Wolfenstein Re-Preview: Sans Mecha-Hitler

We previewed id and Raven's return to Wolfenstein in the spring. Yesterday, we saw it again. Our re-preview commences.

The basic facts haven't changed even if the business circumstances have quaked. Wolfenstein returns to consoles on August 4, developed primarily by Raven Software, with supervision by id. That's id, the company that just sold to Bethesda parent ZeniMax and told Kotaku that letting outside developers work on its intellectual property has resulted in a "step down in quality."

That's right. On Thursday morning, id's own CEO gave us reason to doubt Wolfenstein would be that good. And then, in the afternoon, id and Activision reps in New York City showed of the game. Kinda awkward.

What Is It?
Wolfenstein is a one-man first-person war (no vehicles!) against Nazis set in World War II and amplified by the supernatural powers of something called The Veil. It's a follow-up to the shooters that, along with Doom and Quake, defined id.

What We Saw
I played the game's hospital mission in the Xbox 360 build of the game. It occurs about a third of the way into the game. I had undying mode on, which allowed me to see the effects of taking damage without dying.

How Far Along Is It?
Wolfenstein is out on August 4. The build I played was a beta.

What Needs Improvement?
Clarity of Veil: So our hero, B.J. Blazkowicz, has more than machine guns and disintegration guns that spit out energy like fire hoses. He can find and activate four Veil powers. Until a meter depletes, these allow for the ability to slow time, see hidden passages and obscured enemies, don a shield or shoot bullets through walls. Nothing wrong with that. But activating and stacking the powers via the d-pad becomes confusing. The problem was that the visual cues distinguishing one power from the next were not as pronounced as a first-time player like me would have liked. Perhaps this is remedied in the main game, which doles the powers out individually. But I got confused as to which powers I had on or off.

Lack of Mecha-Hitler: Yes, Hitler will be in paintings hung on walls in the game. But he's not in the game. Not being a player of past Wolfensteins, I don't mind. But I suspect others will.

What Should Stay The Same?
The Powers: Blowing up barrels of Veil energy make enemies float, flailing in the air. Using Veil powers makes B.J. sort of a super-hero and sort of the classic FPS griefer/cheater. Seeing through walls to shoot enemies with fully-powered Veil Sight and Veil Empower? Why not? Upgrades to the Shield power, I'm told, will cause bullets to bounce off B.J. and back at his enemies. Sounds good to me, especially if the Veil powers work as well in multiplayer.

Hub City: Conceptually the design of Wolfenstein seems smart. Here's hoping it is, even though I wasn't shown it. The game is partially set in the fictional German hub city of Eisenstadt. Resistance fighters, merchants (who sell items and power-ups for collected gold) and Nazis populate the city. So do non-player characters who will lead you to mission-activation points. It's a different way to organize an FPS rather than a linear progression of missions. You can explore the city, find treasure, and interact with all these people. Or go to missions. But the developers not showing any of this yesterday was a little worrisome. Let's hope it's shaped up well.

Final Thoughts
Despite some sudden concerns I have about non-id id games, Wolfenstein appears to have some solid, core ideas. It is fighting for attention amid a crowd of FPSes this year, but it has a fighting chance by getting an August release. If those Veil powers hold up, then this could be a fine summer vacation from all that going outside stuff people recommend.

Wolfenstein is set for release on the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. Players of the recently-released PSN and XBLA versions of Wolfenstein 3D can earn gold for the Wolfenstein by completing simply playing the download game.

And, for the record, id community manager Pete Sokal, who oversaw my session with the game, told me that "We feel confident with the product Raven has made. It feels like Wolfenstein."