Wolfenstein 2 and America's Complicity
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a game at odds with itself but also very willing to face uncomfortable truths. Tool tips and mechanics can be rendered useless on difficulty levels beyond, and in some cases even on, the normal difficulty. BJ is presented as an unstoppable Nazi killing machine, but can be cut down in seconds when not in cover. A strong narrative and a presentation of a United States in control by the Nazi regime has enough to say about white complicity under fascism to be worthwhile, and is wonderfully timed. Beginning Wolfenstein II you are confronted with a difficulty slider that ranges from descriptors of “Can I Play Daddy?” to “I am death incarnate!” This naming is present due to the legacy of Wolfenstein 3D. However, Wolfenstein II is a game that wants you to feel empowered, especially in the latter portion of the campaign, and has tooltips clueing you in on dual wielding and melee executions. Unfortunately, these sorts of mechanics are counterintuitive on the higher difficulties, and even on the default “Bring ‘em on!” health and armor deplete quickly. The lack of a hit indicator when taking damage doesn’t help. The New Colossus wants you to hack up Nazis, yet leaves you open to taking fire when doing so. It wants you to dual wield shotguns as you sprint through soldiers, but will leave you dead within seconds when you depart the safety of cover.
Comparatively, DOOM (2016), the natural companion to Wolfenstein, does not have this problem. DOOM on the easiest and on the hardest difficulty plays the same. Wolfenstein II on the easiest level is the best way to play the game, but it’s condescending at the outset. Wolfenstein II on the hardest will lead you to much slower confrontations and relies heavily on weak stealth. With no mini-map and no ability to see enemy vision measurements, stealth sections frequently devolve into an enemy commander sounding an alarm that will rotate in more enemies to reset your progress. A courtroom scenario midway through the game strips you of your weapons and starts you in the middle of a large arena surrounded by enemies. You begin with a submachine gun and have to slowly reaccumulate your small armory. Trophy data suggests otherwise, but I believe this section to be impossible on the highest difficulty. Surrounded by enemies with breakable cover your only protection, you will die often from cheap angles or just overwhelmed by numbers. This sort of scenario is not a challenge, its punishment.
Even on the easiest level, the gunplay is still the weakest aspect of The New Colossus. The weapons themselves are adequate, with the optional upgrades and satisfying audio feedback. Melee executions are a joy to watch, but its a shame that there are no perks to give you bonus health or armor for each takedown. A jump and smash mechanic is used once in the introduction and very rarely appears as an option later on. A nuked New York City as at first arresting in its large scale tragedy, but eventually devolves into a muddled mass of grey husks with progression obscured by the confusing layout. New Orleans rotates between interior and exterior spaces, but besides a confrontation and ride-along with a Panzerhound, has nothing unique to offer. Not one level sticks out as memorable, and even Venus lacks a unique scenario or great setting for the shootouts. Instead, when outside the Venus base you need to fuel up on coolant consistently, which just layers on another meter besides health and armor that you must babysit.
The New Colossus’ narrative is its saving factor, as scenarios presented both in and out of cutscenes are wonderful to watch unfold, and character interactions can be very entertaining. The relationship between children and their parents is a major theme of The New Colossus, evidenced by the introductions focus on BJ’s abusive father, Rip. Throughout the game, characters have to come to terms with either their own upbringing or the newfound responsibility of introducing life into this bleak world. BJ has his abusive father and impending parenthood to twins with Anya, Grace and Super Spesh already have a child, Max Hauss is cared for by the entirety of the Kreisau Circle, and Sigrun is belittled by her mother. BJ and Sigrun are the most interesting of these, as they must decide whether or not they will become mirror images of their respective parent.
