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.”
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.
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.