Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus begins with the father of B.J. Blazkowicz, the hero of the franchise. Blazkowicz is a child, and he’s about to learn the extent of his father’s hatred after being caught playing with a young friend. A young female friend. A friend who is black.
This is the world of the straight white man, according to the elder Blazkowicz. They are superior to other races, religions and sexual orientations. “It’s on us to straighten out the queer,” he tells his son. The younger Blazkowicz has to learn how to be strong, a lesson his father believes wasn’t being taught by the boy’s Jewish mother. This is why B.J. finds himself with his hands tied to a beam, looking at his dog. He’s handed a shotgun. He has to learn how to be strong, you see.
The scene doesn’t resolve until you pull the trigger.
Wolfenstein 2’s shocking opening scenes drive home the cruelty of its characters. It’s not enough to be racist; the elder Blazkowicz also has to be an anti-Semite who only married a Jewish woman for the connection to her family business. Then he kicks a dog, and then forces B.J. to kill the dog. In a few short minutes, we’re re-introduced to another evil character who kills a resistance fighter in cold blood. And then plays with the dead rebel’s head. All this in a mere 10 minutes.
The New Colossus will show you amazing, surreal sights during its single-player campaign. That campaign is the game, for better or worse, and developer MachineGames wasn’t nervous about creating something that would make people talk. There is horrific violence, but there is also a Nazi soldier quizzing members of the Ku Klux Klan about their German lessons.
The Klan, you see, was pretty happy to work with the Nazis in the Southern states in this alternate history. As B.J.’s dad said, you can make a pretty good life for yourself if you play by their rules. So why not go along to get along? Inform on your neighbors. Give up family members. Make a good name for yourself.
It’s a white man’s world, after all. And it turns out that a lot of white men in America are happy to take it back, even if it means working with the Reich.
If its beginning is oppressive and brutal, Wolfenstein 2 often feels strangely unforgiving in its embrace of violence and joyous in its embrace of humanity — even if that humanity is forced to exist in the cracks of the new world order.
B.J. Blazkowicz is a sort of super soldier, a near-legendary fighter who woke up in 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order after a 14-year coma to a world where the Axis powers won World War II. He joined the resistance against the Nazis, and that last game ended with him setting off a nuclear weapon and, presumably, dying.
That death didn’t take, however. Blazkowicz may be physically and emotionally ruined at the beginning of The New Colossus, but that state doesn’t last very long. He’s back to picking up a gun and fighting back before you know it, even if that introduction to the character isn’t the only time in the game he’ll suffer incredible physical harm. His nurse and romantic interest from the last game, Anya, is now pregnant with twins. He has more to fight for, in other words, and that drive is needed in a conflict where the United States has fallen to Nazi rule.
Anya’s pregnancy doesn’t stop her from fighting, of course. The sight of her naked form, swollen with child and covered in blood, her face an ecstatic rictus of pleasure, is just one of many impossible moments in the game. She’s there to help her friends and kill some Nazis, and if she has to do so while temporarily topless, so be it. She’s happy in her work.
Wolfenstein 2 strikes a difficult but satisfying balance between joy and despair. It illustrates both how violent and hateful the U.S. has become under Nazi rule, as well as well as how those who fight back celebrate their victories — often by having sex and getting high.
This is why people are willing to fight back: Life can be enjoyable, and it’s important to enjoy it. In the time between missions, you can explore the resistance’s base and pick up a few side tasks, which do a good job of fleshing out Blazkowicz’s allies. These are people who fight because they’re alive, but they have a life outside of the battle, whether their hobby is practicing clarinet or dabbling in psychedelics. The moments of quiet and relative peace that happen between the gunfire are welcome, and that sense of rhythm and even pacing helps to elevate The New Colossus as an action game.
All of this messy, vibrant spirit exists around a game that’s pleasingly retro. Wolfenstein 2’s levels are large enough to provide different paths forward and reward exploration. It felt wonderful to fight through areas that rewarded my curiosity in poking around or my creativity in how I attacked enemies.
