Wolfenstein: The New Order Preview
Over twenty years ago, id Software kickstarted the first person shooter genre with a Nazi-killing game called Wolfenstein 3D. It wasn't the first game that we now categorize as part of the genre, but for many - myself included - it was the first, and that's close enough for me. The Wolfenstein name came and went both before and after id Software's groundbreaking 1992 creation, as it's also been rebooted by developers more than a couple of times, but now publisher Bethesda is giving it a shot by employing Machine Games to give it a new shot. Hence we have Wolfenstein: The New Order, a reboot that turns the Nazi-killing original on its head by creating an alternate world where the Nazis won World War II and for the next couple of decades, remnant forces from around the world are trying to fight a guerrilla war against them. This storyline embraces the Third Reich's real-world focus on crazy technology and then expands it into the fictional narrative as if they had a couple of decades to continue building stuff. Chances of a Mecha-Hitler at the end of the game like the final boss of id's original? I'd say they're pretty high.
In the QuakeCon demo, we start as American beefcake solder BJ Blaskowicz who is setting up a mission to assault the fortress of General Deathshead with a ragtag crew of British and American soldiers. After a vertical assault, BJ finds himself alone - there are allies you fight alongside in some areas, but mostly it's not a buddy-soldier shooter - and the player is given the option to do a few searches for secret areas, do some stealth kills, and turn a fortress infiltration into a full-out assault with lots of bullets spraying everywhere. Unfortunately, the stealth sections feel a little weak, as it's missing some key elements that a good first-person stealth game has, and after all, this is Wolfenstein. That means this game's at its best when you're killing Nazis with dual-wielding STG44's (or, at least, something that seems eerily similar to that model of assault rifle), not slinking around with a knife. The player meets back up with the remainder of the squad and then falls into a secret basement where Deathshead has been doing some human experimentation.
After some tense moments followed by a mini-boss fight with a mechanized soldier that can take a ton of punishment, the player is captured and forced to make a rather grisly decision as to which of BJ's buddies that will never see the light of day again. Deathshead then does the Bond-Villain-thing where he walks out of the room, inadvertently allowing the protagonist to escape, and BJ does - only to take shrapnel in his brain that leaves him waking up in an asylum in Poland, being taken care of by a family running the place.
The Nazis have their stink all over this hospital too, though, and after a montage showing a few months' recovery for BJ, he's forced to wake up and fight for his life as the Nazis shut down the place, start killing off the patients, and leave only the head doctor's daughter alive. BJ then must fight his way out of the asylum tread over the bodies of more than a dozen additional Nazis, and escape. That's where the demo ended, and while I didn't get to attend E3 this year, the word from those that tried both this demo and E3's is that the Quakecon demo was much better-suited for showing off than the section of the game shown at E3.
So, how does The New Order play? Other than the rather unpleasant choice that Machine Games made to bring a Wolfenstein game to QuakeCon and only allow people to play on gamepads - seriously, keyboards and mice weren't supported for play at all in this build - it went pretty well. Shooting was crisp, id Tech 5 ran silky-smooth at 60fps (despite exhibiting that signature id Tech 5 weirdness with blurry textures just out of sight that quickly increase in quality when you turn towards them, like the game's always playing a strange game of texture quality peek-a-boo with you) , and the game being built is plenty competent and fun, even if it follows today's rather standard formula for modernizing classic games. Once you've gotten shot, you regenerate health up to the nearest 20% and will need pickups to get past that, but you have plenty of capacity for weapons without the need to drop one weapon in order to pick up another. The level design and combat are generally tuned to be compatible with current-gen consoles, so don't expect any kind of epic-huge level design or fights with dozens of enemies at once - not that even id's Wolfenstein did that, either, nor did its first reboot, or the multiplayer follow-ups after that. My point is that even though Wolfenstein: The New Order is a 2014 game, it's not really pushing boundaries too hard.
That's not a terrible thing in itself, though, and I think that it might take until late 2014 at the earliest for multiplatform games to make true use of the next-gen console power to deliver game design innovations that could only work on all platforms. (After all, it's easy to up the screen resolution, texture quality, or additional special effects in your PC port, but developers have not been changing core design tenets for a game just for the PC version, so even if you're a dedicated PC gamer only, multiplatform releases you play will still benefit from the existence of new console hardware.) As it is, The New Order played well, delivered solid cutscenes and voice acting, and put together some really interesting concepts and designs - especially with the frightening sci-fi technology the Nazis have been building. We all know that just because Bethesda publishes a game it doesn't mean it's good - look no further than 2009's Rogue Warrior for a prime example - but on the quality scale, this seems to be much closer to Dishonored than some of the other titles from lesser-known studios Bethesda has worked with.
Wolfenstein: The New Order will not serve as any kind of revolution in the FPS genre, but it should be a fun, hard-hitting romp that serves the tone and content of the original game well. If you've been reading video game previews for a while, then that statement might sound like I'm trying to carefully say nothing bad in a preview about a game I don't really like, but that's not the case at all: it's really fun and I'm definitely going to be playing this game when it's released early in 2014, but it's just not the most innovative thing on the horizon. And as long as the action is satisfying and solid, as nearly every game even tangentially related to id Software games have proven to be, then that's perfectly fine with me.