Ahhhh Wolfenstein; there's just so much nostalgia associated with the videogame series (not so much with the pile of rocks in Bavaria that shares its name - at least, not for me), don't you think? Sure, I didn't play the first two games to feature the "Wolfenstein" name (Castle Wolfenstein - 1981, and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein - 1984), but once id Software started using the word (with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992) I was onboard, and I've played every game in the series since.
If you've never heard of the franchise, there's no shame in that; while Wolfenstein 3D is largely heralded as popularising the first person shooter genre, and therefore a very important game, 1992 was a long time ago; many of today's gamers weren't even alive when it released.
Recent(ish) entries include the excellent multiplayer-centric Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (2003) and my favorite, Wolfenstein RPG - which, because of stupid tax-related hurdles, isn't available in New Zealand (it released elsewhere on iOS in 2008.)
The most recent release - simply titled Wolfenstein - came out for PC and consoles in 2009, and was met with a lukewarm critical reception and sales that were so weak Activision (the game's publisher) laid off staff of that game's developer, Raven Software (another name that will be familiar to long-time fans of gaming on PC.)
So, that's a little background. It's important because the context of Wolfenstein (and the games that have gone before it) have clearly factored into the development of the new game that releases in New Zealand in May. While it stands alone (no prior knowledge of the series is necessary, and there's no narrative crossover with earlier games), the influence of the series' history is as plain as day for any with the experience to recognise it.
I recently got to play a large section (a good couple of hours or so) from the very beginning of the game, during which key elements of the plot were revealed. Given that it's only playable in singleplayer (there's no form of multiplayer whatsoever), the narrative is a very important part of the experience, so I won't spoil it too much here, outside of a very basic high-level outline - what you'd see on the game's box, perhaps, or on online store listings.
Basically, World War II happens, except things didn't play out exactly as they did in the real world. The Nazis have some formidable new weaponry for some reason and - after a turning point battle, which the allies lose - the war is lost. While you do play a part in World War II, your character effectively wakes from a coma-like event in 1960, to find that the Nazis not only won the war, they also rule the world.
What happens next, well, I won't explain it, but I'm sure you'll get most of the way there on your own. What ultimately happens at the end of the story? We can both only guess about that, as it wasn't part of the demo, and Bethesda - naturally - aren't saying anything.
The New Order is being developed by MachineGames - a new team set up by a bunch of folks from Starbreeze Studios, amongst others. Starbreeze, if you don't recognise the name, was the team behind Chronicles of Riddick - something that immediately set my expectations for the title to quite a high level (Riddick was awesome) and you'll be pleased to learn those expectations were largely met.
Gameplay in Wolfenstein is a surprisingly complex and varied beast, combining the expected hardcore run-and-gun first-person shootfest with elements of stealth and, while the game is linear in structure, plenty of within-level exploration.
There's also an RPG-like metagame through which extra perks are unlocked; finding one necessitates performing certain feats in the game itself (like killing dudes with grenades, stealth kills, etc), at which point you'll get a clue about what the next one is. Sure, the system will be detailed and "gamed" within moments of release, but if you choose not to look that stuff up on the interwebs, you'll enjoy figuring out each stage of the skill tree.
Exploration is rewarded in numerous ways, too, encouraging players to explore the quite large levels. You might, for example, find some cool collectable, but more often you'll scope out a stash of ammunition - knowing the locations of stashes is extremely important in the game's various arena and boss levels, which intersperse the more traditional corridor shooter sections.
If it all sounds pretty serious, don't worry - there's plenty of the series-signature humour and over-the-top elements. Take for example the fact you seem to be able to dual-wield just about every gun in the game. While this has the expected effect on the assault rifle (double the firepower, no iron-sights aiming), it actually spices up other guns in pretty interesting ways. Take the pistols, for example; the right one is silenced, while the left one is not - giving you some strategic options while charging into a horde of enemies.
Speaking of enemies, while I didn't hear them fire off any of the "mein leben!" style signature lines from the first game, they do like to chatter, which lends the whole affair some extra texture. They also duck and dive about the place, and will happily flank you, too, ensuring that each encounter feels dynamic and requires some quick thinking if you're to get out unscathed.
Health is an important consideration in Wolfenstein, with its related systems having more in common with older games than today's Call of Duty-like "hide and wait, and your health comes back" easy-modes. Here, your health is broken into segments (25%, from memory); if you lose less than a segment (up to 24%), that health comes back if you get out of combat, but once you lose a segment entirely it's gone - you'll need to find a health pack to get it back.
You can use health packs even when you're at max health, too, letting you increase your current health to beyond its maximum (called "overdrive") but this extra health slowly disappears until you're back to full. There are even health upgrades (that increase your maximum health amount) and armour bonuses to find, for extra retro feels amongst those familiar with older games. If you're not familiar with this stuff, don't worry - it makes perfect sense and feels great; the consideration of permanent impact on your health forces you to make better choices during gunplay, and means the experience is way more fun as a result.
Combat is also visceral as all hell; shoot people in the face enough and their head explodes, a fountain of gore marking where it once was. The ragdoll systems employed also ensure enemies are hammered backwards by the repeated impacts of your virtual bullets, giving the easily-dispatched fodder enemies much more entertainment value than you might expect. They can kill you pretty quickly themselves, of course, but in general being aggressive reaps dividends and is supremely satisfying.
The game was nicely broken up into discrete sections, each of which had a different twist that kept things interesting. One minute you're on the inside of a bomber (looking out the window to see a huge airborne fight between hundreds of other planes is awesome), another you're walking up the side of a building. Later you're fighting twin robot bosses with tesla grenades, only to hide in plain sight by playing a game of "pretend to be a nazi" while on a train to Berlin.
It's clearly way too early to make any kind of determination about the quality of the experience as a whole (not least of which because I haven't actually played the whole game), but it's clear that the full game is something I want to experience. No, it's not going to change the world, and of course it won't be ideally suited to every audience. But if you like the sound of a game that returns to its venerable roots without losing sight of what modern audiences expect (both in terms of gameplay and presentation), Wolfenstein: The New Order could be just the breath of fresh air the genre's been looking for.
Look out for it on 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, and PC on May 22nd (pre-ordering nets you access to the Doom beta, too.)