at all. In a game that really emphasizes collecting all the gold/tapes/etc, it was always nerve-wracking to wonder if I had already cleared the area carefully enough and then getting saved to a point where I missed something anyway.

    • ADorante says:

      Thankfully when I missed one collectible and passed a point of no return the level selection menu was quite efficient in getting to the start of the level again. No problem zooming through it a second time – after finishing the level first for the savegame and continuing from it afterwards. I think it works because the collectibles are saved globally in your profile.

  5. poliovaccine says:

    Definitely interested in the game for the concept, in spite of not having tried anything in the Wolfenstein series since Return to Castle Wolfenstein when I was still but a tender nub. Have heard great things but have just had too much else to play in that finite time. But the comparisons to the worldbuilding of Arkane might have just piqued my interest.

    Also, just got done re-reading The Man in the High Castle for the umpteenth-and-a-second time, it always goes quick – even the minutiae of fictional niche-item Americana collectors and direct existential pontification manages to be funny and thrilling, and *so much* of that is for its thoughtful fidelity to the concept. It’s just a great concept in general, all the moreso for it having been so completely possible, and so the imagined worlds that come out of it are just eerily plausible.

    Though, as the devs state here, they certainly didnt need Trump to generate this vision. Trump only capitalized on a climate that was already here anyway – it’s just that when sense and dignity still existed those folks weren’t able to be quite so vocal as they are now. But yeah, alas and alack, Trump didn’t just come out of nowhere – things were slowly getting uglier here for awhile, even as violent crime went down and even as/somewhat *because* liberalism and social progressivism were seeming to become more and more the national norm. Socially, a fullblown reaction to overall progressivism finally happened, and it was escalating beyond just disgruntled murmurs from at least the Dubya era on, which is when that crowd first got a taste of institutional empowerment within my own lifetime. The pendulum had to swing back eventually, and oof, it sure fucking has now. Trouble with that is it takes infinitely more energy to create, or rebuild, than it does to destroy…

    All that said, yeah, looks like an awesome concept for the game, and I might just be sold on this one now. I guess, then, I should ask folks who played the last two Wolftensteins (Old Blood and New Order, it’s just those two, right?): is the plot going to be too much to just waltz in on midway through? Should I play or at least youtube the others if I want to get what the hell is going on in this one? Plot isn’t something I’d normally associate w Wolfenstein, but like I say, last one I played was RTCW, and I gather things have changed a bit since then. So yeah – plot? How heavy? On a scale of “Call of Duty” to “your first Metal Gear game being MGSV”..?

    • Zenicetus says:

      There is a plot line in The New Order, although the overall theme is basically “kill the Big Bad Guy” at the end of the game, with everything in the plot leading towards that. The side story that moves BJ along through different mission areas is about working with the resistance. There is a romance within that, which apparently carries over to this game (you got Ana pregnant, apparently).

      The Old Blood DLC is almost plot-less, a linear shooter episode that won’t tie into this.

      I don’t know how essential it will be to have experienced any of that with this new game. It will probably be explained well enough to set things up. On the other hand, The New Order is only $19.95 off-sale now in Steam, so you might want to pick that up in the meantime. It’s a fun, well-made game. Ridiculously over the top at times, but if you like any of the classic Wolfenstein games you’ll probably like this one.

      • Daymare says:

        I find it strange that people would think The Old Blood is almost plotless. Surely BJ’s (short) reunion with an old friend; the outbreak triggered by the artifact the NS have found; how TOB’s story ties back into the main game’s opening; the details you can gleam from various notes … all of that, among other things, means it’s certainly not ‘without a plot’. I agree that from what we know the story of TOB doesn’t have much of an impact on either TNO and TNC.

        It can be played and enjoyed ignoring the story completely, tho.

        • Zenicetus says:

          Well, I did say “almost” plot-less. ;)

          The big difference with Old Blood compared to TNO is that there was hardly any time spent offline (not in combat) developing other character arcs, people to care about, etc. It wasn’t just running around shooting Nazis and zombies at random, but it was a bare minimum of story context to set things up, and keep you going through the levels.

          • Daymare says:

            Hmm … I do agree that Old Blood has less story compared to the unexpectedly story-driven main game. There was the part where you dress up as a waiter and infiltrate that tavern. And the slow ending.

            I still enjoyed what’s there quite a bunch, tho it doesn’t have the same, (comparably big) varied cast of quirky and likeable characters.

    • Daymare says:

      You should absolutely play at least The New Order if you like FPS at all. But don’t watch it. PLAY it. Fundamentally satisfying (if violent) gunplay.

      The story (no spoilers) is great in a pulpy sci-fi / alternate history kinda way. Detailed world-building which the devs seem to be continuing. There’s an unexpected (and often lauded) introspective quality to the protagonist. The surrounding cast are likeable and eccentric.

      There’s quite a few story ties to TNO, recurring characters etc. from what I gleamed from one trailer for The New Colossus.

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      Grizzly says:

      Play the New Order! It’s grand, it’s the best shooter in ages.
      The Old Blood isn’t nearly to the same quality, it’s an ode to both the New Order and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but it doesn’t seem to understand what made either game great.

  6. wombat191 says:

    once again im looking forward to using my best aldo the apache impression when i kill me some nazi’s

  7. Person of Interest says:

    You’re lucky that the Editor didn’t replace those terrible image alt-texts with insults directed at your heritage and/or hygiene.

  8. Ancient Evil says:

    You waited until the eighth paragraph before throwing in the Donald Trump reference! Such unexpected restraint!

    I’m impressed, RPS. In fact, I was almost worried that you’d gone too far and forgotten to put it in altogether, and I wouldn’t want to see you guys get your Journalism Cards revoked over such a minor transgression.

  9. toshiro says:

    Really good article that I quite enjoyed, thank you! The first game had me mesmerized tbh, so rare it is to see such tenderness in a game like this. And it seems like they plan to stay true to that, and I’m excited about it. As always tho, hype is bad thing. But there is a foundation here already that sounds like it will be built upon further.