(Warning: Mild spoilers below.)
When "Wolfenstein" returned in May 2014 with reboot "The New Order," the seminal first-person shooter series felt retro. But in the time since then, it has — sadly — become relevant.
That's because "Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus" arrives as the series' longtime cannon fodder, Nazis, reassert their contemptible selves in American society. Emboldened months after "The New Order" by the reactionary fervor of GamerGate, they metastasized into one of the more vocal parts of the alt-right coalition that helped elect President Donald Trump last year. And after they shouted that “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville this summer, Trump’s description of them as “very fine people” sanctioned their hateful rhetoric to a degree once unthinkable.
In May 2014, Nazis were so agreeably garbage that they tended not to announce their presence in public. Now, they do — and we wring our hands over whether we can punch or even protest them.
Thankfully, “The New Colossus” doesn’t. As publisher Bethesda Softworks stressed in the most gimme marketing campaign in memory, Nazis are every bit as evil in 2017 as they were in 2014 or 1945. And it's upon that premise that studio MachineGames builds a superior sequel to “The New Order,” improving both its poignant storytelling and its breakneck old-school shooting. Being able to violently rebuke Nazis is just a bonus. In this alternate future where they won World War II, "Wolfenstein II" affirms the right side of history as it depicts a world living the wrong one.
The Nazis won. Now what?
“The New Colossus” picks up right where its predecessor explosively left off in the early '60s. As no-neck blonde B.J. Blazkowicz, a one-man Nazi genocide, you return from the brink of demise at Deathshead’s compound to resume the Kreisau Circle’s guerrilla war against the Reich. Their next target is the even crueller Frau Engel, who was scarred and savagely robbed of her lover by Blazkowicz in "The New Order." To bring down both her and her heavily fortified airship, he sets out to recruit American resistance fighters in occupied New York and New Orleans.
The move to a stateside setting gives MachineGames room to turn "The New Colossus" into more than just a timely fight against the Nazis. Newspaper clippings criticize an American populace and electoral system that permit "a downright moron" to ascend to the country's highest office, as well as media that gives bigots a pass if they look "dapper." Meanwhile, the addition of black power activist Grace Walker to the Kreisau Circle is one of several reminders that not all of the game's history is alternate, and not all of its racist oppressors are German.
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The group's struggle against Engel also shares time with the personal stories of Blazkowicz and the rest of its members. Both between and during missions, MachineGames burrows further into the mind of the once dimensionless "Wolfenstein" protagonist as he faces death and fatherhood. The bond he shares with his fellow Nazi hunters continues to endear them, culminating in a drunken victory party that's as funny as it is heartwarming. The lengthy scene, like almost every one in the game, mixes deft comedy, vulnerable moments and galvanizing fury.
Perhaps the game's most gripping scene, though, involves Engel's daughter, Sigrun, who flees the Reich and joins the Kreisau Circle. After repeatedly being denigrated by Walker and others despite her efforts to help the group, Sigrun snaps, strikes Walker and exclaims to her newly rapt companions that she is not a Nazi anymore. I suspect the scene will resonate with alt-right types who claim their opponents unfairly label them Nazis, too. But with Sigrun, the renunciation is clear. It isn't with edgelords who heil or call for a white ethnostate.
While Sigrun's stand and other scenes excel because of their nuance, others in "The New Colossus" are bewilderingly extreme. The game is bookended by a needlessly dark flashback to Blazkowicz's Texas childhood and a bizarre decision by his pregnant lover, Anya, to shed her top during a climactic battle. And the sadistic gore, even that of the bad guys, would make Quentin Tarantino wince. Otherwise, he'd be proud: A few scenes in "The New Colossus" channel "Inglourious Basterds," sourcing tension from Nazis characterized as homicidal children.
The gore is more welcome while actually playing the game. Like "The New Order," the sequel bases its shooting on a simple foundation: Blazkowicz can wield guns in both of his hands, and his health regenerates by picking up items, not pausing behind cover. Stealth has some use, particularly when approaching Nazi commanders, who can call in reinforcements if they're alerted. But it's just more fun to storm through the game's steely corridors, furiously hammering both trigger buttons as the waffenrocks crumple before you. Seeing the bloodied forms beneath them, I felt fine.
Many enemies wear robotic exoskeletons that — along with a certain late-game environment — evolve MachineGames' impressively chilling rendition of a world ruled by Nazi Germany into the '60s. Other enemies are pure robots, whose flame and laser weaponry provides "The New Colossus" most of its select difficulty spikes. Sophisticated as the Nazi technology is, brutalizing them is straightforward. The game's dozen or so hours go quickly and thrillingly, but its levels can be revisited when you locate commander targets via a tedious minigame.
And you can never kill too many Nazis.