In the alternate universe of Wolfenstein, William Joseph Blazkowicz is a name that strikes fear in Nazis the world over. After suffering a horrendous injury during World War II, Blazkowicz awakens from a vegetative state 14 years later to find the world dominated by the Germans and their super-science fueled armies. He then proceeds to assemble a resistance movement and slaughter Nazis left and right, eventually returning home in the recently released Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus to break the Reich’s grip on the United States and set off a global insurrection. His ruthless tactics and battle acumen have earned him the nickname “Terror Billy” and countless wanted posters featuring his mug are plastered across the country. He is a specter of death, a terrorist, the central figure of a Nazi fearmongering campaign, and America’s greatest hope.
Wolfenstein II makes that a hard reputation to uphold. Even on its default difficulty setting, it’s an intensely unforgiving first-person shooter. In my hands and under those conditions, B.J. Blazkowicz was a frantic idiot who can barely make it out of a firefight with a couple of lowly Nazi troopers. Hell, even evil Nazi dogs tear him to shreds. My B.J. was a shambling slapstick sketch of a man, unable to navigate the spaces he’s sent to infiltrate or, on that note, infiltrate anything without immediately being spotted and filled with lead. That dissonance, between the steely killing machine he’s meant to be and the bumbling idiot he becomes under my control, isn’t an issue in itself; after all, it’s one of the big, nigh unavoidable conflicts in all video games of this sort. The problem here is that I just didn’t care to struggle through the fights. The constant failure and confusion got in the way of what the game does exceedingly well—telling its story—and so I did something I hardly ever do: I lowered the difficulty.
Now, seemingly impervious to bullets and able to kill a Nazi with little more than a nasty glance in their direction, I had truly become the Terror Billy and the game suddenly became so much better for it. Unlike the latest entry in Wolfenstein’s sister series, Doom (which I was happy to masochistically crawl through on the higher difficulty settings), its joys don’t lie in the moment-to-moment gunplay. It’s a competent shooter, but what it lacks in the dynamism and clarity of combat it makes up tenfold with the audacity of its writing. It’s full of smart commentary on America’s deep-rooted racism and how that provides fertile ground for white supremacy to bloom, and its cinematic scenes are some of the most engrossing to ever grace a game, with outstanding performances and cinematography. I never once felt the itch to skip a scene or pick up my phone during a down moment. They’re the carrot on the stick here, and The New Colossus just wasn’t doing enough to keep me from breaking the stick in half, beating the snot out of it, and devouring all the carrots it had.
And given the game’s subject matter, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t also an element of catharsis to knocking the difficulty down a peg or two and tearing through legions of Nazis without breaking a sweat. Uncomfortable as it was to see Bethesda’s marketing department glom on to the language and emotions tied up with America’s struggle against actual Nazis, the game’s buzz and reception proves this is a release some people (who aren’t Nazis or Nazi sympathizers) were hungry for. It might sound morbid and psychopathic, but Bethesda was onto something. It feels damn good to be living the true Terror Billy lifestyle, safely taking out your own stresses and gunning down the virtual embodiment of a real evil that’s become all too visible and empowered once again.
There’s never a “right” way to play any game, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who love methodically working through The New Colossus’ death traps and barely scraping by as Nazis in exosuits bear down on them with giant laser cannons. But Wolfenstein II makes a damn good case for taking the low road. Narratively and emotionally, turning B.J. into an unstoppable killing machine feels as right as it ever could in a game. The out-of-combat scenes outshine the battles by such a wide margin that lowering that barrier makes the whole experience so much more streamlined and pleasant—not to mention the fact that a choice you make at the very beginning of the game changes what scenes you do and don’t see, to the point that a second playthrough is very tempting. It’s such a ridiculous thing to have to say, but there’s no shame in playing on easy mode if it helps you enjoy something more, and that very well could be the case with The New Colossus. Just get out there and fuck up some Nazis.