Wolfenstein: The New Order Preview - PAX East 2014
We go hands-on with the upcoming shooter reboot
The gritty reboot is not a new concept for long running franchises, as characters and worlds of all types are getting revamped in the name of a fresh, more adult take on their series. The latest video game to get this treatment is Wolfenstein. BJ Blazkowicz is back, his world is darker, nastier than any of the franchise’s previous material. The core of the game doesn’t do much to reinvent the shooter genre, but its narrative attempts to add weight not previously found in a series which is most famous for its mechanized-Hitler boss. The marriage of standard shooting mechanics and grounded storytelling has been attempted in other first-person shooters with mixed results. An extensive hands-on look with the game suggested Wolfenstein might be able to pull it off, delivering something less like Killzone and more like BioShock.
The opening cinematic is a perfect demonstration of The New Order’s strong narrative hand. Blazkowicz talks about home, lounging in a lawn chair while a grill is tended in the foreground of the shot, the whole scene coated with a sunset filter. It might be slightly indulgent, but it does an appropriate job of giving the player something to connect with, a brief glimpse of what Blazkowicz calls home before things go wrong.
Things go wrong quickly. After the cinematic ends, we join Blazkowicz moments before an invasion of a Nazi castle. The aircraft carrying you has engine trouble and the pilot sends you into the back to fix it. You weave through the plane’s internal machinery to find the source of trouble, disabling the fuselage and putting out a fire with the tap of a button. The trouble is not over, next you are told to cut loose cargo in the hold, again accomplished by the touch of a button. Wolfenstein’s denial of combat is nice at first, but fleeting. After fulfilling a few button prompts which send you jumping into another plane that crashes into the ocean, you begin the expected first-person shooter action gameplay.
The New Order has some nice movement options; you can slide, vault over cover, it is all standard, but executed with tight mechanics. Quickly you jump into the trenches and begin ducking between corridors, dropping enemies. There is little creativity in the weapon selection, which is tailored to the 1949 time period the game is set in. Pulling up your weapon wheel with the right bumper, you are greeted with such generic weapon listings as: semi-automatic, automatic, and pistol. The game sends enemies at you fast and furious, making you strafe, retreat, and advance in an attempt to outsmart them. It is ferociously paced, and while it fails to bring anything creative to the table, the mechanics harken back to Wolfenstein's roots in a strong way. The partially-regenerating health, the dual-wield machine guns, it all has a distinctly Wolfenstein feel.
Upon hitting the beach after the plane crash, I am beset by giant robotic dog-like creatures which cannot be killed. They are only the first of multiple examples of Wolfenstein’s mechanized alternate-reality. I jump, duck, and run away from the attacking creature, then bring it down with a turret from my fallen airplane. Before long Blazkowicz has advanced up the beach, deep behind enemy lines, blowing up machine gun nests and taking out officers. The game moves at the lightning speed shooters have become known for, vicious cycle of completing and receiving objectives.
After infiltrating deep into the Nazi facilities, I hit a section where Wolfenstein provides some options in its combat. I can continue to blast my way through the facility, but it will attract more troops who will continue to pour in until I silence the commanding officer. I can also attempt to stealth my way through, getting to the officer before he can call for reinforcements. I am not a stealth-inclined player, but the game’s stealth seems far from forgiving. These scenarios feel like they are more about seeing how long you can avoid detection, than actual success. That said, the game isn’t all that difficult. Dying doesn’t regenerate health, but enough weapons, armor, and health are scattered throughout each section to keep you well-supplied.
After disabling outer defenses, Blazkowicz rendezvous with his team for a direct assault on the castle. The objective is Wilhelm "Deathshead" Strasse, one of the high-ups in the Nazi command. A history between the officer and Blazkowicz is hinted at, clearly something personal exists between the two. Wolfenstein does a good job of refusing to provide too much exposition too quickly, the mark of a good story.
The team continues to battle their way through the Nazi forces and more combat options are presented. You can use turrets scattered throughout the maps and return them to their perch in order to recharge, you can also acquire multiple skills and weapon upgrades to aid in fighting larger enemies. The enemies themselves also have some variety. There are the standard soldiers in mechanized armor, drones which fly around and blast you with lasers, and cyborg dogs - smaller than their mechanized counterparts - who rush you and trigger a quicktime sequence which steals a serious chunk of your health.
The combat sequences are strong, but as previously stated, it doesn’t feel like there is much Machine Games explores which has not been already visited by the shooter genre. It is in the story moments of Wolfenstein when the game shows a little more flair and bravery. Not just the cutscenes either, occasionally the game will provide an in-game sequence which delivers well-structured tension. After being captured by Deathshead, Blazkowicz and his team are stripped naked and presented before the Nazi officer. After delivering a well-written monologue, Deathshead asks you which one of your men you want him to dissect in front of you. Both soldiers have been given decent backgrounds and personalities, a bit of it ham-fisted, but told with enough humanity that the choice becomes difficult. Because choice isn’t a major mechanic in the game, these scenes don’t make Wolfenstein feel like a brave new entry in the first-person shooter genre, but it executes on an established formula with some skill.
If you are looking for the first-person experience that will redefine the genre, Wolfenstein may not be the answer. But perhaps Machine Games isn’t seeking to rewrite the genre, only to refine mechanics that other shooters implemented long ago. It is hard to blame The New Order for following a well-worn path, it is a reboot after all. Where the game feels rote in its mechanics and design it attempts to compensate with a more human and grounded story. It doesn’t always work; it's hard to take a game completely seriously when you are playing catch with a giant mech-dog using a grenade, but in my two hours with the title it hit more often than it missed. This title might not come to define the first-person shooter of the future, but it does a good job of defining the first-person shooter of today. Look for Wolfenstein: The New Order on PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 in May.