If Call of Duty: WW2 is attempting to be the video game equivalent of Saving Private Ryan, then Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is most certainly Inglorious Bastards. Two AAA first person shooters, both released relatively close to one another, both created by renowned developers with the backing of massive publishers. Yet why is it that the game about killing robot Nazis is more respectful to the past and more emotionally moving than a game that attempts to show you a genuinely horrific moment in history?
As an immediate disclaimer, I have no love for either of these series. My first taste of Call of Duty was a decade ago. I thought Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was fantastic. World at War was less engaging. I skipped Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops. Then I played every Call of Duty from Modern Warfare 3 onwards. I walked away from each title disheartened and un-phased by the lackluster experience I’d trudged through. The only exception being Advanced Warfare, which I believed was an adequate shooter. I felt that other shooters offered more satisfying moment to moment action and the near future settings the series seemed so focused on quickly became played out.
So it filled me with the upmost excitement when I heard 2017’s Call of Duty iteration would return to World War 2. A more grounded experience coming from arguably the best of the three COD developers, Sledgehammer.
In regards to Wolfenstein 2, I didn’t even know if I was going to try it. Despite the critical buzz around the 2014 reboot, I was unimpressed by The New Order. Combat felt repetitive and I didn’t feel any real connection to the games plot or characters. So when The New Colossus rolled around, I almost let it pass by.
There’s no love for either franchise here. Which is why I hope you take what I have to say next seriously.
Wolfenstein 2 in its bombastic absurdity is a far more respectful World War 2 story than the latest Call of Duty. An annual franchise which has completely failed in creating a genuine experience due to shallow storytelling, sub par gameplay and an amount of patriotism that almost feels like American propaganda. Let’s break this down into three clear cut components. Tone, gameplay and the representation of different cultures and ethnicities. For the sake of this argument I will be ignoring WW2’s (the game) multiplayer and excellent Nazi Zombies mode, focusing solely on its single player campaign.
Tone: World War 2 becomes cheesy
Call of Duty: WW2’s campaign begins on June 4th 1944. Private Ronald “Red” Daniels and his company take part in the Normandy Beach landings. From the outset the game tells you that this was one of the most horrific wars in human history. You play a recreation of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. Desperately scrambling up a foreign beach as your friends and comrades are shot dead or eviscerated by explosions. Your ears are ringing and there is a man dragging himself into cover, his legs nowhere to be seen. This is what I wanted from this campaign. People forget the horrors of World War 2. This was a cataclysmic event that some individuals still remember as a moment in their lives. If you’re going to craft a game around this setting, you better show it an appropriate amount of respect.
But as I liberated France and eventually took Germany head on in their homeland, the games tone became muddled. In this respect I don’t think Sledgehammer intentionally tried to be disrespectful, but their lack of writing ability sullied the narrative of WW2’s campaign. Private Daniels and his company are never fleshed out. Sledgehammer had the opportunity to tell the tragic stories of real men, in some cases teenagers fighting for their lives. Yet the majority of the campaign is a trek from one over the top set piece trope to another, complemented with awful writing and cheesy one liners that no real person would say.
The New Colossus on the other hand takes a completely different approach. It moves away from World War 2 and tells a hypothetical tale of a world where the Nazis won. You are B.J. Blazkowicz a.k.a. Terror Billy. An all American one man army, liberating the American population from the Nazi occupied 1960’s. By building a narrative around an insane dystopia rather than actual historical events, The New Colossus is able to continue on the story of World War 2 in an absurd way, while still showing ample respect for the past. You’ll chop up Nazis with an axe, ride giant robot dogs, and journey to Venus, and yet such childish gameplay fantasies are coupled with arguably the best narrative within a game in 2017. The writing is superb in a way it has no right to be, comfortably moving from laugh out loud moments to genuinely concerning issues, tackling domestic abuse, mortality and racism.
Wolfenstein 2 and Call of Duty: WW2 show us the undebatable importance of writing within games. Poor writing can make an otherwise respectable story disrespectful, and good writing can make a game about robot Nazis the most emotionally moving narrative of the year.
Gameplay: World War 2 was won by one man
An aspect I only want to touch briefly upon is gameplay. You’d be surprised to know that Wolfenstein 2 and Call of Duty: WW2 boast rather similar gameplay experiences. An extremely low amount of stealth, the occasional vehicle sequence and a 95% focus on slaughtering wave after wave of Nazis. In The New Colossus this is appropriate. In conjunction with the games tone; running through hallways, dual wielding shotguns and killing Nazis in a visceral fashion is fitting and satisfying. Despite admirable efforts to add depth and nuance to his character, Blazkowicz at his core is a larger than life super hero.
But mowing down hundreds of Nazis doesn’t merge quite as well with a grounded story about a man trying to get home to his family. Daniels isn’t some Rambo-esque hero. He is a by the numbers soldier in a war of millions. Yet I killed hundreds of Nazis while perched on a rooftop, partnered with only a sniper rifle. Not only is this repetitive and dull from a gameplay perspective, but it doesn’t fit tonally. Games need to match the nuances of their story and setting with the challenges of gameplay and mechanics. Otherwise it can come across as unrealistic and muddled.
Cultural Representation: God bless America
I want to get this out of the way. I don’t dislike America. Sure it has its issues, but it is a place I would one day like to visit. However as a New Zealander I found myself constantly cringing at the American propaganda constantly shoved down my throat during WW2. The Americans weren’t the only country fighting Nazi Germany. In fact they joined the war effort relatively late compared to most other countries. Yet WW2 seems to try and convince the player that America single handily won the war. My ears were constantly bombarded with dialogue about how great a country America is. The efforts of other countries are trivialized through their lack of appearance and even when they are introduced (the French), they are only able to succeed thanks to the aid of the USA. I’m not trivializing America’s effort in the war, but when games like Battlefield 1 have done a far superior job at appropriate representation, it’s hard not to criticize.
The other obvious problem with WW2’s representation of different nationality’s, is that there is no grey, only black and white. Americans are good and Germans are bad. Americans help civilians, Nazi’s are cruel and callous. American characters who act like awful people throughout the game are actually just good men who have seen too much. Nazi’s are just straight up evil, who cares what they’ve been through. Sure there is no denying the atrocities Nazi Germany committed, but to paint them with such a broad brush, dehumanizing them to be nothing more than bullet sponges, it’s disrespectful.
Wolfenstein 2 understands that the world isn’t so black and white. Within its campaign it manages to display the flaws in multiple communities. Yes the Nazi party is tyrannical and evil but not all Germans are Nazi’s. Yes there were many American heroes during World War 2, but modern America is also populated by those who passionately share the beliefs of the Nazi’s. Yes many African Americans have been subjected to unscrupulous amounts of racism, but they can also be racist themselves. Wolfenstein 2 isn’t afraid to represent the good and the bad in every country and every culture. The New Colossus shows maturity by seeing the undeniable amount of grey in a world many games call black and white. Both America and Germany are the enemy. Both America and Germany are the heroes. It is not a matter of country but a matter of character.
I don’t think Sledgehammer actively attempted to do many of the things I have criticized them for. I still think Call of Duty: WW2 is a good game, but it isn’t the high point I thought it would be. Due to poor writing, by the numbers gameplay and a naive way of looking at the world, this game fails in many ways. It is at times disrespectful and at other times sickeningly patriotic. Whereas Wolfenstein 2 moved me. It told me a tragic tale of freedom, respected historical events and let me chop apart Nazi’s whenever I was bored. That in itself is a marvellous achievement and it is also why Wolfenstein 2 made it onto Goombastomp’s official game of the year list.