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One of the most frightening moments during a game demonstration at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) didn’t involve any blood, gore, or monsters. Unless, that is, you consider Nazis to be monsters.
The demo was for Wolfenstein: The New Order, due out late this year for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC from publisher Bethesda. And this particular scene happened during a more story-driven moment in the game.
That’s right: story. That’s a word you normally don’t associate with this first-person-shooter series. Of course The New Order will still have you emptying all manner of ammunition into those fighting for this alternate-history Third Reich, but this Wolfenstein is very different. I could tell just from this this part of the demo.
It started off with you holding a tray with a couple cups of coffee, walking through a dining car on a speeding train. Ahead was an armed guard blocking the doorway to the next section, and flanking him was a giant mech who was practically scraping the ceiling (I wondered how it fit in there to begin with). As you tried to proceed, the mech suddenly turned to you, blocking the aisle with its intimidating girth. “Don’t worry — he’s harmless,” said a female voice off to the side. She saw you disguised as a civilian and figured you were probably uneasy around 10-foot-tall killing machines.
The words came from a woman with short blonde hair, seated to your left. Next to her was a fey, thin man. Both were wearing intimidating Nazi officer uniforms. “Put the coffee down on the table,” she said with an air of absolute authority and a hint of feigned hospitality. “Sit.”
The female officer studied your face. “Strong Aryan features,” she said, admiringly. But looks can be deceiving. She proceeded to explain that she has a simple but full-proof test to see if one has “pure blood.” And if you know Nazis, you know they were not very fond of those who don’t.
Her test? A pure psychological mindfuck. And guess who she wanted to be her test subject at that moment?
I don’t want to spoil the rest of this scene for you, but it was slow, deliberate, and as intense as anything I’ve seen in modern gaming. No firefights. No explosions. No Call of Duty-style roller-coaster rides. Just some fine pacing, writing, and acting that actually made my heart race — even though I was only observing someone else playing the demo.
Watching this reminded me of the opening act in the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds, when Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz) visited a Frenchman living in the countryside. Before there was a literal threat, you could just feel the implied threat through Landa’s impeccable charm and smile. If it didn’t make you nervous and anxious as all hell, you weren’t watching the movie correctly.
“That’s so true,” said Sabine Rösgren, a gameplay designer for developer MachineGames, when I made the comparison to her. “We took a lot of inspiration from Inglourious Basterds because it describes what we’re after. It’s dark — a bit of a twisted reality — but it has a hint of humor in it.”
That’s a rather strange source of inspiration for a studio making a Wolfenstein game. No one thinks of Inglourious Basterds as a balls-out, guns-blazing action flick, but that’s because MachineGames isn’t looking to make The New Order the balls-out, guns-blazing first-person shooter we all expected it to be. Maybe that’s not a huge surprise considering the developer’s pedigree.
“MachineGames arose out of Starbreeze Studios, which was heavily focused on story-driven first-person shooters,” said Rösgren. “They developed games like [The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher's Bay] and The Darkness. This is the path that Wolfenstein is taking right now.”
Later on the same train, you enter a passenger’s cabin room where your freedom-fighter partner, a woman (you’re a man), awaited. In this short cinematic, you could feel just how alone and frightened these two were, hiding out on a railroaded deathtrap among the overwhelming terror that is the Nazi army. In one simple line, I got another sledgehammer-to-the-head reminder that this was not the Wolfenstein of my youth: “There’s only one bed,” said the woman, sheepishly and nervously. “Is that a problem?”
This wasn’t some titillating moment to get the 13-year-old gamers out there excited. The uneasiness and awkwardness of the situation was tangible, and there was so much more going on here than just the possibility of two adults getting it on.
Might this conversation lead to sex? I really don’t know. The demo cut off right there and moved on to the shooty-shooty stuff. Technically speaking, sure — the scene had some sexual tension. But that’s not even close to the point. The New Order has an interesting cast and some incredible potential for genuine character development in a world that’s isolating and scary in the most unconventional of ways.
And again, this is noteworthy because, remember: This is Wolfenstein that we’re talking about. We know it will have guns, stuff getting blown up good, and maybe even a mechanized Hitler. The shooty-shooty stuff isn’t going away.
“The story makes the shooting relevant, though,” said Rösgren. “You’re in this world, and you have your goal, which is very much emphasized in the story that you’re a part of. You want to save these people.
“You want to create the world that — oh, I’m not going to spoil anything just now,” she continued, laughing and catching herself just in time. “You’re fighting for the world together with your resistance group. We want to create more of an urge than just wanting to shoot and kill everyone.
“Everyone here [at E3] thinks it’s just a straightforward shooter. But it’s so much more than a shooter. We want to make it as immersive and as believable a world as we can manage.”
From what I’ve seen so far of Wolfenstein: The New Order, I love what they’re shooting for.