Blazkowicz carries his entire arsenal with him, so you can choose which gun goes in which hand at any point, or put the same gun in each hand, should you decide to dual-wield. There are weapon upgrade kits scattered around your base and each level, allowing you to add scopes, silencers, extended magazines or other attachments to your guns. Later additions to Blazkowicz’s abilities will also help shape how you fight, and I never felt judged by going in hot with two guns blazing or by choosing stealth and doing things with quick, clean kills. The New Colossus feels like it welcomes multiple playthroughs where you try to do things a different way, or take a different path with your upgrades and loadout selections.
I was also asked to make a narrative decision early in the game that changed certain aspects of the story. I want to play through at least once more to see everything there is to see.
That attitude of giving the players plenty of options exists throughout the game. The New Colossus features checkpoints, but you can also save or load at any point if you want to save-scum your way across a battlefield, or simply want to try a new approach while knowing you won’t have to go all the way back to a checkpoint if you fail. You can raise or lower the difficulty level at at will, and there is no reward or penalty for doing so.
The New Colossus isn’t fussy about how you play, and this inviting attitude makes the experience feel welcoming, like a narrative that the game’s creators truly want players to get through. I would often bump the difficulty down if I became frustrated at a particularly difficult battle, only to crank it back up if I felt like I was skating around too easily. The game doesn’t chide you for rolling your own difficulty level on an encounter-by-encounter basis.
That’s not to say that Blazkowicz’s adventure is a walk in the park. The New Colossus stumbles a bit in communicating how much damage you’re taking. The combination of the weak rumble effects in the PlayStation 4 controller and the lack of stronger auditory or visual feedback often gave me the suggestion that I was taking more damage than I actually was. It took a while to learn when I was really in trouble and how to get out of it quickly.
The New Colossus often felt like one long invitation to have a good time, regardless of whether I was playing the game the way the developers seemingly intended. Though strange in some ways, this sort of open-ended design was surely part of the plan. It’s a game that frequently felt like a toy, which is an odd but not horrible feeling in an experience this uncompromisingly violent.
And, oh, it is violent. The New Colossus offers plenty of ways to destroy your enemies using a variety of distinct and interesting guns. There’s also the ax, which comes complete with a large selection of grisly death animations and rewards for sneaking up behind the Nazi soldiers and taking them out quietly.
You can dual-wield if you want to put a lot of lead into someone very quickly, and you can upgrade your weapons in strategic ways to reinforce your preferred fighting style. Gunfights in the game are chaotic, booming affairs complete with explosions and charging enemies that can knock you flat on your ass, literally, and it’s all set to the grinding guitar-focused metal work of Mick Gordon.
Wolfenstein 2 is a thudding, explicitly violent game that doesn’t mind looking into the heart of the people involved in this war. Without going into too much spoilery detail, this is one of the few action games that plays with the idea of what would happen if the hero was to be held accountable for the hundreds, if not thousands, of people he killed in the name of what’s “good.” Those henchmen and henchwomen have parents and partners and kids somewhere. The New Colossus doesn’t shy away from this reality.
And that’s the strength of this sequel. It balances a steady stream of suffering and hurt with exuberant humanity. It deals with our darkest impulses and our best, and plays them both up to a ridiculous degree. There’s nothing subtle about Wolfenstein 2, but it’s all affecting in a way that makes the game feel special and coherent. There are moments in the game that made my heart swell, while others were so grisly I had to look away.
B.J. is comfortable killing thousands upon thousands of his enemies if they stand between him and a bit of peace. But killing isn’t all that Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus offers. It’s the rare first-person shooter that explores the first time its hero pulled a trigger; it’s the rare first-person shooter that is comfortable connecting with the primal, untamed parts of your brain while celebrating just how fucking good it feels to lay out a Nazi.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus was reviewed using final “retail” PlayStation 4 code provided by Bethesda. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.