Wolfenstein: The New Colossus (Review/Analysis) – Humanity Through Absurdity

Hi, I’m Hamish Black and welcome to Writing
on Games. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order ended in
a way that felt so perfect that it was weird to me that a sequel was even consideredIt
was sudden, but it was all it needed to be; BJ, now successfully transformed from head-in-a-box
to full-fledged, complicated human being, found himself in a situation that likely wouldn’t
achieve much. The Nazis had established themselves as an
unstoppable force, shifting BJ and co.’s fight from one of “taking down the Nazis”
to a much more grounded “fighting the little battles to assert your identity under constant
oppression.” In this he had found happiness, he had established
a small island of solace from the Nazi scourge. His declaration of “you’re clear” was
him signing off; the consequences would likely be insignificant, but he had won his own battle. That was the end of it. It was the wildest slice of life possible,
but it was a slice of life nonetheless. How could Wolfenstein 2 possibly continue
from such a seemingly natural stopping point? Well, it does so by simply… carrying on. In what feels like grimmest turn of events
possible, BJ survives; is torn apart by the blast and subsequently by his friends trying
to save him. Instead of finding the end of his road, he’s
right back where he started; in a wheelchair, being held down and forced to watch as the
villain wreaks unspeakable anguish upon his friends, entirely removed of all agency. In other words, he is tired. And it’s here that BJ’s new journey begins
in earnest. It’s a fascinating and emotionally complex
set-up that the game handles remarkably well; far from the type of character we expect from
burly shooter protagonists, Blazkowics is a husk both physically and mentally. His inner monologues used to give off a surprising
air of literacy; now they feel like genuine cries for help. Instead of establishing how people fight such
incongruous opposition, The New Colossus forces BJ to confront the potential futility of his
actions; forcing him to endure another moment like he endured The New Order’s moment. The situation under which he struggles may
seem preposterous but the struggles themselves are incredibly human; he suffers from severe
depression, manifesting in nihilistic self-sabotage, in pushing himself away from those he loves. He sees himself as a burden but also recognises
that it’s all in his head and that the fight ain’t gonna stop. The main tension of the game’s story then
emerges from BJ trying to navigate these conflicting feelings while the surrounding cast of characters
attempts to reignite the will to fight that once burned so aggressively within our protagonist. And what better way to narratively represent
that struggle than by making the fight itself really goddamn fun? Moreso than The New Order, The New Colossus
realises this. Weapons have a real heft to them, you have
many more tools at your disposal, combat arenas are more open but it is easy to become overwhelmed
even on normal difficulties. Sniping with a pistol isn’t the fix-all
solution it was in The New Order, forcing a more adaptive playstyle. Even the more carefully thought out plans
will probably go a bit pell-mell, giving combat a dynamism it previously lacked as you go
from stalking in the shadows to frantically running around guns blazing, mashing E and
hoping you ran over a health pack. At its worst, the game still gives into some
of the same corridor-crawl impulses that made its predecessor less fun to play than to generally
experience, with many power ups feeling superfluous and repetition setting in as hitscan weapons
lead to some fairly frustrating deaths. At its best though, it helps shift your image
of BJ from Schwarzenegger in Commando to Stallone in First Blood; still capable of making life
extremely difficult for those in his way, but having to be more thoughtful in the process. The mental fragility BJ feels is physically
highlighted to you in a way that doesn’t detract from the bombast of everything happening
around you. The best gameplay scenarios in The New Colossus
reflect and condense this duality of explosive shlock and intimate humanity in the same way
the writing does, at once lending focus to the gameplay and allowing the story to go
wherever it needs to in order to convey BJ’s character. For example, the image of Blazkowics rolling
around in a wheelchair cutting through Nazis is inherently funny; think of how daft it
is that a man who has just awoken from a coma has the muscle strength to hold up a gun let
alone wheel himself around; that the Nazis are a pesky fly waiting to be swatted, and
BJ’s gotta grumpily get out of bed with a rolled-up newspaper. On top of that it’s just an unusual gameplay
conceit; a fun set-piece that messes with the way you expect the legendary Blazkowicz
to move. You’re not charging through enemies; you’re
slow and unwieldy. It’s part of the joke, but it’s also an
interesting change of pace from other shooters. However, it’s also quietly informed by the
sadness of the situation he finds himself in. He has been denied his freedom, doomed to
repeat the same moment time and time again, seemingly since his troubled childhood. Yet when he wakes up, his priority is single-mindedly
finding Anya, with whom he can laugh and love, reminding him, however briefly, that it’s
not those around him that put him in this situation; it’s the goddamn Nazis. All this from just one dumb moment that comes
down to “you know that hour long intro sequence of The New Order? What if we could boil that whole thing down
to fifteen minutes by giving him a gun in the wheelchair?” It’s funny, angry, tragic, sad but also
weirdly optimistic all at the same time; a beautifully naturalistic melange of meaning
for all that it spawns from such a surreal series of events. Absurdity in The New Colossus lies not in
the idea that Nazis have taken over or that a heavily pregnant woman is being sent in
to fight with her boyfriend in a mech suit. That’s the norm in this new, heightened
reality. What’s absurd is the idea that BJ, with
the fresh entrails of the armies he just mowed through for the billionth time now cooking
on his smoking dual shotguns, could respond with “I’m going to die. I won’t make it through the week. I’ll be a bad dad.” The fact that you always emerge victorious
in these explosive sequences highlights the extent to which this is all psychological,
which in turn bolsters the frustration of the characters trying to tell him as much. On top of the fact that the game’s 6 hour
campaign cuts away the fat that at points bogged down The New Order, both gameplay and
story are working far more seamlessly than they did in 2014’s game. Every moment in the game is tinged with the
same mess of emotions that permeate the intro sequence and, true to the game’s slice of
life style, it doesn’t try to untangle any this for you. The fact that these character complexities
are being explored against the backdrop of some of the most cartoonish grindhouse-level
shlock I’ve seen in a game makes it as darkly comic as it is quietly poignant and imbuing
each scene with that level of layered meaning is downright impressive. That said, it’s not all perfect. BJ’s arc essentially concludes about two thirds
of the way through the game and while this does leave room for some of the most enjoyable
characters I’ve seen of late to shine (including Fergus who might be the only example of a
well-written Scottish character I can think of), it also puts the stoppers on the , in
favour of a more generalised “fight the system “ narrative that perhaps means a
little too hard into the edgy grindhouse aesthetic to fully reflect the heartfelt intentions
behind it. All in though, it’s hard to dwell on any
imperfections given the breakneck pace at which the game propels you through each section
and the quality of writing on show. If The New Order was an experiment in applying
character where there previously was very little, The New Colossus exists to push this
character to its existential limits; not looking to give any concrete answers, just to present
the situation in as human a way as possible, no matter how messy or complicated or nonsensical
the end product may seem; aside from a few pitfalls, the fact that it’s so successful
in this endeavour is extremely worthy of your time and praise.


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