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Eric: The Pussification of the 5th Column

So, as you may have guessed, it's been a busy week down here at Casa Websnark. We got back from vacation and had... well, you know. Stuff. To do. Stuff to do. You know how it is. To give you some idea of just how busy... not only has my snarking been light all week, but I only got around to hooking up my Windows computer and booting up City of Heroes today.

"So what," you ask?

So... there's a new Issue of content out, Mister Man. Whole new areas! Whole new archetypes I'm never actually going to get to play! (Bastards.) Whole new sound effects and shifts of functionality!

And the 5th Column -- one of the premier bad guy teams -- has been wholly remade into "The Council."

We knew this was coming. There's been debate about it for months. You see... the 5th Column were Nazis. That's right, Nazis. Evil Germans who believed the Reich would rise again. They employed batteries of Helmeted Ninjas (because nothing says "Nazi" like the martial arts), guys with grenade launchers and Unteroffizers (I couldn't care less that I misspelled that) with names like Col. Wagner spreading their message of hate through the city, kidnapping and recruiting and blowing shit up. At higher levels, they also turned into werewolves and vampires and had Nazi Death Robots.

And it was cool as Hell... because it's seriously fun to beat up Nazis. You don't need any justification for it. You don't even have to think about it. A contact would give you a mission where the 5th Column were invading an office park to steal a valuable painting with some kind of encoded clue on it. You immediately got on your supergroup channel. "Bonedancer! Ms. Mercury! Azure Ampere! Nazi Art Thieves!" And a cheer would go up, and the Galaxy Circle would strike forth, assembling and entering and beating the living hell out of those Nazi bastards. Even just running along the streets in Steel Canyon, hearing them giving recruitment speeches, was enough reason to pause and start hammering them with electricity and radiation blasts. Because damn it, they were Nazis, and Superheroes fight Nazis! It's what they do! Nazis are evil and spread hate, and so we punch them in the head and call them "Ratzis" and make bad puns like "Don't cause a Fuhrer, Hans!" while you did it.

This is a core element of comic books. It has been since the actual Second World War. Captain America and the Invaders explicitly fought Nazis. The Justice Society spent a good amount of time fighting Nazis. The retconned "All Star Squadron" was a flying brigade of Nazi hunters. Nazis held on into the last part of the century, always ready to unleash a new steam powered Nazi robot on our heroes, who would defeat it and beat the fascists down for Justice -- and it felt good, because they were evil, rotten Nazis!

In the Issue 2 update, we also got a new low level 5th Column Base Map, which was a warehouse painted up in 5th Column Regalia, with a speaker system that intoned in German as you stormed the base. It was a wonderful piece of atmosphere as you and your low level hero chums beat the snot out of the 5th Column. Even the name was cool in an evil way. The Fifth Column. It sounded like a potboiler from the 40's, evoking thoughts of insurgents and spies and bunds going out and doing evil.


Cryptic Studios is preparing to launch City of Heroes in Europe. Including Germany. And now... the Fifth Column has been retconned. Literally retconned. There's apparently something about time travel involved or the like, so that for the most part, the 5th Column never existed (or was tiny and inconsequential), and now they've been replaced by The Council.

The Council.

First off, the name is lame as Hell. It makes it sound like you're fighting a corrupt pack of City Aldermen. And, running through a low level Council mission earlier today, that's pretty much exactly what they are, or so it seems. It's all the same missions, apparently, only now the Nazi elements have been taken out and replaced with... well... you remember all those soldiers in Cobra? The ones who didn't get action figures of their own -- they're the anonymous soldiers who sprayed energy fire at their enemies, had no personalities, and pretty much existed to eject at the last millisecond when G.I. Joe blew their planes up with missiles?

Yeah. That seems to be the entirety of the Council. Only Cobra's Generic Soldiers got to shout "COBRA," which honestly seems like more personality than these doinks have.

The reason they claimed the change happened was because of their overall plotline bible. They claimed that the bible just naturally called for this to happen, and the fact that they're launching a German version of the game had nothing to do with it.

This, of course, is transparent bullshit. They spent significant time, money and effort creating skins and textures and ambience for low level 5th Column bases in Issue 2, which then had to be largely redone for Issue 3. Plus they had to rewrite every 5th Column mission to make sure all the Nazi was pulled out of them. And when they first did this, they also changed the dedication plaques extolling the hero Atlas's fight against Nazis at the start of WWII to nonNazi stuff as well, until people freaked. They then claimed it was an error.

The real reason all this is happening is a German law that makes the display of Nazi regalia and the positive portrayal of Nazis illegal. Only... the 5th Column didn't display Nazi Regalia (their symbol was a kind of Skull done in Soviet Realism) and they weren't positively portrayed. Quite the opposite. You were supposed to beat the Hell out of them! They were evil! There was nothing good about them! They existed to have their helmeted heads crushed before being carted off to jail, sterilized by nuclear radiation.

