E3 2013: Wolfenstein: The New Order Preview

Developer: Machine Games / Publisher: Bethesda Softworks / Platform(s): Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 / Release Date: August 18, 2013 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated [No Descriptors]

There are a variety of notions attached to Wolfenstein. Whether it’s the original Castle Wolfenstein by Muse Games, or the industry-changing Wolfenstein 3D crafted by Doom studio id Software, it’s unarguably a hefty name in this industry, and one that doesn’t frequently see sequels due to its size and clear value.

That’s what makes Wolfenstein: The New Order such a compelling current/next-generation game to see up close. Not only does it carry with it the franchise label, it’s being designed by a studio cobbled up of ex-Starbreeze developers, a company known for its work on 2012’s Syndicate and The Chronicles of Riddick: Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena, and one not formerly attached to the historic series.

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Wolfenstein: The New Order packs with it a so far interesting plot heralding the return of protagonist BJ Blazkowicz and his bevy of unique, powerful weapons to couple with conventional high-octane gunplay. It’s a alternative universe 1960 where Nazis won the war and pretty much own the world outright.

And since ol’ BJ has just woken up to this new world from a 14-year coma, you can probably guess how he feels about it.

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The Setup – An Uncomfortable Train Ride

The first level shown was one close to the opening of the game, in which you (as BJ) are preparing a tray of two small coffees for yourself and your bunkmate, but are called over by a off-puttingly moody German woman clad in a Nazi military getup. She, along with her considerably younger significant other, also clad in Nazi duds, beckons you to place the coffee on the table for now and sit for a moment.

You sit in the booth. They begin to chat with you.

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The mood, set by the couple’s very convincing voice acting, a perilous violin score in the background and a consistently rattling train car and its dishware, made I and a number of other writers uncomfortably tense (in the best sense). The sound design was impressively immersive and captured the designer’s clear attention to detail in setting the discomfort level for the player.

Witnessing the entire game scene from the first person perspective, with only your folded hands on the table in front of you, the woman and her comrade eventually tell you you’re to pass a test, a test only those of “pure Aryan blood” can surpass. She pulls from her side a cocked pistol, lays it on the table with a thump and threatens that if you try to reach for it at any point, you’ll “be dead before you have the chance to regret it.”

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She stares coldly – then pulls out a handful of small, tattered photographs, and holds them in front of her face stiffly.

She wants you to choose from a pair of two photos placed on the table, based on each question. She asks what makes you happy, and holds up a photo of Hitler preaching to his army… and a small puppy. You tap the dog. She grimaces. She asks you what you find most beautiful, showing photos of a woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, and a brunette woman with a dark complexion. You chose the former. So far, your choices are met with a balance of cynicism and unclear smiles.

The final question, inquiring what makes you frightened, as the haunting violin and piano music accelerates to a peak, is paired with two photos: one of a large tarantula, and one of a pile of skulls (appearing to symbolize the genocide from old war concentration camps). When you move your finger toward the pile of skulls, the woman aggressively grips your hand, puts the pistol to your forehead, stares you down fiercely, and whispers “Oh, and I should mention… this is the last question.”

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This is the tone set by Wolfenstein: The New Order – one of tension, aggression, racism and suspicion. This particular scene flows directly into one where your attractive bunkmate Anya indicates a desire to “share” a bunk with you (wink wink) – but it wasn’t cheesy. It feels like her relationship with BJ might actually play a predominant role in the narrative, as you can hear her voice in your earpiece guiding you Cortana-style in later levels.

So the question of the game’s overall message is unclear, as the gameplay in The New Order seems a blend of Duke Nukem, Wolfenstein, and Serious Sam… or at least in tone. The game has some creative weaponry, interesting enemies and colorful sound design – yet is filled with tongue-way-in-cheek dialogue throughout.

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Gameplay – Wolfenstein’s Worlds and Duke Nukem’s Words

BJ Blazkowicz is a gun-toting, nazi-ass kicking, killing machine. Or at least that’s how developer Machine Games described him during our demo. He can carry a whole truckload of weapons in his back pocket, and he’s got a lot to say about them Nazis – much of which he squeezed out during our playthrough.

“Hmmm. Nazis splayed out and lying bleeding all over the concrete, pretty as a postcard.”

Followed shortly by: “I’m coming for you, you Nazi fucking Space man.”

It shouldn’t be said that funny, dumb dialogue like this doesn’t have a place in modern games – of course it does. You can take one look at Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon to see how well it can be done with tongue planted firmly in cheek – but you can also look at 2012’s Duke Nukem Forever, that housed an abundance of issues in addition to its awkward dialog, and examine how poorly it can be done.

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What we saw wasn’t up to snuff with Duke’s level of discomfort causing, but it did cause a few eyes to casually roll across the demo room.

The level I played showcased a mighty linear level structure with a pretty pre-determined path – get to the center of a building, get back some airships, and get out. Of course there were plenty of Nazi roadblocks along the way, not to mention a new lazer rifle that can singe metal grating, creating holes for you to spy, shoot and pass through. It can’t cut through everything, only certain textured surfaces – think of portal-able walls in Portal 2. It’s a really cool combat dynamic that I hope Machine Games expands on, letting players use it more freely.

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The game follows a lot of shooter tropes – get to a room, shoot a bunch of dudes, hit a button, run down a hallway… rinse and repeat. Thankfully Wolfenstein’s gunplay is surprisingly tight and responsive, and the number of guns at your disposal makes attacks on rooms a tad more methodical without slowing the pace.

But you can also duel wield certain weapons like pistols and shotguns, as well as use alternate fire modes for most weapons to increase the rate at which you mow down Nazi scum on the battlefield. The game is just bloodsoaked nazi-killing (because you know you want it), and it plays pretty darn well. Whether or not the story is something worthwhile remains unclear – but what we saw was done pretty freaking well.

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Bottom Line – Keep An Eye on This One

Wolfenstein: The New Order is the first Wolfenstein iteration since the release of 2009’s Wolfenstein, released by Raven Software, Endrant Studios and id Software. Its good-to-lukewarm reception contrasted with below-expectation sales show that a good Wolfenstein game can be made, but the gaming audience at large might not want it, not right now. Or at least, not a large enough audience does.

Whether or not The New Order packs a large enough whollop to rope Wolfenstein fans (and then some) back into the franchise is a question that remains unanswered, but we’re sure to find out when the game launches next year for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.

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