After more than 20 years, B.J. Blaskowicz is still blowing away Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.In 1992, Wolfenstein 3D changed the face of gaming. Rarely has a brand new genre materialised in such a complete form – the granddaddy of first-person shooters featured a surprising number of elements that would remain with us, such as health and ammo meters, multiple weapons the player could switch between quickly, and of course the general pacing and gameplay feel that two decades of iteration and advancement have barely changed.
In the years since, the Wolfenstein franchise has never achieved the same kind of high as it did back in the days of MS-DOS and 386 processors. 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein was regarded as competent but unremarkable by most reviewers, except for its extremely popular multiplayer, and 2009’s Wolfenstein was met with mediocre reviews and tepid sales.
Now there’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, due for release in May, which looks set to be an interesting change of pace, at the very least. The multiplayer aspect is gone, for one thing, and the single-player is strongly story-driven and features a cast of vividly-portrayed characters, created via full performance capture technology. It’s being made by Machinegames, a new Swedish studio formed by some of the key personnel who worked on Chronicles of Riddick at Starbreeze Studio.
The core story idea is an interesting one: a Polish-American soldier is injured in an assault on a Nazi base during World War II, and wakes up 14 years later in a world conquered by the Third Reich. The resistance forces are scattered and demoralised, so he takes it upon himself to rescue the movement’s leaders from prison and engage the Nazi conquerors in a guerrilla war. It’s a familiar plot for readers of science fiction, such as Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, but it’s a genre largely untouched by video games.
My experience with early demos of the game had not been encouraging, with the shooter gameplay feeling just too generic to be interesting. However, last week I got hands-on with the latest preview version, and I was very impressed. This is a game that has come a long way in the past six months, and is well on the way to being an exceptionally good shooter.
After my session, I chatted with Pete Hines, who is handling PR and marketing for the game. We broke the ice by discussing the world’s most easy-to-hate villains. “Nazis are the easiest and require the least explanation of all villains in all games ever. Kill Nazis? Got it. I don’t need you to explain, like, why? Oh, Nazis, right, got it,” he said with a laugh.
“Machinegames didn’t just rest on that, though,” he went on. “Sure, they’re Nazis, but the way they’re portrayed through Deathshead, Frau Engel, and some of the Nazi leaders, you get some real insight into the evil, twisted nature of these folks. So you say, sure, I want to kill all the Nazis, but that guy? I want him to die badly. It gives you a bit of an intimate connection in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish.”
One of my favourite things about the setting is the multicultural nature of the allies battling the Nazi scourge. In the game’s introductory levels, set in 1946, the game’s hero B.J. Blaskowicz is just one soldier in a multinational assault force, a Polish-American among other American, English, and Scottish soldiers. After waking from his coma in 1960, he joins forces with two extremely bad-ass Polish grandparents.
“One of the cool things that Machinegames did that I think lends the game that international flair is that people speak in their native tongues,” Hines said. “The Polish characters speak Polish, for example, and the Germans in German. We just subtitle it all.” It is amusing listening to Blaskowicz struggling through a conversation using a handful of half-forgotten Polish, for example.
Hines then gave me some background into Machinegames, the young studio that has landed a very high profile property for their debut game. “It started as a group of guys who had worked together at Shift Games and Starbreeze, and who wanted to start a new studio. They were interested in Wolfenstein, and the original was a game they really loved, and made a lot of them want to get into making games in the first place.”
“They had a particular notion about the kind of games they liked to make, and they wanted to make a game that was a shooter but also a bit of an action adventure game that did a lot more with character and storytelling and narrative.”
The result is a pleasing mix of old-school shooter and modern refinement. At its heart, it’s you and a pile of guns versus a horde of bad guys, but the energy and rhythm of it is something newer. There’s an element of strategy to the gunplay, and a pleasing variety of approaches to every situation. Levels are generally quite large and include several alternate paths to victory.
“They were also interested in taking the shooter aspect and layering in these sort of RPG elements, and letting the player find their way through the game in the way they want,” Hones continued. “Like, how do you get through this area? Do you want to use stealth, or do you want to go in guns blazing, more than just run down this corridor then run down that corridor.”
One of the things that makes this variety of gameplay work well is New Order’s perk system, a kind of RPG-lite skill tree that rewards the player for completing various tasks with the game’s many weapons, thereby unlocking new abilities. Perks serve a double purpose, both rewarding the player for learning a particular weapon, and also encouraging a variety of gameplay styles.
“I think it was in part to help highlight the options you have while playing the game,” Hines told me. “It wasn’t just, here’s a gun, go shoot bad guys. Instead you might take the stealthy approach, or we might highlight to the player different ways to do things, and then to reward them for those things. So by doing enough stealth kills, you open up more ways to do stealth kills, not just using my knife as a close-up melee thing, but also to use it as a ranged thing and use a knife to take out a guy at a distance, or I could wield two knives.”
“It allows the player to discover all of the things the game allows you to do. It gives you a little mini side-mission, almost, like when you’re in the middle of playing the game, you’re thinking, do I have an opportunity to kill someone while doing a slide, or to take out multiple guys with a grenade? It’s optional too; it’s not like you can’t finish the game without them, but they provide a bit more depth and fun in these challenge opportunities.”
For myself, the perks were always encouraging me to try new things rather than sticking with a single thing that worked. New weapon abilities would be unlocked after scoring a certain number of headshots, for example, so I would sometimes try to be precise and score headshots instead of just spraying a room with bullets. In the same way, I would try more stealth in some sections to unlock new stealth abilities.
Gameplay aside, New Order is likely to generate some controversy for its extreme violence. There’s a certain Tarantino-esque vibe to the action, which extends to the on-screen bloodshed. In Australia, the game has secured an R18+ rating, and Hines is unapologetic.
“We do mature games,” he said simply. “That is pretty much what we do, make games for grown-ups, so we have a pretty good idea of what it means to get these games rated and to know where the line is. I mean, we want the devs to be able to make the game they want to make, but of course we also want to be able to sell it, and have people be able to buy it in a range of countries.”
You will be able to judge Wolfenstein: The New Order when it is released on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Windows PC on 22 May.
– James “DexX” Dominguez
Screen Play is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez