Wolfenstein 3D remains one of the most iconic first-person shooters of all time despite being an astonishing 21 years old. Helping to create one of the most popular gaming genres has meant the series faces consistently high expectations. Sadly, these expectations were not met by 2009's entry and since then the franchise has laid dormant waiting for a revival. Developers MachineGames are hoping to recapture the spirit of the 1992 classic and bring the series up-to-date with Wolfenstein: The New Order.
Created largely by former Starbreeze Studios employees (responsible for The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena), MachineGames have already spent three years working on Wolfenstein: The New Order. In a presentation before our hands-on session with the game, they explained they wanted to move the series away from being a straight-forward first-person shooter. Instead, the developers want to introduce more action-adventure elements in order to help alleviate repetition and to keep the experience fresh.
Once again, players take on the role of infamous Nazi-slayer William Blazkowicz (B.J. for short) and join him as a battles a new form of the Reich. Wolfenstein: The New Order takes place in an alternative history, set during the 1960s, which sees the Nazis win the Second World War using a mysterious technology. They have taken over the world and are dominating every continent with powerful weaponry. However, Blazkowicz is not at his prime and has been suffering from amnesia for 14 years after the events of Wolfenstein.
At first we were highly sceptical: the plot seemed pretty thin and using an amnesiac cliché to begin a game always sets alarm bells ringing. Yet, the developers managed to surprise us with a ten minute segment of gameplay that was remarkably different from the Wolfenstein 3D of old. Here, Blazkowicz was in disguise on a Nazi train travelling across Europe with his companion, Anya. Wearing a waiter's uniform he made his way through a dining car filled with the crème de la crème of fascist royalty while trying to reunite with Anya in her compartment.
Before he could get there, a voice called out from a table instructing him to stop. If the point needed emphasising further, a large guard robot (think ED-209 from Robocop) moved to block the way. Turning around, Blazkowicz found himself facing a stern-faced old female Nazi officer sat next to a younger, male companion. Introducing herself as Frau Engel and her camp, possible lover, as "Boobi" (or is that Booby?) she instructed him to sit down. Already the entirely first-person sequence felt like something from BioShock or Half Life 2 rather than a series renowned more for its shooting than its talking.
What followed was a remarkably subtle and tense sequence which brought to mind the dialogue of Tarantino. Frau Engel, who seemed likely to act as the primary antagonist for the game, then pulled out a golden Luger, which she then positioned between herself and Blazkowicz. She then proceeded to explain that they were about to play a "little game" in order to indulge her hobby and test whether the protagonist was a true Aryan or not. Pulling out a pack of postcards, she shuffled them and then subsequently placed a pair in front of Blazkowicz. Looking down, he then had to select one of the two cards depending on differing questions. "Which card makes you feel more disgusted?" in reference to a pile of human skulls or a spider.
Moving the crosshairs towards the elaborate pistol on the table led to Frau Engel smiling. Very sweetly she explained that if Blazkowicz made a move for the gun she would not only beat him to it but enjoy putting a bullet in his brain. It was an excellent piece of voice acting and the entire scene dripped with malice. After a few rounds of choosing cards, with accompanying noises of interest from Frau Engel and chuckles from Booby, the game came to a terrifying climax. Engel grabbed Blazkowicz's hand and told him that the next choice would decide his fate.
After pointing at one of the pair, the two Nazi's burst into laughter and told him he was free to go. Engel clarified the situation: "A non-Aryan would have gone for the gun, you are free to go", before reminding the hero to collect the coffees he needed to carry. The whole sequence was only a few minutes long but carried a lot of impact and oozed tension, bearing many similarities to some of the narrative devices used in The Darkness. When Blazkowicz finally made it to Anya's compartment, the two embraced and there was a strong implication the two would be romantically involved during the game.