The overall experience of City of Heroes has been cheapened by this. It feels... craven, somehow. It feels like the people at Cryptic didn't have the guts to keep the cool villains they had, and instead had to replace them with lame villains just to make sure they didn't get angry phone calls. This, I would add, despite that fact that there are tons of video games that do feature Nazis and do get sold and played in Germany. Including things like Castle Wolfenstein and Battlefield 1942. Games where you can play as the Germans if you wish.

Will this cause me to drop City of Heroes? Nah. There's not a huge amount in this latest issue for me (though I have a character in the range of the new zone, so there's that at least), but I still loves me the Superhero action. But I kind of wish they'd just cut the 5th Column out entirely, instead of forcing a lameass sea change onto them to make them as inoffensive as humanly possible. The visceral pleasure of destroying virtual fascism and racism and anti-semitism has been replaced with the dubious pleasure of beating up well armed janitors.

When Captain America fights the Red Skull, there's something epic going on. It's America and Freedom against Nazism and Tyranny on a grand scale. When Captain America fights Hydra, you hope there's a few pictures here and there of his current love interest in scanty clothing, to keep your interest. City of Heroes gave up the Red Skull to get themselves the dorks Hydra don't return phone calls to. And that's just sad.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at January 7, 2005 10:20 PM


Comment from: hess42 posted at January 8, 2005 12:12 AM

Oh, this is just sad. I'm not an MMORPG guy, but the prospect of fighting Nazis is always - always - a good thing. It reminds me of entirely too many hours spent with Wolfenstein 3D with my roommate, ignoring the fact that we had class the next day or one of those silly shifts at work in just a few hours.

Why? Because, man, they were Nazis, and Nazis needed shootin'. Hell, even the Blues Brothers fought the Nazis (the Illinois kind, anyway. I hate Illinois Nazis). If it's good enough for Jake and Elwood, it's good enough for me.

Besides, there was something awfully satisfying about hearing them cry out, "Mein Mutti!" after giving them a few slugs from the chain gun.

Comment from: Kris@WLP posted at January 8, 2005 12:36 AM

Well, if memory serves, (a) Germany -enforces- the law as if it prohibited any mention of Nazis at all, period, regardless of context; and (b) said law carries with it not merely civil sanctions, fines and blackout of websites from German 'Net servers, but -jail time.-

If my memory serves; I've been wrong before.

But if even close to accurate, I think it's understandable that CoH pussied out.

Now to see if France prosecutes them for not having all the signs in the city in French instead of English...

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at January 8, 2005 12:45 AM

The game never mentioned 'Nazis,' though. They always refered to "the 5th Column" or "the Axis."

Comment from: Amanda posted at January 8, 2005 12:48 AM

I post on a message board hosted on a server located in Germany, and even an offhand, indirect reference to Nazis gets you in major trouble, because it could get them in major trouble. Apparently this law is very strictly enforced.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at January 8, 2005 12:55 AM

I wonder how things like Wolfenstein get away with it, then.

Regardless, I stand by the essay. Let's say they decide they have to do this for the European (or at least German -- the Brits love the punching of Nazis) release. They're not out anything at all by leaving the 5th Column intact here in America. They already did the work.

Comment from: Rowboat posted at January 8, 2005 1:14 AM

(a German speaks:)

That's not really the case, no. Speaking approvingly of the Nazi regime can certainly get you into major trouble, depending on context and whatnot, but what Amanda says sounds rather weird and more like an overzealous interpretation of the hosting company's terms of service.

As for games, I would guess that as far as Germany is concerned, they're mostly afraid of being put on the BPjM's "index" of media considered by that agency to be inappropriate for minors, which would mean that it could not legally be sold or advertised to them. There are also some other problems such as the use of the swastika being unconstitutional, with exceptions for science, civil education, and so forth. The whole system is a bit complicated to explain offhand - there are all sorts of special cases and exceptions, and the BPjM can only act if called on by certain authorities, etc...

Certainly offhand, indirect references can't reasonably be expected to get you into any sort of legal trouble at all. People are getting away with much worse - sadly, some would say, but that's not a debate I want to get into now.

Comment from: Krick posted at January 8, 2005 2:13 AM

Actually Return to Castle Wolfenstein was modified for German release, any nazi symbols were replaced with a 'W' and the storyline was about cultists. Heinrich Himmler was renamed Heinrich Holler.


I also remember reading a while ago that the multiplayer maps were specifically created w/o any nazi images so that german players could play with the rest of the world. In MP you were playing as a german soldier, not a nazi.

I'm not sure that the deal is with BF 1942 over there tho.

Comment from: sun tzu posted at January 8, 2005 4:34 AM

I'm afraid I have to disagree...I highly doubt that Cryptic Studios took the 5th Coloumn out of the game because of the whole Nazi deal. For starters, they've said explicitely that it wasn't the case, and I'm taking their word for it (call me naive, but, so far, I've been impressed with how well they handle stuff). Second, the whole story bible thing...I don't know how well you know the in-game backstory, so here's the spoilers:

The full name of the new group is "The Council of Nictus". Remember the Kheldians - those new aliens you can play once one of your characters reaches level 50? The Nictus are an evil faction of Kheldians, who force humans to merge with them. The whole idea is that the Nictus have been manipulating the 5th Coloumn for a long while, and are now taking over. And the thing is...It's not something new. The description of Requiem (the guy who's lead the 5th Coloumn since WWII) explicitely said he was a Nictus from day one, before we even learned what the Nictus were. There was foreshadowing for all of this since the game began.

