Watching the trailers for Wolfenstein II – The New Colossus, you’d never guess how good this first-person shooter’s writers are at storytelling and characterization. They handle the balance between fast-paced action sequences and easy-going dialogue with such brilliant ease that a full-blown homecoming party right after a harrowing shootout feels like real relief and not out of place at all. And while there were a couple of scenes that truly had me laughing in disbelief at their being outright ridiculous, I really could not stomach this game if I took it entirely seriously.
Now, I’ll do my best to keep it spoiler-free, but make no promises. Read at your own risk.
What would the world be like if the Nazis had won World War II? That is a popular alternate universe theme that has been explored by numerous novels, like Robert Harris’ Fatherland which was later turned into a movie, tv-series, like The Man in the High Castle which is also based on a novel, or, indeed, video games. One of those is the Wolfenstein-series by Swedish studio Machine Games. While I haven’t played the old games of that series, I have indeed played Wolfenstein – The New Order. Just recently, actually. After Deus Ex, HITMAN and SNIPER ELITE this is the latest franchise I am late in discovering, and as with the previous ones, I am too lazy to bother with the franchise origins. So, this is the setting as established by Wolfenstein – The New Order and continued by Wolfenstein II – The New Collossus:
What would the world be like, if the Nazis had discovered and exploited the technology of an ancient alien race and used it to indeed win the war and subjugate the entire world?
William Joseph Blazkowicz (“B.J.” to his friends) the game’s very Aryan-looking hero, is one of a handful of American and British soldiers trying to prevent that from happening by attacking the base of the Nazi’s ingenious mastermind behind machine soldiers and other, even more terrifying inventions (Yes, indeed, that means you, Eye of London!). Losing his comrades and (briefly) his memories in the process, he nevertheless manages to find his way back into a world much changed by the rise of the Reich some 16 years later.
Determined to do something about that, B.J. joins the resistance in Berlin under leadership of the tough-as-nails Caroline and on the way falls in love with a Polish medical student turned nurse named Anya (and that ride on the train was both terrifying and romantic, wasn’t it). He also finds out that one of his comrades (at the beginning of the game you get to choose which one of them, Fergus or Wyatt) is actually still alive and also part of the resistance. Much mayhem ensues and during the final confrontation B.J. is seriously hurt and unable to rejoin his fellows before everything basically blows up around him. As Wolfenstein II – The New Collossus reveals, B.J. did not, in fact, die in the blast. Also, he’s going to be a dad, since Anya is pregnant with twins. Being a twin myself, I though that especially cute.
And because I basically promised you not to spoil the story, this is where I’ll stop.
The cast (my favorites, at least)
Wolfenstein would not be nearly as riveting, funny and tragic without its colorful cast of main and supporting characters.
The game’s hero, B.J., has a somewhat melancholic, even fatalistic nature. Also, he’s a poet at heart, which is much at odds with his deathwish-attitude. It is still more of a characterization than most protagonists of first-person shooters get, which is why I really adore this game. And when it comes to his relationship with Anya and the prospect of becoming a father and founding a family with his beloved (something he very much wishes for and has actually been daydreaming about in the past) you’ll hate him (Which means me screaming “B.J., you idiot!” a couple of times) and love him (“Aw! So cute!”) in turns, which is awesome.
His partner, Anya, is both loving and tough, as are all women in this game, but not characterised much beyond that, especially in comparison to the other female characters on the cast. She is, you could say, just a tool to characterise B.J., which I think sucks. Try harder next time, Machine Games, okay?
Caroline, the resistance leader, is, as mentioned, tough-as-nails, a fearless fighter, but, as documents found in the resistance base in Berlin reveal, tender at heart. Alas, she does not get much screen time in Wolfenstein II, and her role as cursing, hard-ass female lead is quickly taken by the equally badass Grace.
Grace is one of a kind and Wolfenstein II goes all in with her character: a chain-smoking black woman in a mixed race relationship (these are the sixties, by the way, and this is America), a true lioness when it comes to protecting her baby girl Abby and of absolutely stunning poise in her grief. Simply put, I love her (most of the time, she’s got some bad traits too).
Set, the resistance’s resident genius with access to the alien technology mentioned before, is a truly adorable character. Wise, foolish, funny, inconsiderate and uncaring are all words fit to describe him. He is the father figure B.J. maybe always longed for, his own father being an abusive, violent racist. And their last father-son encounter back at the old Blazkowicz family farm truly gave me the chills, and not because of what happens right after that.
Max, the gentle giant with the mind of a child, is my secret fave. I enjoyed the small task of having to find his toys back in Wolfenstein – The New Order, his cute and child-like attempts at protecting his surrogate family and of course I went and fetched potatoes for his favorite pig in Wolfenstein II- The New Collossus without hesitation. Simple, small acts of kindness are something B.J. does not get to do often. Mainly, he just kills people. Maybe that’s why I enjoy Max’s presence so much.
General Irene Engel, who is the big bad in this game and had already proven herself to be the “better” villain back in Wolfenstein – The New Order, surely delivers (smart move promoting her, Machine Games). It does not happen often that I truly hate a fictional character, but there is one scene when she taunts a helpless and, indeed, quite hopeless B.J. where I was so mad I wished I could crawl into the game and punch her in the face. Hard enough to snap her neck, preferably. Such were my emotions.
Favorite mission (SPOILER)
Wolfenstein II – The New Collossus, is a level-based game, which I actually prefer to open world games because they focus the game more on the story. The missions, though always good for nasty surprises and jump scares, are repetitive: B.J. has to infiltrate a level crawling with enemy soldiers, perform some task or other (mostly steal stuff), kill everyone and get out. The levels themselves, meaning the environment, are more or less memorable.
The ones I thought most impressive were New Orleans and the installation on Venus (yes indeed, Nazis in space), but that only, admittedly, because of the stylish James Bond: Moonraker-feel and that absolutely bat-shit crazy auditioning for the role of Terror-Billy aka William Joseph Blazkowicz that B.J. almost doesn’t get (WHAT??!!).
Most memorable moment (SPOILER)
There was this one moment in the game where I felt cheated, somehow, because I knew that the fierce battle happening in that court room was happening only in poor B.J.’s imagination. And I, much like B.J. before that, had accepted my fate, which was certain death. So, being aware of this fight not being able to change that fate, I only half-heartedly tried to escape until I realized I really had to shoot everyone to continue the game. No joy there. And especially no joy in the execution that followed.
Most over-the-top moment (SPOILER)
There are a lot of ridiculous scenes and moments in this game, but it is so totally over the top crazy anyway that most don’t stick. But there is one scene, and maybe being a woman made it extra ridiculous for me, almost at the very end, where Anya tears off her top and proceeds to shoot up some bad guys with their blood splattering all over her naked breasts and big pregnant belly as she sits on top of B.J., who’s lying prone on the floor, unable to do anything but utter a reverential “Wow” once the proverbial dust has settled and Anya turns her head to smile at him.
Awesome. I have seldomnly played a game that managed to combine such excessively grim, brutal and outright cruel visual elements with unexpected levity and even tenderness. As mentioned, the storytelling is exquisite, you simply have to give yourself over to this crazy alternate universe and go with the flow.
If you are not into shooters and can’t abide politically incorrect behavior like smoking indoors, excessive cursing or, indeed, having sex in a tiny submarine, then hands off this game.
But, really, it is a true gem.