Huh, the spellcheck on here knows the word 'Wolfenstein'. Good job, dictionary attendants. Anyway, the reason I've had cause to use that peculiar faux-Teutonic title today is that I played an early press build of the latest game in the series, Wolfenstein: The New Order, at Gamescom.
It was a strange experience, not least because it seemed so desperate to remind me that Nazis are evil. Have we forgotten that already?
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a Bethesda-funded reboot of the Man vs Nazis idea first rolled out by Id at the very start of the first-person genre, and it's being made by Machine Games in Sweden. Fine pedigree there, then, with folks from the Riddick and Darkness games as part of the team responsible for the big push on a game that founded shooters as a concept.
The hands-on at Gamescom was from a level at the start of the game, showing BJ's journey from his 1940s adventures to the game's 1960s-with-Third Reich alternate world core. As such I got to see World War II bombers crashing into the side of a castle, before shooting super-Nazis in the not-future. A good range of things to see and shoot, then. I also got to see the game's cover-mechanic, which is really rather neat: you simply hold a button next to things you want to look over/around/under, and move accordingly. Intelligent stuff, and a fine extra to the usual gamut of first-person control things.
It goes without saying that it looked great, too. Pretty, detailed, explodey. All as you'd expect.
Seeing and shooting was, however, hampered by the decision to demo the PC version of the game with gamepads only. Some mixture of my dislike of gamepad for first-person, the requirement for pinpoint accuracy, and the awfulness of the pad itself led to what should have been a straightforward experience of scripted whack-a-mole being an excruciating exercise in thumbstick twiddling. Oh how I sighed. Oh how I rolled my eyes when I died and watched the difficulty vanish on my second attempt.
I wonder whether the devs stood behind me were aware of my snorts of irritation and annoyance, or whether they simply assumed I was a cack-handed fool. But the truth is I used gamepads every day, and have no issue controlling games with them. This causes me to suspect that the PC version of Wolfenstein perhaps isn't totally cut out to be shown at its best using a pad, which makes the decision to force the press to use one - this was Germany for goodness sakes, there was no mouse and keyboard shortage here - all the more mystifying.
We should put that aside, shouldn't we?
The New Order has plenty going for it in the unrealistic dude-shooting department. You can pick up mounted weapons and strut about like The Heavy from TF2, you can regain health simply by eating, and overdoing it just means you have even more (temporary) health, meaning you can take on a shrew-like eating habit, without fear of fat ankles. There are secrets, there are mutant Nazi Franken-bots, there's dual-wielding, there's getting knocked across the room by grenades, there are stealth sequences where enemies conveniently never have their back to a wall… all that good stuff.
The problems with it… well, they seem like problems that a lot of games share. It basically looks - from this very brief slice of the game - like a lack of imagination. Now, they are probably holding on to all the imaginative stuff to show off during the mech-thumping 1960s alternate history part of the game that I didn't get to see much of - and I suppose, if I am honest I DO want to see that stuff, despite my complaints in this article - but what I did see of the game wasn't doing much to hold my poorly-serviced attention. I mean, sure, I pretty much have a conveyor-belt of videogame distractions aimed directly at the incinerator hatch of my mind, but I don't usually get the itch to walk away from a game this soon.
One of the things that contributed to that itch was how bluntly nasty the game seems to want to be. I don't mind things being a bit dark, and there are games which benefit from their grisly moments - the demo I saw of The Witcher 3 the same week reminded me of that - but Wolfenstein just seemed to miss the tricky mark that makes such horrors effective on the player. Neither slapstick pastiche, nor artfully bloody, nor any satisfying grade of guts between. At the dinner party of videogames with nasty subplots, it felt like the teenager who just blurted out something truly disgusting, to the distaste of everyone else, who had tastefully framed their own gore stories with well-worn conceits.
The "big choice" the player has to make in this chapter of The New Order is which of his friends gets his eyes cut out by a vile Nazi doctor-general, and the opening scene of the 1960s was a vignette in which we helplessly watch mentally ill people and their carers being shot in the head by Nazis, before finally being able to act to save BJ. Blood and ugliness seldom turns me off, but this was just clumsy gruesomeness. So blunt. Tactless gore shock value stuff.
I get it: Nazis are bad. I was just looking for some run and gun.
Anyway, as with something else I saw that week, Wolfenstein looked like it had benefited from the rich seam of cash that Bethesda was able to offer its developers. The polish oozed from it. It does not look like it benefited much from interesting design decisions, however. Perhaps that's something to do with the source material. Perhaps it was simply the quality and quantity of the demo shown at Gamescom. Perhaps there's much more to come. You should certainly take my opinions with a pinch of anti-pepper.
Either way, I'm beginning to think I'd prefer a game of the pop band.
Wolfenstein: The New Order lands on the fortified beaches of our imagination in 2014.