Early in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, a new recruit asks your band of terrorists/freedom fighters if they allow black people on their boat. In response, one of the game’s heroes explains that “everyone is allowed on this boat … except for Nazis.”
I don’t want to start with the familiar: “in 2017, killing Nazis shouldn’t be a shocking political statement,” but I no longer believe that. Politics are about people collectively defining what the world should look like, and “everyone is welcome — except for bigots” is a foundational tenet of my belief system.
Wolfenstein II, which is an alternative-history sci-fi shooter for PC and consoles, is out Friday from Bethesda and developer Machine Games. It is launching into a different world than 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. White-supremacist groups are on the rise in the United States and Europe, and The New Colossus is a violent and entertaining rebuke of that trend. But even if Nazis weren’t a daily concern, that wouldn’t lessen the effect of The New Colossus’s criticism because the real target of Wolfenstein II is complacent, apathetic white Americans. And we are timeless.
What you’ll like
It takes a stance
In Wolfenstein II, hero and Nazi-killing supersoldier BJ Blazkowicz returns to his home country of the United States to liberate it from the oppression of the national socialists. The idea of the Nazis winning the war and overtaking America is not new, and I assumed that Machine Games wouldn’t explore some of the messier sides of this concept. I expected Wolfenstein II to portray an America that wanted to fight back instead of a population that is complicit in the slaughter of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals.
But Wolfenstein II takes white-American placation of white supremacy head on.
As BJ, you’ll spend most of your time shooting Nazi soldiers until they are dead, but everything else around that core mechanics paints a picture of a white America that abandoned its people, its principles, and its religions. That same America simultaneously embraced the Nazi’s promise to secure the future of the white race. Some people are more enthusiastic about the new government than others, but everyone is — at the very least — standing with the Nazis.
Throughout the game, you’ll stumble across letters, notes, and conversations of “free” American people continuing to lead relatively normal lives. In one town, a pair of high-school-age boys talk about taking their dates to a wholesome, government-sanctioned film before casually mentioning their German lessons they have planned for the weekend. In that same town, a mother watches a parade and proudly boasts in her American accent about her son joining the Nazi military. Even the KKK give up their pseudo-libertarian ideology and protestant Christianity in favor of Nazi socialism and German Catholicism.
Machine is making the argument that white Americans are willing to give up their beliefs and accept Nazi rule because they don’t value those things nearly as much as they cherish their position in a white-supremacist society — whether that was before or after the Nazis arrived.
That’s a criticism that I’ve thought myself about America after the election of President Donald Trump. I was paying attention during the campaign, and I never noticed Trump make any substantial promises to fight for the conservative or Christian principles. Instead, he played to the fears and resentment of a white population that was ready to blame multiculturalism for their troubles. As president, Trump has taking actions that are, in my opinion, discriminatory against Muslims, women, and transgender people. And yet, so many people still voted for him, continue to support him, and willingly stand next to him. My criticism of people like that is that they appear to value their unearned privilege over the health and safety of other students.
Nothing gets that point across like BJ Blazkowicz’s father Rip Blazkowicz (who looks like Thomas Friedman). Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Rip is a failure. He can’t turn his father-in-law’s business into a success, and he isn’t willing to blame himself for how the studio preformed. That leads to him taking out his frustrations on both BJ and BJ’s mother. You meet up with Rip later, however, and he is thrilled with the arrival of the Nazis. Now that he doesn’t have to compete with the minorities, his business is booming. And killing a few blacks and Jews was just the price the Nazis had to pay to make Rip’s America great again.
It’s an old argument, but it’s one that I think serves us well to hear today: The evil cartoon Nazi isn’t the problem. Our problem is that we aren’t doing anything to stop them or that we are actually working with them.
But just because our fathers are guilty of accommodating and promoting white supremacists, that doesn’t mean we can’t atone. And the catharsis of The New Colossus is as much about rebelling against that ingrained racism of white America as it is about killing Nazis.
Like Blazkowicz points out to a bystander that he has to kidnap for one mission, “You a Nazii? Because I can’t even tell anymore.”
Unforgettable characters and storytelling
Every time you return to the Evas Hammer, your U-boat HQ, it’s a treat. You fill this space with returning characters from The New Order and people you only meet for the first time in Colossus. Every person in the main cast is charming, warm, and humane, and Machine gives each of them dozens of moments to express themselves.
You may find yourself walking past a room as Probst Wyatt (who you had to choose to save in the first game) is quietly tripping on acid. You could stick around after a major cutscene to watch new recruit Super Speshy do a lengthy, ecstatic monologue after discovering the ship’s working toilet. And you can’t miss Bombate and Sigrun Engel having a quickie in the personal submersible vehicle.
