Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Over the next two weeks, William Hughes will be playing through this over-the-top, overtly political follow-up to 2014's Wolfenstein: The New Order, working his way through a Nazi-dominated America full of crazy superscience, foul-mouthed revolutionaries, and a surprisingly hefty number of decapitated heads. This week, William is playing from the game’s opening up through its fifth chapter, “Area 52.”
It was around about the time that the Nazi supervillain was shoving a severed head directly into my face, making kissy noises and cackling gleefully, that I began to suspect Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus might have blown straight through the barriers of “good taste” and emerged into some darker, much stranger world on the other side. Mind you, this was after the game had already contextualized part of its tutorial by putting my character on the receiving end of a textbook case of child abuse and before my crippled hero, famed Nazi-hunter B.J. Blazkowicz, had equipped himself with a suit of cybernetic armor designed by Jewish science-wizards so he could go kill Nazis once more. If the folks at MachineGames have ever heard of “narrative restraint,” it’s not an idea that seems to have held much appeal.
As a sequel to 2014's surprisingly excellent Wolfenstein: The New Order, The New Colossus is bigger, nuttier, and more audacious than its predecessor, a game that featured a level where players used a 1960s-era Nazi mecha to bust their way out of a German forced-labor camp. Set in a Man In The High Castle-esque take on German-controlled America, The New Colossus does everything—political satire, run-and-gun action, mournful meditations on war and death—at the loudest volume possible, producing an end result that is both astonishing and invigorating, even as it provokes the occasional wince.
After an opening sequence that reintroduces the player to Blazkowicz, his deranged nemesis Frau Engel (she of the waggling, decapitated skull), and the scarred crew of supporting characters who managed to survive The New Order’s violent chaos, the game plunges right into its hellscape vision of America. Manhattan is an irradiated wasteland populated only by hazmat-clad Nazis and jive talking revolutionaries; secret underground Nazi bases, filled to the brim with murderbots and order-barking commandos; and a wholesome-looking American town, covered in swastikas and signs cheerfully celebrating the KKK.
You’ve probably seen that last image already; it’s been a major part of the game’s marketing campaign, which has consciously toyed with the recent reinvigoration of the radical, racist right in America. As in everything, The New Colossus is as subtle in its approach to politics as a punch to white supremacist Richard Spencer’s idiotic, asshole face; you’ll overhear two stormtroopers debating their right to be Nazis without getting similarly decked (right before shifting to their hopes of being placed on a Death Squad together), and Blazkowicz’s newest ally is Grace Walker, an afro-sporting, chain-smoking, openly breastfeeding mother who denounces placid white folks standing by and allowing—even encouraging—their black neighbors to be rounded up and killed. And yet, after all that, it was still jaw-dropping to see how far MachineGames was willing to go in its incarnation of parade day in Galveston, Texas. I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where organized racists had been shamed into invisibility (if not, as has become painfully clear of late, non-existence), and there was something uniquely gut-churning about watching hooded Klansmen walk easily down an otherwise normal American street as though they had every right in the world to be there.
All of these pokes, provocations, and outright slaps are only half the story, though. The New Colossus is also a gleefully sadistic shooter, building on the hybrid of stealth and open combat that made The New Order such an engaging experience. Each combat section presents itself as a sort of murderous toy-box: Do you creep through vents, shanking Nazi commanders and destroying their ability to call for backup? Hole up behind a mounted gun emplacement, tearing your enemies to shreds? Or just pull out one of several customizable superweapons and blow everything to smithereens? Each choice is supported and encouraged by the game’s Perks system, which makes Blazkowicz better and more capable at executing his tactics of choice. Prefer to run into the middle of a fight and hatchet enemy troopers to death? You’ll unlock a perk that regenerates your health faster to make such assaults more viable. Rather slink in the shadows? Now you move faster while crouched. It’s simultaneously a reward for choosing a play-style and an encouragement to try new ones, and it’s a key part of a system that’s constantly introducing new tweaks to keep its fighting from getting stale.
Which is good, because you’re likely to see some of these fights play out over and over again. I’m playing through The New Colossus on its third difficulty setting, “Bring ’Em On”—described as “Medium difficulty for the experienced gamer”—and it takes roughly two seconds of sustained fire for a Nazi gunman to chew through most of my armor and health. In a clever intersection of gameplay and story, meanwhile, Blazkowicz’s terminal wounds from the climax of the last game are reflected by a max health that’s cripplingly low, supplanted by an abnormally high armor cap that means you’re constantly scavenging metal to keep your suit intact. The message is clear: Keep moving, keep switching things up, or the already mortally wounded B.J. is definitely doomed.
On the subject of difficulty, meanwhile, kindly permit me a brief complaint: The New Colossus sticks to a decades-long Wolfenstein series tradition by using idiosyncratic names for its difficulty settings. That’s all well and good, except for the continued decision to infantilize players who choose less punishing difficulties. In The New Colossus, players who choose “Can I play, Daddy?”, the game’s lowest setting—maybe because they’re new to shooters, maybe because they just don’t feel like dying all the time—are treated to a shot of Blazkowicz crying in a baby bonnet. A lot of series do this, and it never does anything but emphasize a shitty, difficulty-obsessed gatekeeping effect. Developers: Cut it out.
It says something when a rocket-train assault on Area 52 (it’s the one next to Area 51) is one of the least mind-blowing parts of a game’s opening hours—and having played a little farther ahead, I can solemnly promise that The New Colossus has not hit peak crazy yet. Many players are going to walk away from Wolfenstein II’s first chapters with a sense that at least parts of them were in poor taste, that there was some story idea, somewhere in there, where someone on the development team should have said “No.” And yet, those same elements are what make The New Colossus absolutely unforgettable, a big-budget game daring to be bold in an era and an industry where focus groups normally reign. In that way, it’s a lot like Blazkowicz himself: bloody, fearless, and relentless in the face of ugly odds. I can’t wait to see what crazy, stupid, fascinating shit it decides it’s going to do next.