BJ is informed early on that Anya is having twins, and he frequently contemplates his death in tandem with regret at not being able to be a father for his children. BJ’s own father did not leave behind a great example to follow. A racist, sexist, anti-semitic, economically anxious white man who is almost a cartoon epitome of everything that was and is wrong with part of the American population. As a child, BJ is berated for not being enough of a man to take care of himself, but Rip blames others for his own deficiencies. Instead of reflecting inward at his own failings, he explodes outwards at whatever is available. This conflict results in abuse towards his wife and pushes him to kill the family dog in a fit of rage. Rip is a good example of how not to be a parent. Rip doesn’t just represent the worst offerings of what a father can be, but also the worst aspect of the american population. Willing to sell out his family for meager rewards such as property ownership, it was men like him that paved the way for Nazi occupation to sweep through the United States as quickly as it did. People like him gave in to their debase hatred of the Other and went above and beyond betraying their fellow citizens in order to have an easy life. We already allow people of color to be unjustifiably killed at the hands of police, would it be so hard to believe we would go further under threat of violence to willingly give them into the hands of death?
A positive influence on BJ was a young black girl named Billie, who exposes BJ to the discrimination experienced by those whom his father hates. She upends the expectations he has inherited from his father, teaches compassion, and they even share a child crush. She teaches him empathy, something his father never bothered to even attempt. BJ is forced to relive and reflect on these memories when he revisits the family farm. Upon confronting his aged father, BJ kills him upon learning that his mother was sold out by her own husband. By doing so he rejects the teachings of his father about white supremacy and all that it entails. Mentioned throughout the main narrative and spread throughout collectibles in each level are details that tell the tale of how America fell to the Nazis, and how it was mostly with a resigned sigh. An ex-military student murders scientists working on the “Manhattan Project” resulting in Nazi Germany obtaining the nuclear bomb first and using it on New York City. This attack is framed as a necessity to end a brutal war, much like the United State’s position on the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima which resulted in extraordinary civilian death. History is written by the victor, and since we were not the subject of an atomic bombing in this timeline we are free to justify it. After this forced surrender, America reverted back into what it was a hundred years earlier: devoid of rights for any who weren’t straight or white.
A most damning example of this new America is shown during a brief segment taking place in Roswell, Arizona The townsfolk celebrate “Victory Day” as Nazis parade through the streets. A soldier critiques/mocks Klu Klux Klansmen on their failed attempts at German, a different soldier rebukes a white woman who tries to earn favor by talking shit about Austrians (not knowing Hitler himself was Austrian), and a citizen reminds her family of an upcoming slave auction. Propaganda newspapers talk about replacing the fake news of yesterday and the efficiency of the new regime compared to the “clique of corrupt elites who were never interested in [your] welfare.” Two Nazi soldiers discuss attacks against their rule and how violence is not okay before pondering if they’ll be assigned to the same death squad in New Orleans. A newspaper clipping I am convinced was placed late in development explains our current political situation:
“...then the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre - the man who can most adeptly disperse the bottom that his mind is a virtual vacuum… On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
America in Wolfenstein II is complicit to the racism of the Nazis due to their beliefs being intertwined with our history. Not content to exist only behind us, this inherent discrimination continues to be active given the rise of the so-called “far-right” and blatant racism in figures like our current president. The white man, a majority of the population, has nothing to fear from a Nazi overhead when compared to the black, the queer, the Other, who already had restricted rights underneath a “free” America.
As for those born underneath Nazi rule, we are given Sigrun Engel, daughter of Irene Engel our central antagonist. Having turned on her mother due to Irene’s consistent verbal abuse towards Sigrun’s weight and diary entries, the Kreisau Circle welcomes her but doesn’t accept her. Members frequently call her a Nazi despite her protests. This boils over during BJ’s birthday party in which she confronts Grace over her Nazi labelling and overcomes her emotional connection to Bombate. She represents the hope that even those born under Nazi rule can break free and work against it. We even avoid predictable plot beats as Sigrun is not secretly feeding her mother information or betrays the Circle near the end.
Ultimately, you take revenge on Engel after she has killed Caroline during the introduction, steals a family ring meant for Anya, and mocks you after murdering Super Spesh. After taking over her Ausmerzer fortress in a frustrating shootout, the Circle confronts Engel at a talk show where you hack off her arm before delivering the fatal blow to her head. No matter the timeline, members of the Circle deliver what is meant to be a rousing speech to those watching the television broadcast, but any emotion is swiftly eliminated by the end credits song: a horrible cover of We’re Not Going to Take It.