Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus may feature more blood, amputation and beheadings than most timeless works of art, but in its own way, that’s what Sweden-based developer MachineGames set out to do with its take on the Wolfenstein franchise.
"Our vision is to create something timeless, that is a piece of art," creative director Jen Matthies told a gathering of press at a recent demo for the game via Skype. "That sounds pretentious and, of course it's not the best medium to create timeless art, but you can't do that if you're doing an ironic commentary on society. I think it has to be something more universal than that."
In New Colossus, players – through the role of William "B.J." Blazkowicz – are first transported to and then fighting against a tyrannical America – a place in which Nazis haven't just taken root, but are its guiding light.
The game takes place in a 1961 Nazi-occupied America. But the occupation is, at least at first blush, mostly hospitable. Americans have taken to the fascist party like fish to water.
It can't help but elicit the question: Is The New Colossus meant to be, in any way, a parable of modern times, a warning of what could be to come under a far-right American leadership. When asked, Matthies called the game "timeless," and said it was certainly not meant to be commentary. According to him, he and the team drew more inspiration from films like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained than they did reality.
"We tried to straddle the line between intense and serious, but to be humorous at times as well," Matthies explained.
The two levels that press were granted unfettered access to included one in which BJ awakens in a sub, lying on a hospital bed. Nazis have discovered them, so he must pull himself from the bed and into a wheelchair.
The rest of the level is played from within the confines of that chair: BJ expertly maneuvering the chair around corners to pop off shots at encroaching Nazis, hurdling over bumps and down passageways in what can only be described as the world's most handicap-accessible submarine in existence.
Fortunately, the tight gameplay and the clever puzzles found in the level quickly make you forget the mostly effortless movements of a man confined to a wheelchair in a sub.
There are some delightful Nazi take-downs BJ manages from a sitting position. And other moments when he tumbles from his chair and drags himself away from danger.
It's a compelling set piece that sets the stage for – at least based on my time with it – a masterfully created shooter.
Once the wheelchair level wrapped up, we were pushed forward through the game, to a save point much later on. It opens with BJ, now walking, visiting a small town in Southwest America, deeply ensconced within, happily embracing the new order of Nazi rule.
BJ is here to blow shit up. But first, he has to wander this cozy little town to find his contact, a man who runs the local soda shop.
Matthies tells us that he and the team deliberately avoided watching the Amazon Prime series The Man in the High Castle – which also takes place in an America ruled by Nazis.
"I don't want it to influence me," Matthies said. "We have a very creative collective, so different people are intrigued by different things. They have a very, very deep interest in all kinds of stuff."
My journey down the sidewalks and roads of the town first lead me to believe the place has been emptied out. Or perhaps everyone is cowering in fear over their new Nazi leaders.
But it turns out that there's a parade going on. The town is all out celebrating the Nazis. They’re cheering, selling Nazi books. I even come across two hood-wearing KKK members joyfully walking down the street chatting with a Nazi.
People don’t seem too bothered by the new, direction of America, at least not until I find the soda shop and discover a woman inside buying a drink for her son.
When a Nazi walks in, the woman is obviously scared and rushes from the smiling, deeply frightening man.
The Nazi, it turns out, loves his strawberry milkshakes.
The scene that unfolds – BJ, the most wanted man in Nazi America, having a chat with a milkshake enjoying Nazi – offers up the sort of tension you’d expect from a Tarantino movie.
The characters, too, seem ripped from the same sort of works. They’re each fascinating additions to both the storyline and the game.
There are, Matthies tells us, more than 100 actors for The New Colossus. There are so many it actually becomes a bit daunting for the player, he said.
"It complicates the game in terms of scope," he said. "During our play tests, people said the characters are too interesting. The problem you have with so many interesting characters in the game is that when you introduce them, people want to spend as much time with them as possible. So we end up with characters that are too lovable for the amount of time they are in the game."
An easy solution to that problem would be to use them in what Matthies fully expects will be a third game in this latest take on Wolfenstein. This particular series, he stated, was planned from the get go as a trilogy. "We hope to do a third one if this does well," he said. "It was conceived as a trilogy."
In this particular piece of that story, the entire point of the game is for BJ not to topple the regime by himself, but to trigger a revolution within the country.
The Big Bomb
My final mission in my time with the game was to sneak into a command center and nuke the whole place.
Where the earlier missions were bookended with clever dialog and tight writing, this was more classic Wolfenstein: a steady, bloody churn through endless Nazi enemies using an increasingly diverse – but always lethal – mix of weapons to part Nazi life and limb from Nazi body.
The melee death-dealing of a stealthy BJ is only less satisfying than BJ methodically mowing down Nazis with a weapon in each hand.
The developers spent a lot of time building out the gore system, which enables BJ to do things like grab a Nazi by the shoulder and then lop off his leg before killing him.
They also made sure to make all the deaths – gory or not – satisfying.
If I had time to slow down and think about the game critically – if I weren't so busy being enamored with odd-ball characters, clever writing and buckets of digital blood – I may have started to feel the itch of over-familiarity in the game play. But in my time with it, it simply didn't come up. There was too much to marvel over, too much to listen to, too much to kill.