The action jumped forward to the aftermath of a train crash, with the wreckage of the carriages hanging precariously from a large bridge. It seems safe to assume that the remainder of Blazkowicz's train ride was equally eventful. Here we were treated to a section, three-quarters of the way into the game, demonstrating the new shooting mechanics as well as some of the weapons available. Before he could leave the train, Blazkowicz had to use a laser-based weapon to cut through steel grills that blocked his path, with the metal glowing hot and melting wherever he aimed his gun. It was a nice effect but it seemed like a more ostentatious key puzzle rather than something as game changing as Half Life 2's Gravity Gun.
Emerging onto the bridge, with stunned Nazis still recovering from the crash we got a taste of the humour expected of the game with Blazkowicz threatening to kill those "Nazi *expletive* spacemen". The shooting then began with the veteran soldier using a rifle with attached rocket launcher to destroy cover, killing the Nazis behind. These semi-destructible environments were present throughout the demonstration and there were a number of occasions when Blazkowicz's own cover was killed, forcing desperate retreats searching for health.
Wolfenstein: The New Order seems dedicated to its heritage and there is none of the regenerating health seen so often in modern games. Instead, health packs and armour pick-ups are essential for staying alive. Once 100 vitality has been reach health can still be collected, providing an additional buff which slowly degrades over time until it runs back down to the cap. It is a slightly difficult system to get your head around at first, due to the rarity similar systems are now employed, but it feels in keeping with the heritage of the series.
The combat was meaty and gory, with Nazi troops exploding, losing limbs and disintegrating under sustained weapon's fire from Blazkowicz's arsenal. Bullets were able to penetrate cover types, which was particularly dangerous to the player when faced with some of the mechanical-suited Nazis who wielded chain guns and other heavy weaponry. Moving through the rest of the level, the body count seemingly reached three figures as hordes of enemies were shot or reduced to piles of meat. There was a distinct lack of outrageous, over-the-top screams à la Wolfenstein 3D which was a little disappointing.
At this stage we got the opportunity to jump into the action on an earlier level which saw Blazkowicz fighting his way through a partially destroyed facility, killing anyone who stood in his path. The controls were the standard first-person set-up and were pleasingly responsive. Graphically, the game was a little underwhelming with a very similar colour palette of urban greys and browns splashed with an occasional red, white and black Swastika. Level designs were fairly linear but most rooms were large enough to facilitate different directions of attack.
Fighting groups of Nazis was generally satisfying but there were a number of times where the AI seemed slightly questionable. On the whole, it was challenging and we were regularly chased by enemies as we retreated for health and ammunition. There was even an occasion where reinforcements split up to try and flank Blazkowicz as we were tactically reloading in a closet. However, when faced with a robo-Nazi we simply hid at the top of a small flight of stairs. It was unable to follow or really comprehend where we were shooting it from. Similarly, when flanking some enemies manning a turret we were able to mow them down without any resistance as they struggled to locate us.
This is still a pre-release version of the game and it seems very likely that MachineGames are working hard on tweaking smaller elements like this. With a purely single-player component the developers are concentrating on delivering the best possible campaign and story experience. Our biggest concern ties heavily in with this focus. The gameplay is enjoyable and entertaining, but fundamentally it boiled down to shooting Nazis with the only real variation determined by what gun you preferred to kill with. In order to keep it engaging and fresh it felt that Wolfenstein: The New Order needed something a little more unique to keep it from simply being a shooting gallery.
Despite this criticism, the story may well just be the hook that will keep players gripped. With developers who have a history delivering strongly narrative-driven games and the definite emphasis on the plot, Wolfenstein: The New Order has already set about moving the series forward in a different direction. However, there are definite worries about whether the general gameplay will move into a new generation and avoid feeling like one of the relics Blazkowicz has recovered in past games.
MachineGames' staff pedigree and the support of Bethesda, a publisher keen to deliver what fans want, are certainly reassuring signs. We only got the chance to see and play a few sections from the game and there are no doubt plenty of new features being kept secret for the time being. We are cautiously optimistic for Wolfenstein: The New Order, but it will take more than nostalgia for a classic to ensure it is a quality title. With a release date towards the end of this year on PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, we hope that Blazkowicz can help restore Wolfenstein to its place amongst the biggest names of the genre.