You only get one shot at Hitler. Not as a player of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, which lets you kick the Führer in his wizened old face as many times as you like, so long as you don’t mind reloading each time his guards gun you down in response to your deeply satisfying assault. But if you’re making a modern video game about the Third Reich, you really only get one chance to bring the biggest Nazi of them all onto the stage. And when he shows up—series tradition be damned—he can’t just be some chain-gun-toting bullet sponge in a mecha suit.
That this encounter with Adolf Hitler taking place on the planet Venus is almost an afterthought says something about the audacity of The New Colossus. (The second planet from the sun is where the German high command has fled to after Terror-Billy’s last several attempts to kill them off.) The planet itself features as little more than a backdrop for their meeting, quite possibly the single strangest scene in a game that, at one point, sees its hero wake up as a decapitated head in a jar. It’s also absolutely riveting, thanks in large part to the game’s artistic team, which outdid itself in its portrait of the quivering 71-year-old robe-clad dictator.
This version of Hitler is pathetic. He’s weak. He pisses in an ice bucket, rants about his own genius, and then collapses, calling for his mommy. And yet, he is never less than terrifying. Not because of the gun he waves around wildly, at one point blowing away acting hopeful Ronald Reagan (in what has to be an intentional attempt to piss off any lingering conservatives in MachineGames’ fan base) for not addressing him as “Mein Führer.” No, this Hitler is scary because he’s plausible, a portrait of absolute power that’s been coddled into something rotted and lethally self-indulgent. The New Colossus invites you to laugh at Hitler, as B.J. woodenly “acts” his way through an undercover audition to star as himself in the Führer’s latest propaganda masterpiece. But it never suggests you should stop seeing him as a threat.
The Hitler scene is a high that’s hard to come down from, the apotheosis of The New Colossus’ efforts to blend humor, politics, horror, and action into one queasy, gut-churning package. It’s almost a letdown to return to the game’s regular rhythms afterward, skulking through the Venus base or a massive flying assault carrier, gunning down enemies and shanking hundreds more rank-and-file German troops. It doesn’t help that these final chapters up the difficulty significantly; if I’m going to get gunned down in seconds, I’d at least like to get the satisfaction of punting the world’s worst person in the face first for my troubles.
Like our games editor, I ended up dipping my difficulty down for this final stretch of Wolfenstein II. In earlier levels, the desperate, improvisational running and gunning was part of the fun, forcing me to get innovative with my Nazi-killing if I wanted to keep B.J. alive. Here at the end, it became a gunshot to the knee of the game’s forward momentum; every time I got flanked by some improbably accurate SS rando, it meant swearing, fruitless flailing around, and another 15-second trip to Loading Screen Land (to say nothing of the uncharitable distribution of checkpoints, forcing me to manually save every 30 seconds or so to maintain my progress). Even with the settings turned down a notch, the game’s finale never got easy—especially in the absolutely vicious melee that serves as its unlabeled final boss fight—but it at least saved me from fully running out of gas.
It’s hard to say the same for the game’s narrative, though. I wrote in my last installment that Wolfenstein II functionally became a different game after Blazkowicz got his head chopped off and his body revitalized, one that tosses out soulfulness in favor of “holy shit” moments and a “fuck yeah, killing Nazis” attitude. But kicking Hitler on Venus is hard to beat, especially when you’ve still got two or three hours of shooting left to fill. The New Colossus tries—the sight of Anya chucking grenades at her enemies while topless, pregnant, and drenched in Nazi blood is an indelible image, admittedly, and there’s a party sequence that’s determinedly batshit—but not even the bloody, brain-exposing death of B.J.’s nemesis Frau Engel can match the game’s earlier highs. At least it managed to provoke one final “Really?!” laugh from me at the last moment. I can confidently state that I wasn’t expecting the dramatic smash-cut from The New Colossus’ final speech—with characters triumphantly calling for the audience to rise up from their chairs and throw off their oppressors—to an absolutely horrendous nu-metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” It’s a final gesture that’s both tongue-in-cheek and deeply stupid, making it a fitting coda to The New Colossus’ game-long tonal tightrope act.
The story isn’t the only part of Wolf II’s ending where the air starts to leak out. This is also the point where the game doubles down on asking players to revisit old areas using the laborious Enigma Machine interface, and it’s a testament to how well MachineGames drove players through these killing chutes the first time around that they feel so lifeless on a second visit. When first encountered, each level of The New Colossus is a little masterpiece of pacing, interspersing amusing conversations, B.J.’s mournful monologues, and interesting little twists in between the action segments. Without those things breaking up the experience, you’re left with nothing but the chance to decapitate the same Nazi officer you’ve been killing for hours now, and a series of collectibles that there’s very little incentive to stick your neck out and grab. Unfortunately, the game makes at least a few of these unwelcome retreads semi-mandatory by hiding some of B.J.’s optional late-game navigation contraptions in the revisited levels. Getting them all—and the game-changing health and armor upgrades that come with them—is important enough to make it a shame that they’re tied to stopping the forward flow of the story right as it enters its final steps.
(Meanwhile, if you’re actually hungry for more Nazi-killing by this point, it’s there aplenty: In addition to the in-game options, Bethesda recently added a patch adding a score attack mode to the game, allowing you to post your best trips through the game’s killing boxes to an online leaderboard. Plus, three additional stories in which you play as new characters will be rolling out over the next few months as downloadable content.)
I generally don’t like to compare video games to films—it cheapens the best aspects of both sides—but as I worked my way through Wolfenstein II, the association that kept leaping to my mind, unbidden, was an old favorite of mine, Richard Kelly’s deranged apocalyptic political satire Southland Tales. I remember watching Kelly’s film—which, like The New Colossus, is far more interested in making its politics loud rather than thoughtful—for the first time in a kind of trance, baffled and delighted by the way it seemed to crest some new plateau of crazy every five minutes. Wolfenstein II provoked that same “What am I seeing?” sensation in me, albeit over a much-expanded timescale. It’s an intoxicating, bewildering feeling to encounter a piece of art with no interest in acknowledging its own limits, even when its efforts to transcend them drag the whole thing screaming into occasionally unfortunate places. The New Colossus never backs down, even when it probably should. It’s messy. It’s unsubtle. Sometimes, it’s just outright dumb. It’s also powerful and unforgettable in a way it never could have been if good taste or restraint had ever won out. It lets you kick Hitler in the face. I don’t know about you, but I’ve kind of been needing that lately.