First-person shooters ain’t what they used to be.
Sure, the genre has come a long way since the invention of vertical aiming, but not everyone is completely happy with the direction of its evolution. MachineGames senior gameplay designer Andreas Öjerfors is one such man. While he may not long for the days before mouse aiming became the norm, Öjerfors does feel that along the way, something has been lost, something he hopes will be rediscovered with Wolfenstein: The New Order.
“We’re trying to take what we felt was the best of old-school game design, and some of the elements from old-school first-person shooters that were left behind that perhaps shouldn’t have been. We’re bringing them back with modern design sensibilities from the modern design school,” he says. The game remains primarily a shooter, “but a lot broader than that”.
An alternate history tale which takes place in 1960 after the Nazis have won the Second World War, The New Order stars franchise hero William “BJ” Blazkowicz, newly awoken from a 14-year coma. The man knows his strengths though, and is soon back on a series of near-suicide missions against the Nazi oppressors. The new school of design is most apparent first, as we watch Öjerfors play through a short sequence on a train that features absolutely no shooting at all. “This is a first person action-adventure,” he says. “We think the adventure part is just as important as the action part, so the palette of feelings we explore makes it a complex game emotionally.”
Blazkowicz – older, but still lantern jawed, and with his once-trademark blonde hair and blue eyes – is on a moving train, hoping to meet up with a contact from the Nazi-resisting forces. Walking through what appears to be the train’s bar, he is intercepted by Frau Engel, a yellow-haired Nazi officer in her early sixties with and a mouth the size of Steven Tyler's and a playful manner, but cruel eyes. Engel is sitting with her sexual boy toy Bubi – a rakishly thin, androgynous man in his early-twenties sporting long blonde hair, a pencil-thin mustache, and a leering grin. A 10-foot tall robot that resembles Robocop’s ED-209 – all Gatling guns and legs – stands idly by.
Speaking in German, Engel asks BJ to take a seat, and proceeds to run a test on him that she claims can “detect impure blood”. In a scene that seeks to replicate the bottled intensity Inglorious Basterds’ opening scene, she then produces a number of illustrated cards and asks BJ to pick which of a specific pair excites him, which makes him happy, and which makes him feel disgusted. A pistol sits to one side, within reach of all three at the table. Of course, the cards are incidental – Engel is merely testing BJ’s mettle, and she finally dismisses him, laughing that a “non-Ayran” would have reached for their gun a long time ago. It’s an unexpected, tense scene, and works very well.
Our own playthrough then begins about a third of the way into the game, and finds BJ a car passenger in Nazi-ruled London, on his way to steal some helicopter blueprints. The driver drops BJ off near the Nautica, a tall, silver, steel and glass construction built by the Nazis and used as a research facility. Our target is on the top floor, but before we can take a step, our former ride speeds directly into the Nautica and detonates, laying waste to the front entrance and toppling a 30-foot high statue, which crashes to the ground beside our shocked protagonist. The stealth option nixed, BJ pulls out his pistol and – guided by a friendly voice over a headset – gets to work.
Wolfenstein’s HUD is the first hint of the old school: along with the expected ammo count, it features health and armour counters. That means regenerating health doesn’t feature, unless BJ’s health is at fewer than the recovery limit of 20 units. “We think it’s really important to get to manage your health as a resource because that makes every fight matter,” says Öjerfors. “There’s no moment where you can perform as poorly as you want as long as you don’t die. You need to be careful to preserve your health, but [the slight regeneration] also ensures you have some kind of fighting chance – you’re never completely screwed over.”
After we carve through a wire mesh fence with a handy laser cutter, our first encounter is with a robot dog, which is avoided and eventually crushed by rubble. It's around here that we hear the first of many one-liners from BJ, which are whispered through clenched teeth, come at odd times, and become increasingly bizarre as the level wears on. “So plucky, so hopeful” goes one non-sequitur.
A couple of sneaky backstabs later, a Fear Factory-style industrial metal soundtrack kicks in, and the shooting begins. Here, the influence of the former Starbreeze employees now at MachineGames is immediately evident. Guns have that weighty, gutsy feel and concussive report found in Starbreeze first-person shooter titles.
We’ve soon wrangled a number of weapons, all of which allow dual-wielding and have alternate fire modes. That includes a pair of high-calibre future-tech automatic shotguns that devastate everything in their way. There is no inventory juggling, BJ simply carries everything at once with no penalty, a ‘last weapon’ and ‘favourite weapon’ buttons cutting down on the time the player spends in the weapon select menu.
