Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolfenstein? Everybody.
Wolfenstein was by far the most shocking games of Gamescom 2013 for me. Not only because we saw men being crushed to death, burnt alive and having non-consensual surgery but because it’s a really good game. Over the last few decades every now and then a new Wolfenstein pops up and they’ve all been surprisingly good. It’s hard to pinpoint what sets expectations so low, but Bethesda are really delivering with The New Order. We got to play an hour long section starting about 45 minutes into Wolfenstein: The New Order, here’s what we thought.
A story-based FPS, Wolfenstein takes more cues from games like Singluarity and Bioshock than it does the original games or Doom. Yes there are ridiculous weapons – at one point early on we picked up a second assault rifle and a prompt appeared asking me to tap ‘RB’ (we were playing on a 360 pad) to dual wield. Taking it in his stride, Blazkowicz lifts up the second rifle and starts blasting away, never even having any difficult reloading. Similarly we quickly came across not one but many miniguns which we could regularly use to mow down waves of Nazis. So yes there are Nazis and there are lots of guns with which to dispatch them, but Wolfenstein has got that right and then moved on to something much more difficult, making you care.
At the start of our demo we were attacking a castle in WWII from a beachhead with our squad. One by one each member was introduced to us, with the gruff sergeant, the hapless and quivering rookie and the grizzled veterans. Despite being full of bravado, they were all instantly likable and throughout the first mission you hear them chatting away even when they’re quite a distance from you, doing their own thing down hallways. As you break into the castle you lose a few men and it already hurts a bit, you care for them, you’re rooting for them and it makes you hate the nazis even more for it. This is quite an achievement after what was perhaps five minutes of gameplay, but the effect of good writing cannot be overestimated, particularly within the usually soulless genre of FPS. You can stealth your way through much of it if you wish and this worked well enough, there was even a mini-boss fight around twenty minutes into the demo.
Ploughing through the castle was satisfying with each gun giving a kick and sending enemies reeling once they make contact. The enemy AI was more adept than most, moving into sensible cover and attempting to flank where possible but since this was such an early part of the game there was no real danger from them. Bethesda encouraged us to explore and sure enough there were secrets all over the place, the castle wasn’t just a corridor in which you were meant to shoot nazis, it was a full environment with tonnes of little details to catch your eye and immerse you. Eventually the rustic style of building gave ways to laboratories and stainless steel rooms, that’s where the gore began.
Wolfenstein is an extremely violent and gory game, the version we were allowed to play behind closed doors was uncensored and it’s easy to see why they couldn’t put it out on the show floor. Aside from the Nazis being a taboo subject in Germany, the violence and blood was extreme. There were human cadavers being suspended by hooks in their skin, whirling blades ready to slice you to ribbons and a man getting his head crushed under a boot. It wasn’t pleasant but then it wasn’t meant to be pleasant, it was meant to be horrific and it worked. Deathhead, the antagonist in the game, came across as a truly twisted individual as he enjoyed tormenting you and your squad. There were choices in the game but rather than moral choices, it was a matter of giving you seconds where you can easily accidentally choose something you didn’t mean to, but giving you enough agency that you felt personally responsible.
I don’t want to spoil the second half of what we saw, it was a fantastic plot element that would be a shame to ruin (be careful on previews on other sites, many have gone into a lot of detail about it) but suffice to say from the screenshots most of the game takes place a long while after WWII and that transition is fascinating. Again there’s more immersive dialogue and puppetry on the part of Bethesda to give your mission a motivation. You want to achieve Blazkowicz’s goals, rather than just following them because that’s what the objective tells you to do.
Graphically it’s not in the same league as some of the heavy hitters like Crysis 3 or Metro but it’s a good looking game and I feel keeping the framerate at 60fps will be much more important than fitting in as many shaders as possible. The aesthetic keeps true to Wolfenstein and looks fantastic, showing what a strong art style can do even if the engine isn’t all that technically accomplished.
Overall the game was a huge amount of fun and we can’t wait to pick it up when it’s ready for release. We never expected to be drawn into the plot of Wolfentstein, but here we are and it’s going to be agonising having to wait for so long to find out what happens next.