Like the classic American bait-and-switch, where the enticement of a free steak dinner is the prelude to a sales pitch for a time share in Florida, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus promises a simple-minded first person shooter before releasing an unexpected sucker punch: a well-acted, visceral meditation on some of the darkest corners of American culture and politics. Lurching, gliding and sometimes dancing between humor and drama, action and repose, high art and low comedy, The New Colossus seems absolutely unafraid to make us think, churn our stomachs, or test our reflexes.
Taking place immediately after Wolfenstein: The New Order, the sequel transplants the action to alternative history 1960s America, as William "BJ" Blazkowicz and team attempt to breathe energy into an American uprising against the Nazi occupiers. From New York to New Mexico, to Texas and finally, New Orleans, BJ and company face off against hordes of Nazi soldiers, fanciful weaponry, and one of the most savage and sadistic antagonists ever to appear in a game: General Irene Engel, a ruthless, vicious, and twisted caricature of evil.
The New Colossus is first and foremost a shooter with a large arsenal of weapons, most of which are variants on familiar pistols, rifles, and shotguns -- all with limited upgrades -- plus a handful of heavy weapons that must be recharged in the heat of battle. Like the previous game, realism takes a distant second place to sheer audacity and the ability to spray bullets by dual wielding machine guns or evaporate enemies into a jet of laser-fueled molecules. Very late in the game, Blazkowicz gains one of three game-changing enhancements. The New Colossus keeps things interesting over its 15 hours of play by mixing things up and balancing the overall desperately serious subject matter with ample, sometimes very crude, humor.
While there are sections of The New Colossus that demand stealth and patience, much of the game can be approached aggressively, with guns blazing. Thanks to outstanding level designs that offer multiple viable paths, it rarely feels like there is one, "right" solution but on the other hand, the hard-to-read direction indicator and somewhat labyrinthine levels can result in some wasted time backtracking. Sometimes, deaths come unexpectedly and unfairly from unseen sources.
Provided the player has a strong stomach for gore and violence, the action/shooter elements of The New Colossus are well-tuned and quite satisfying. What really elevates the game, though, is the surprising and depressingly timely story and layers of subtext.
Most people will recognize the game's title as an ironic reference to Emma Lazarus' poem ("give me your tired, your poor...") that graces the Statue of Liberty and used to welcome immigrants to America. Using the Nazis as a placeholder -- and not a subtle one, at that -- for those racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant figures in recent American politics, The New Colossus is both populated by characters who embrace racial supremacy and serves as a cautionary tale for those promote that agenda. As always, at the story's core is BJ Blaskowicz, who we learn was deeply scarred as a child by a violent, abusive, and profoundly racist father and who wants only to live long enough to see the birth of his twin children. A centerpiece series of flashbacks of BJ's childhood is genuinely poignant and sets up the final chapters of the game.
Although the list of voice talent may not contain a lot celebrity names, they are an experienced crew of stage, film, and television actors who are impressively cast and bring nuance to their roles. Unfortunately, character models are really hit and miss and are often downright ugly. Still, there are a lot of small animations -- especially around the eyes -- that work together with the voices to sell the dialog and emotional content of the scene.
The New Colossus is a sometimes absurd, over-the-top single player action game that revels in stupidity but is also whip-crack smart about its themes and is happily willing to silence its guns for an extended series of emotionally honest and beautifully acted moments. Some of the character models aren't great (though the voice work uniformly is), there are some graphical issues here and there, and the testosterone-injected guitar riffs that underscore the firefights seem at grating odds with the setting and story. Very minor quibbles aside, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus -- like a few of the fanciful animals in the game -- bolts the head of serious political and social satire onto the body of a shooter and it all works amazingly well.