These moments aren’t just a couple of back-and-forth lines. They often take the form of sprawling mini-plays. A conversation could start in one room and end in another, and you’re rewarded for taking your time to follow and witness these connections. You’ll discover that Max Hass is a talented artist or you’ll learn that Paris Jackson is a lot more than just a Clarinet player.
But it’s not just about great characters. Machine Games is one of the best developers at setting up a narrative structure in games. Major and minor story points get setups and payoffs. This may sometimes telegraph story twists, but I have no problem with a little foreshadowing for the attentive player. And that foreshadowing is crucial because the story sometimes takes some hard turns that you could have difficulty accepting if Machine didn’t do such a wonderful job laying the groundwork for the resolution to a particular problem.
Machine has already said that it is viewing The New Colossus as the second part of a trilogy, and you get the sense that this is The Empire Strikes Back. Things often go wrong in Wolfenstein II in ways that you don’t expect. And that matters because Machine makes you care so much about these characters and the story they’re a part of.
Exploring and variety
The characters are the engine of Wolfenstein. They propel you through everything else, but the gameplay and missions are also worth experiencing and do enough to ensure you’re never bored.
Exploring the world is key to this because the design of spaces as well as hidden messages build out the narrative. For me, the key to making a level that I actually want to explore is to ensure I can easily understand the layout. Wolfenstein II is not just one corridor after another, but it’s buildings are not so complex that you’ll get lost. On top of that, Machine visually designs its stages to give you landmarks so you can create a mental map of the world.
Before you can really take the time to explore, however, you’ll have to kill Nazis. Combat is standard, and I don’t adore the shooting — especially with a controller. But gun battles are never boring. You can attempt to avoid getting into direct confrontations through the use of stealth, but that can often go wrong. This leaves you with a variety of weapons to approach fights.
Here’s where Wolfenstein’s excellent perk system comes into play. Like in The New Order, players can unlock special upgrades by completing challenges. If you can 10 stealth kills, you could increase your speed while crouched, for example. You can keep improving your crouch speed by getting stealth kills until you max out that particular perk.
It’s a great way to both reward you for the way you like to play and encourage you to try different things to unlock every perk.
Later in the game, three contraptions change up combat even more by introducing new capabilities for our hero. You get to pick one, but you can find the others out in the world. And they also have an impact on exploring the world and finding shortcuts.
Finally, Machine keeps things fresh by opening up how you progress later in The New Colossus. Instead of just going from one story beat to the next, you can unlock Enigma missions to assassinate high-ranking targets. These are bite-sized side quests that take place in re-skinned chunks of levels you already played through in the main campaign. You can tackle whenever you want or ignore them completely.
What you won’t like
In the second act of a story, you typically learn more about characters as they face tougher problems. That’s not how I would describe The New Colossus. Maybe Wyatt’s arc feels like a tough second act, but other cast members from the first game often feel like they have faded into supporting roles.
The biggest issue here is Anya. In the first game, BJ and Anya meet, become a couple, deal with loss and trauma as partners, and more. In The New Colossus, Anya is just pregnant and that’s about it. I get the sense that Machine knew this was a problem because one of the few pieces of repeating dialogue I heard was Anya telling me that she wishes we had more time to hang out but we don’t.
After falling in love with BJ and Anya in the first game, I feel cheated — even if I love the new characters that ate up her time in The New Colossus.
Stealth system is weird
I struggled with stealth throughout The New Colossus. The system requires you to find high-ranking captains and take them out first. But if you get into a fight with anyone while a captain is within the same zone, they will know about it and set off an alarm that can call in backup.
You can still attempt to stealth kill non-captain enemies first, but I never got the hang of when I would set off an alarm or not. I think this contributed to making the whole game feel very difficult for me — especially on Xbox One.
The waypoint guide is hard to see
Finally, I had a hell of a time finding the waypoint that tells me where to go next. You can bring up this marker and a mission reminder at anytime by holding down on the D-pad. But the waypoint itself is tiny and white, and it often fades into the environment. The guiding arrows also never tell you if the marker is above you or below you — they just point left or right, and this has led to me spinning back and forth for a long time trying to find where I’m headed to next.
I played Wolfenstein: The New Order for the first time earlier this year, and it blew me away with its human characters struggling just to resist an impossibly strong Nazi empire. At the end of that game, you’ve dented Hitler’s forces, but that’s it. The New Colossus delivers on upping the stakes by bringing the game to the United States and establishing it as the best potential platform for staging a true fight against the Nazis. But Wolfenstein II shines whenever you can feel how resistant the people of the United States are to the idea of overthrowing their new emperor. That is effective both dramatically and as a commentary on our current politics.
Machine also brought the most amazing characters, quality storytelling, and well-paced gameplay to The New Colossus. You’ll want to spend time with these people and discover their fate — sometimes that will warm your heart and sometimes it will break it.
Bethesda provided GamesBeat with a copy of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus for the purpose of this review. It is available Friday, October 27 for $60 on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.