So far, those unfortunate enough to cross our path are the expected Nazi variants, with the more heavily armoured footsoldiers resembling Killzone’s Helghast. BJ is able to slide into cover and peek in any direction (including underneath a turret’s shield), and almost all vanquished enemies leave ammo along with a health or armour boost. That makes The New Order feel quite arcade-y in places, and allows for more aggressive, riskier play. There is a cover button, but it’s possible to use sparingly, charging forward and overwhelming groups rather than hiding and playing whack-a-mole.
It’s no cakewalk, though – in fact, Öjerfors apologises for the difficulty, stating that MachineGames is ratcheting ‘normal’ back a few notches its staff feel the game is too hard. This is too bad; it’s nice to be challenged by an FPS for a change. “We want the player to feel powerful,” says Öjerfors. “Dual wielding shotguns? That’s insane right? We also have the enormous challenges like the towering Nazi robots. You’re gonna feel very vulnerable and pretty screwed when they show up. You’re definitely gonna die.”
We aren’t the only ones – dozens of Nazis have been shredded by bullets already. While not particularly graphic, the game is nonetheless the kind of violent romp that the wider media love to single out as excessive. “I think that the violence in our game stays very true to the theme and the story of the game,” says Öjerfors. “This is a story about tyranny, about oppression, the death of democracy. And the player is opposed to tyranny. If a story like that wasn’t violent, that would be very odd.”
We’ve now reached a planetarium, the main feature of which is a 100-foot high moon replica, around which a staircase curls. Small bee-shaped flying robots jet back and forth, pushing BJ from cover and into the fray with their lasers. Fighting our way to the top of the moon, we shoot a chain supporting a model satellite and it falls, creating a bridge to a maintenance hatch. A crawlspace leads us to an elevator shaft, and we ascend into a cut scene.
We’ve found the blueprints. A small puzzle later we have upgraded our laser cutter into a laser cannon, and have entered the final room of the demo. It’s an enormous oval hanger filled with a mezzanine of steel platforms accessible via a series of staircases. At the far end are a handful of parked helicopters, and the whole place is crawling with guards and larger humanoid robots, none of which are aware of us just yet.
Creating great gameplay in that space was a challenge, says Öjerfors. “We’re trying to give the player many different ways to solve the problem,” he says. “The problem is killing the enemy. We want to give him many different tools to do it with. That takes time to test and iterate.” Although a number of stealth kills are possible here, Öjerfors adds that the game won’t feature entire levels of stealth, but instead: “Once you’re seen, it’s complete kick-ass action until the end.”
A nuclear core on the wall recharges our laser weapons and we sprint from cover to cover as each is destroyed by heavy gunfire. Eventually it’s just us and a 15-foot tall robot remaining. Its steps shake the ground and its massive laser has a stinging percussive quality, like a pair of anvils being smashed together. Following a protracted firefight, we use our speed advantage to reach the deck of one of the helicopters, and bring its minigun to bear on our mechanical foe. It eventually crumples under the onslaught, and our time with the game ends.
The demo may have been pretty much non-stop combat, but Öjerfors insists that secrets, puzzles, and NPC interaction balance out the action somewhat. “We’re trying to infuse the story moments with a level of gameplay and also have a narrative play through the combat scenarios as well,” he says. The story will take BJ all around the world, and see him drive cars through beautiful mountain ranges in Poland, and explore water filled catacombs in Berlin in an underwater vehicle, he says.
“The thing I’m personally most excited by is the 1960s vision of what the world will look like if the Nazis had won the war. It’s been both exciting and kind of terrifying to examine. Creating these environments where the player is able to examine the consequences of the Allies losing the war has been very cool to do.”
Running on the id Tech 5 engine, there’s no doubt that The New Order is a visually arresting shooter, and MachineGames has road-tested talent with a high-level of first-person shooter pedigree. As such, it’s hard to imagine the game doing a disservice to the Wolfenstein brand, or failing due to sloppy mechanical implementation.
“As a studio, MachineGames are deeply passionate about the immersive action-adventure game,” says Öjerfors. “I was hired because I expressed a love of the immersive singleplayer experience. That’s what we are really good at. I think it’s a really good idea for us to spend all our resources, all our energy, all our effort, and focus on creating the most kick-ass singleplayer campaign we can.”
Wolfenstein: The New Order is due out on Windows PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One at the end of this year.