Wolfenstein: The New Order preview: The Reich stuff?
MachineGames is reviving the legendary FPS series with pulpy panache.
"F*** you, moon."
BJ Blazkowicz is not happy. Having been in a coma for 15 years, he's woken up in 1960 to discover Germany won the war. And if that wasn't bad enough, it turns out they put a Nazi on the moon. Hence BJ's pithy outburst directed at an otherwise innocent celestial body.
This throwaway moment comes as I'm exploring the London Nautica, an enormous and grotesque monument to Aryan supremacy erected right in the middle of our fair capital, now a grey and desolate maze of checkpoints and ghettos. Thankfully, BJ gets to work through his anger by shooting lots of Nazis in the face, and we get to help him.
Wolfenstein, it's fair to say, has had a rocky road back to relevance. Once the very fountainhead of the first-person shooter genre, it found itself left behind in this console generation, with only Activision's poorly received 2009 reboot to fly the franchise flag. Now the series finds itself in the hands of Swedish studio MachineGames, founded by former Starbreeze staffers with experience on titles like The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. Those were both games that managed to be more than just shooters, using their first-person perspective in interesting dramatic ways, and it seems that Wolfenstein will benefit from that same approach.
By way of example, creative director Jens Matthies and senior gameplay designer Andreas Ojefors walk us through a very different section of the game. In this scene, BJ is undercover on a train headed to Berlin. You're wielding a tray of coffee rather than a shotgun when you get waylaid by the sinister Frau Echer and her creepy boy-toy companion Bubi. She insists you join her, and proceeds to taunt and torment you with a psychological test designed to prove if you're a "true Aryan".
It's a ridiculously camp scene, with kinky Nazi stereotypes right out of 'Allo 'Allo - but it's also surprisingly tense, deliberately echoing the bar scene from Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds for the persistent fear that something horrible is about to happen. MachineGames uses the scene to show off its eye for detail - the coffee sloshes about in the cups as you move - and also its knack for first-person storytelling. Most notably, it's a scene that leaves you feeling utterly powerless and vulnerable, an all-too-rare feat in the bullish FPS genre.
You won't be powerless for too long, of course, which brings us back to BJ's incursion into the London Nautica. This is the level that we're given hands-on time with, and it proves incredibly enjoyable. It's hard to get too excited about another FPS these days, but it's equally hard not to be won over by the old-school action MachineGames has conjured up.
From a tense opening which finds you stalked through rubble by a giant robot Nazi guard dog, to full-blooded combat encounters inside the building, the game feels meaty and robust. Gunplay is tight and enemy AI strikes a fine balance between smart enough to be a challenge without becoming a tactical shooter, and dumb enough to serve as cathartic cannon fodder.
Most notably, the game is steering well clear of anything resembling realism. In keeping with Wolfenstein's frag-happy origins at the dawn of the FPS genre, this will be a game where dual-wielding two enormous shotguns will not only be possible but preferable, and where you can keep guzzling up health packs to double the base 100 limit.
In between firefights there are a few moments of mild environmental puzzling. Most involve your laser cutter, a device that can burn through chain-link fencing at the start of the level and, once replaced with the hulking Laserkraftwerk, through sheet metal. Rather brilliantly, this cutting tool is completely freeform, so if you want to carve a smiley face into a grate, you can. There are also lots of incidental details that are easy to miss. Collectible lore, of course, but also moments like BJ's moon madness, which only comes if you take the time to examine the exhibits rather than steaming past them, all guns blazing.
The London Nautica section - at least, the part we're allowed to play - ends with a boss battle against a giant Nazi mech. It's a fierce encounter, probably worthy of the finale for most shooters, but apparently comes only around a third of the way through the game. Does this mean we'll be building up to a climactic end-game fight against RoboHitler? Jens isn't saying, but the twinkle in his eye as he makes his stock denial should be enough to raise the hopes of old-school FPS fans. It's clear he idolises John Carmack, and fans will be pleased to learn that MachineGames sought the approval of Wolfenstein's creators before embarking on their id Tech 5 powered reinvention of the series.
There's a lot crammed into the demo, from solid stealth to frantic gunfights, and while none of it is especially original, it is all presented with a comic-book flair and old-school energy that is rare in today's shooter marketplace. Running in the opposite direction to the genre big boys by ditching multiplayer completely and focusing on the single-player story, Wolfenstein feels like it takes Valve-style first-person narrative and combines it with the free-wheeling mayhem, environmental detail and tongue-in-cheek excess of classic Duke Nukem. How well that recipe will work when spread over an entire campaign remains to be seen, but so far, Wolfenstein looks like it might be the jaded shooter fans' best alternative to another tour of duty in the expected military fatigues.