Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is excelling in unsettling moments of quiet

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is excelling in unsettling moments of quiet
Alice Bell Updated on by

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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is so far looking like a game of two parts: the fast, loud, fighting bit, all gunmetal grey and muzzle flash, and semi-regular spurts of claret; and the slow, quiet and well-observed one, where war veteran turned long arm of the resistance William ‘B.J.’ Blazkowicz takes in what’s happening to the world he once knew. In the E3 preview it was seeing the terrible, personal, raw sadism of the returning antagonist Frau Engel. In this more recent one, it’s seeing how Nazism is shaping America.

As a theme, this has been showing up a lot in the promo materials. There’s an ongoing series of videos that riffs on recognisable cultural phenomena: Liesel is Lassie, but if Lassie was a Panzerhund, a giant combat mech; German or Else! is a family-friendly TV game show where you’re sent for re-education if your German isn’t good enough. German or Else! is sponsored by tinned knackwurst sausages (‘Hard on the outside, strong on the inside!’). At E3 the Wolfenstein booth was made up as PaPa Joe’s All American Diner, complete with strawberry milkshakes.

Wolfenstein II Strawberry Milkshake

The diner is actually in the game (strawberry milkshake playing a large role in a tense cutscene that’s now been put online), and it and the surrounding streets made up a part of the level I got to play. It was a comparatively small part, but probably my favourite of everything I saw. It’s one of the areas where you’re not fighting, a moment where you have time to breathe in before the next breath out, which comes with a hail of bullets, frantic running, and smashing a fire axe into another man’s neck without thinking about it (because you don’t have time to think about it, you have to keep pushing, keep fighting, keep going).

B.J. is disguised as a fireman carrying a fire extinguisher, which is actually an atom bomb so he’s presumably carrying it with no small amount of care, around Roswell-adjacent town Galveston. It’s a bright sunny day and the streets are closed for a parade. Red, white and blue bunting flutters. It’s an archetypal picture of small town America such as you’d paint in your head based on all the movies and TV you’ve watched over the years, except in Wolfenstein II it turns out that part of your consciousness is the same kind of smart arse graffitist as that bastard Banksy, and has drawn some Nazis in where they oughtn’t be.

Because the Nazi uniforms are so dark, especially compared to the rest of the town and its people, you’re drawn to them like a fly to a porch light — a particularly silly fly, really, since currently this fly’s face is on wanted posters plastered everywhere, and a reasonably intelligent porch light would probably notice this. Fortunately they’re all otherwise occupied, and in quiet little ways you can watch, like a soldier telling his American girlfriend ‘Ich liebe dich,’ or a Kommandant angrily berating two members of the KKK for not being sufficient in their German language skills (these men later retreat into the gas station and start playing on a pinball machine). 

wolfenstein 2 new screens

The game’s director, Jens Matthies, says that the fact anyone is susceptible to this kind of authoritarian takeover is why people find the thread of Nazism so relatable still, (and while I, who am distinctly left wing, might read more into jokes about propaganda and the White House, and others, who are distinctly right wing, might read the game as bowing to PC pressure, Matthies is clear that the game isn’t made specifically as a piece of social commentary, they’re just making the game they want to make) and that B.J. and Anya’s dynamic is often about trying to snatch moments of a normal life in these extraordinary circumstances. In the preview you could see other people trying to do that too. That some of them took to the new order rather more quickly than others is the part that makes it more chilling.

It showed a glimpse of these iconic bits of Americana starting to bow to the pressure. The All American diner is told its menu needs to be a bit more German, a conversation suggests that American rock music has been banned, and street vendors are selling copies of Mein Kampf. Even the cutscenes themselves seem to subtly recall American movies, with the stand off in the diner between a milkshake-slurping officer and the disguised B.J. making you think Tarantino, and an earlier scene where a Nazi airship hovers over and clamps the resistance submarine reading like the opening to the first ever Star Wars film. And you know that, given enough time and an increased application of pressure, these things will start to snap.

wolfenstein 2 new screens

This is where B.J. comes in, he himself being something of an iconic character starting to break under pressure. He’s only just woken up from a coma and, in the preview, had health that topped out at 50. You can overclock, as it were, but it always ticks down again, which only adds to the difficulty (which, in the preview build, hadn’t yet been balanced anyway, and we were told to play on a lower setting to even get through). The combat will be familiar if you played the previous Wolfenstein: fast and dirty and over the top, particularly now, when you can dual wield weapons of two different types and go for, say, a silenced pistol in one hand and a machine gun in the other, not necessarily a well thought out tactic, but an entertaining one.

Yet, as blood-thumpingly ridiculous the combat sections were, they served only to make the moment of quiet more noticeable, something that I found true of the combat down time and cutscenes in Wolfenstein, too. I felt compelled to stop and look around Roswell, even though I was lugging around an actual a-bomb, because, however short the reprieve was, there was the feeling that it might be the last chance to do so. And it seems to me that these, and not the shooting, are the moments that could push Wolfenstein II forwards into greatness. B.J. has to know what he’s fighting for, after all.