Comment from: Pinwiz posted at January 8, 2005 6:22 AM

Plus, we get the battles between the remaining 5th Column and the newly formed Council minions. I've seen some spectacular battles because of this, sitting safely on a rooftop in Independence Port.

Foreshadowing? Wimping out?

Probably a bit of both.

Comment from: slaire posted at January 8, 2005 8:50 AM

I think the fact that City of Heroes is being released in Germany has less to do with the 5th's death knell, then the fact that City of Villains will eventually be released in Germany, as well. Correct me if I'm wrong (and I probably am), but I believe in CoV you can play a member of one of the villain factions like the Freakshow, tsoo, and yes, the 5th Column, or The Council now. Which would violate the German law against showing nazi symbols in a, somewhat, positive light. I could be wrong...probably am...but I had that idea while reading the snark and thought I'd throw it out for people to consider.

Comment from: Shadowydreamer posted at January 8, 2005 10:37 AM

It's Quebec that's all bitchy about English signs, not France, and they're part of Canada. (Well, 53% of them think so) France treats English signs much like Americans treat signs in Spanish.

As much as I would like to say bad things about Cryptic on this one, I think I have to give them a thumb's sideways. It's not a particularly GOOD move, but I can understand why they did it. The term Nazi means different things to different people.. and isn't the game also due for release in Israel?

Comment from: Kris@WLP posted at January 8, 2005 11:02 AM

Shadowy, a few years ago the University of Georgia (Georgia USA, to be perfectly clear) had a satellite campus in Nantes, France.

The French government shut them down because the UofG's website- not the website for the Nantes campus, but the MAIN UG website- was not done -entirely- in French, as per French legal requirements.

The French have laws mandating the use of French words over English; put an English word on your sign or in your written works and watch the culture police slap you with a massive fine.

Quebec's rules are nothing compared to France's zero-tolerance language cops. In Quebec, you can have English on your signs, provided it's less than half the size of the French. In France, inglais c'est prohibe.

Sounds absolutely stupid and petty... until you consider how often the 'English-is-our-only-official-language' lobby pushes its agenda here in the USA...

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at January 8, 2005 11:08 AM

As much as I would like to say bad things about Cryptic on this one, I think I have to give them a thumb's sideways. It's not a particularly GOOD move, but I can understand why they did it. The term Nazi means different things to different people.. and isn't the game also due for release in Israel?

The term "Nazi" wasn't used in the game. They were always careful about that.

And as for Israel... somehow, I doubt a game that encourages players to create champions who punch Nazis in the face would be considered a bad thing in Israel.

Comment from: PatMan posted at January 8, 2005 11:55 AM

YAY!! I can sign in! Thanks for telling us that we could only sign in using Firefox. I had been stuck until then.

Anyways, the generic Cobras were made into figures. They were in the first set. They were re-released in the mid nineties in a 3-pack. (2 Officers 1 Viper) I never bought any. I regret that.

Comment from: Shadowydreamer posted at January 8, 2005 2:49 PM

I sit corrected! Of course, the French's dislike of Americans (increased, I'm sure by America's bashing and lies about the French!) doesn't help, I'm sure.

As far as punching Nazi's in the face.. there's this group of people who slaughtered my people, tortured them, demeaned them, took away everything they had.. and now there's this video game..

Comment from: College Zoo posted at January 10, 2005 7:14 AM

I can tell you that the a number of the 5th column are reforming themselves and joining the heroes in fighting the cities evil. the group I'm in is has 4 right now and I ran into another "faction" leader who said he had 25 members in his in his.

Also, my guess is that the 5th column will only disappear until City of Villains when the mad race to get the villian squad name happens.

Comment from: Robotech_Master posted at January 11, 2005 12:04 AM

In re what sun tzu said...I'll also note that there's apparently been foreshadowing in pretty much all issues of the comic thus far that Horus is a Kheldian—most blatantly in the very most recent one.

I'm going to go somewhere in the middle, I think. I'll willingly believe that the swap-out of 5th for Council was planned far in advance, since there seems to be evidence to suggest it was. But I'm pretty sure the European release was planned out well in advance, too.

How very, very odd that these two planned-in-advance events should happen to fall so close to each other...

Comment from: Zutto posted at January 11, 2005 12:17 AM

Whether or not this change to The Council was planned in advance for sidestepping political problems, is it fair to say the game company is somehow "wussing out" or "backing down?" You gotta accept the fact that in some places of the world, Nazism is more than a meme, recurring villain, or running gag (even if these guys were Nazis in everything but name, which discussion here seems to indicate). Frankly, I think it's considerate.

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