Although it was to be bettered (perhaps even battered) a few months later by Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, our memories of Return to Castle Wolfenstein are probably fonder. Thinking about it, it might be down to clarity of recollection. Set-piece Nazi clashes bled through an MOH stencil into a dozen successors, but RTCW was the Serious Sam of the Second World War: a brutal, relentless tour of late-'90s FPS clichs, preferring rooms full of baddies to more fashionable scripting. We miss that. So, inevitably when we sit down with the newly-minted Wolfenstein from Raven Software, it looks completely different.
It's self-conscious about its contemporaries, anyway, promising cover-minded enemies, realistic physics, branching levels, upgradeable weapons, optional objectives and gameplay-influencing alliances with local resistance fighters. There's even slow-motion gunplay thanks to special "Veil" abilities that allow you to harness the Nazis' occult research. When we point out to Kevin Cloud, id Software's lead artist and our Wolfenstein guide at QuakeCon, that it sounds like a Zeitgeisty franchise reboot, he half-agrees.
But then we get to see the QuakeCon trailer again, and we change our minds. Jetpacks! Ghostbusters! Mad scientists! This is much more like it. "Yes, you're a soldier and you're fighting other soldiers, but you're also facing the unexpected," Cloud points out. "You've got the occult, you have this Nazi science and over-the-top villains, and of course for you these over-the-top kickass weapons." Alright, so they've still gone with slow-motion, but then we've seen surprisingly little of that in the FPS genre - even since F.E.A.R. - and slow-mo, id-style gibbing and modern physics code make for a pleasantly disgusting recipe.
On the surface of it, the fiction behind the new adventures returning protagonist BJ Blaskowicz is a bit contrived (the Nazis have tapped into something called the Black Sun, opening a rift between our world and another, which they can exploit to military advantage), but having rooted itself in Wolf's traditionally bonkers setting, Raven's designers can go anywhere they want with it. "Safe to say, for this universe, there is an unlimited set of options," Cloud confirms. "There's this whole occult and sci-fi universe we can pull from, so there's a lot of neat things the player is going to be able to get his hands on."
"That's one of the cool things again about the Wolfenstein universe: we go back and we pull some of these things from real history and spin this what-if story for some of it, and some of it just kind of blows out," he adds. "So like the Kreisau Circle originally is more of a group of aristocrats working behind the scenes in hopes to overthrow Hitler. Here, they're gun-toting resistance forces fighting on the streets. But it's kind of nice to take those elements, have a framework of reality, and build it out."
We won't be told much about the other Veil abilities, though, because this is our first time with the game and Raven wants to hold things back until we're further up the PR stepladder. Entering the Veil though (be sure to check out the graphical transition in the shots and trailer), we do see other options: taking out floating enemies that pop Veily energy near covered Nazis to blow them to bits, for instance. And while we often mock "improved AI" when it makes the features list, we just as often then praise it for drafting depth into basic FPS combat, and we're told to expect that here as well.
Having landed behind enemy lines in occupied territory, BJ is also able to pick his movements a bit more than he could in the old Castle interiors, and the resistance movement will offer him various opportunities to mix up story-specific missions with optional elements. "He joins up with resistance forces when he's moving in and around the city, he has choice on where to go, upgrade weapons - there's a lot of that in the game," says Cloud. "Raven's spent a lot of time building up a lot of elements to deliver the story to the player. So you have the resistance forces, characters BJ deals with off and on throughout the game and different resistance groups." Storytelling seems to be done through Half-Life-style interactive cut-scenes. And for all the emphasis on "choice", BJ won't be "wandering aimlessly, knocking over trash-cans or anything".
Meanwhile, Cloud and Raven won't be talking about multiplayer yet, despite RTCW enjoying most of its subsequent appeal thanks to a Nerve Software-developed online component. British developer Endrant will complement Raven and Pi Studios' work on the one-man campaign by focusing on the multiplayer element, and while Cloud rules out a Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory retread (it's a brand apart these days), he's confident the new Wolfenstein will find a happy middle. "People that have played Wolfenstein multiplayer back with RTCW, and they loved that game, I think they're going to love what we're going to deliver here," he tells us. "So, classes and that type of stuff. The cool thing is we've got these new powers with the Veil, and we're going to make the multiplayer universe consistent with those elements of the single-player universe."
"The thing is, again, at the cornerstone of what Wolfenstein is is intense combat," Cloud adds when we get back onto single-player and ask whether there's a more varied rhythm than the up-and-down RTCW. "And so all these things - story and interactions with the resistance forces and puzzle elements - are things you deal with to balance between the action. We'll have some puzzle elements," he confirms.
Given that it's Wolf, and the solid but humble Raven, we wouldn't be too surprised if these are still of the "find the switch, open the door" variety, but we wouldn't mind that either. In a WW2 sub-genre that increasingly angles for profundity, this is, after all, a game sold on a dodgy German voice growling, "Velcome to the New Reich."
Wolfenstein is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. "When it's done."