I was recently invited to play several Bethesda games at a preview event, but going in I knew Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus was the game I was most excited to demo. Given recent events, I've come under a radical fever and I've needed a good outlet to burn it off. Wolfenstein 2—a game about killing Nazis—is shaping up to be just that outlet. But Wolfenstein 2 wasn't made to be a political game. (Really, it wasn't.)
Just like MachineGames' narrative designer Tommy Tordsson Björk told me, "It's a very strange time in the world. It's horrible with the rise of Nazism and fascism, but we've been working on this game for a long time, we couldn't have known." I don't think a lot of us did, but here I am writing about potentially the most important game of 2017.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is the sequel to Machine Games' Wolfenstein: The New Order, a reboot of sorts of the classic 90s PC shooter for the modern era. The New Order, which I played for the first time this year, was a revelation. The New Order took the tired "shooting Nazis" subgenre popular in video games and recontextualized it as a cosmic battle of good and evil. BJ Blazkowicz and his silly, 90s action hero name (who could have easily been a silly 90s American action hero) was transmuted from an angry pixelated face from the Wolfenstein 3D days into an avatar of destruction for the modern era.
Blazkowicz, in essence, hates Nazis and won't stop until he kills them all. At this point in the series, the Nazis are in America now so that's where the game takes us for The New Colossus. The idea of a Wolfenstein-inspired, Nazi America was always in the cards apparently, but Björk and co. thought it was too interesting an idea to relegate it to a single level. It deserved its own game.
The demo I played was a new level Bethesda hadn't shown off yet at other industry preview events. It's a little more open, so players had a little freedom with how they chose to make their way to the main objective. The goal was to either sneak or blast your way through a portion of a Nazi American city and meet up with Horton, a firebrand revolutionary whose anarcho-communist group is holed up in New Orleans and waiting for some final battle that will take them all out.
Horton and his team are old-fashioned revolutionaries who fought against the feds and the one percent even before the Nazis took over. Now they sit back, drink whiskey, sabotage fascists, and wait for a final showdown that they've been anticipating for... though not necessarily at the hands of a regime they were expecting when they began their crusade. Luckily for this group you're BJ Blazkowicz, and he has a baby on the way with his lover (Anya from The New Order), and hates the thought of having a baby grow up around Nazis. Because he loves freedom and babies and hates Nazis.
So, you team up with Horton (who might be my favorite new character of 2017) and you get to ride a Panzerhund that Horton's men stole, but was previously one of the series' most terrifying enemies. The Panzerhund is some mechanical hell machine that breathes fire and immolates the Nazis occupying America. Riding one kind of feels like controlling a quad-pedal tank. The controls are a little clunky, and it doesn't feel as fast as it should because when you fight against them during the game these metal bastards attack so much faster than when you ride them. But you can breathe an infinite amount of fire that results in a bunch of Wilhelm screams, so that's fun.
Tommy Tordsson Björk (who worked on all the MachineGames Wolfenstein titles) told me what MachineGames told others: That yes, Wolfenstein 2 can be read politically but that's not the main point of the game. The main point of Wolfenstein 2 is to play a fun, challenging first-person shooter that has some good, fun writing.
"To us, we view it like we're trying to create something timeless," said Björk. "There is of course, because the subject matter has to do with Nazism, elements of politics in it. To us it's something that is timeless." In a way, it's kind of funny because playing as a revolutionary rising up against a fascist regime is timeless. It's just a coincidence that the metaphor lines up a little too succinctly with reality in this case. I somewhat feel bad for MachineGames, who've been working on the game since 2014, to have to field these questions about its cultural relevancy constantly from interviewers like me.
The sharp writing, colorful characters, narrative ambition, and gonzo humor are all still here from what I played. Horton's firebrand revolutionary is incredibly entertaining, and I want to see him interact with Blazkowicz even more. Their relationship is a neat take on history, acknowledging that at the very least an American GI and anarcho-communist can join hands to punch Nazis.
The point of Wolfenstein 2 is to revive an old gaming classic and to design silly mechanics around it, like being able to use robot stilts to climb tall areas or football tackle through enemies and cracked walls. The point of Wolfenstein 2 is to imagine what a Nazi America would look like and to shoot Nazis using two machine guns at the same time—all of which you can. You can even customize your weapons into different configurations that's most comfortable for your Nazi killing. Prefer stealth? Add a silencer. More of a heavy attacker? Pump up those exploding rounds.
The point of Wolfenstein 2 isn't to satirize or draw attention to the actual white supremacists in America, or to campaign for the next U.S. Presidential election. Yet it can be interpreted like that, in the same way that you'd probably at least consider the irony of being on a sinking ship hypothetically named "Titanic Jr." Wolfenstein 2 is a thought experiment which is why it takes place in the 1950s. There are no references to contemporary politics, but instead MachineGames opts to play with Americana pop-culture fixtures like GI Joe and transform it into Nazi Soldier Josef or something. It's silly, well-written, and did I mention you can football tackle through walls in Wolfenstein 2?
You can play Wolfenstein 2 apolitically and have a good time. (It's very fun blasting through walls by tackling them?) My preview might have come off as more political than the game ends up being, but that's just because this is just like, my opinion man. But if you choose to play Wolfenstein 2 politically, then I think I can guarantee that your fun will increase exponentially.