This past weekend at PAX, I spent time with two first-person shooters based on games from the '90s: Wolfenstein: The New Order and Shadow Warrior. Back when these games were originally popular, we called FPSes "Doom clones" -- and in fact, Wolfenstein predates even that, since it provided the foundation on which id built Doom in the first place.
Vintage, as it turns out, is the only trait these two remakes have in common. The Wolfenstein series has been kicking around on and off throughout the past decade, but The New Order recasts the franchise in the grimmest style I've seen attached to a video game in a long time. I played through a portion of the game back at E3 and got a feel for its alternate-history approach to a Nazi-dominated world, but the PAX demo offered a sense of how that unhappy reality comes to pass: Wolfenstein's prologue takes place as a flashback set in World War II. It sees B.J. Blazkowicz and his band of brothers storming a Nazi castle to take down the evil scientist Deathshead in what appears to be a sort of retelling of the original Wolfenstein 3D.
Unlike that game, though, this mission that goes horribly wrong. (First rule of FPSes: Never send a team to do one man's job.) Half the team ends up dead, and everyone else is captured; the player is even forced to choose which of two squad members dies at Deathshead's hands, the whimpering novice or the grizzled veteran. Eventually, the team breaks out of an incinerator, but Blazkowicz is struck in the head by shrapnel and institutionalized as a vegetable for years, only dimly aware of the people around him as the years pass. Only when the Nazis come through to shut down the institution and murder everyone in the ward does he manage to reconnect his mental circuitry and resume the wholesale slaughter of the bad guys -- because, after all, what is an FPS protagonist good for besides killing?
As interesting as the alternate reality take concept promises to be for Wolfenstein, I find its unrelenting darkness vaguely offputting. It's a deeply grim game, characterized by despair, failure, death, and blood. The demo ends with Blazkowicz escaping his sanitarium by shooting through hordes of Nazis in order to protect the nurse, Anya, who treated him with kindness through the years. It's all very noble, but the backdrop -- a building full of murdered mental patients -- makes it hard to take much satisfaction in the rescue of a single woman, gentle a soul as she may be.
In fact, the whole Wolfenstein schtick -- things like dual-wielding machine guns -- sits slightly at odds with the oppressive misery of The New Order. B.J. Blazkowicz has always been a cartoon of a man, an impossible slab of muscle taking down paper cut-outs of Nazis. I'm not sure how well he fits into the role of tragic victim... and while I'm sure the decision of which of his teammates has to die will have repercussions down the road -- it seems pretty safe to assume the victim will return as some sort of experimental Nazi abomination bent on revenge and who eventually begs for the sweet release of death -- the stock nature of the cast feels a little too cliché to generate real pathos.
Shadow Warrior, on the other hand, doesn't even bother with trying to make some sort of emotional connection. It's pure brazen over-the-top action movie "funny" dialogue from start to finish. On the other hand, it actually does represent a legitimate improvement over the source material; where the original '90s version of Shadow Warrior was built on uncomfortable orientalist stereotypes, the team behind the new game promises that in their work, "The racism is gone."
By and large, from what I've seen of it, that promise appears to be true. About the only thing 2014's Shadow Warrior has in common with 1997's is the presence of a protagonist named Lo Wang -- but even then, the character is totally different. Rather than being a beefy old man with a hokey accent speaking in fortune cookie punchlines, the new Lo Wang is a slim younger man in a suit and a nice car: A Chinese-Japanese agent for a nefarious zaibatsu. Aside from the stupid obligatory jokey remarks about how the name Wang can hilariously be a double-entendre for genitalia, Wang is presented as more of a self-assured John Woo protagonist than a murderous Mr. Miyagi. I'm not sure that the final results are totally perfect, but using Hong Kong cinema and chanbara films as a template definitely steers the game in the right direction.
The underlying action seems generally faithful to the original. A mystical katana comprises Wang's primary weapon, and aside from melee slashes and stabs (complete with needlessly gruesome dismemberments) it also allows the use of ranged cuts. But of course Wang can also wield any number of other weapons, from your standard assortment of guns to more esoteric tools like demon hearts (which, when crushed while pointed at a foe, causes the enemy to explode from within). The overall feel is more along the lines of a classic shooter than a modern one, with tons of foes on screen, dumb AI, and fast-paced action.
Shadow Warrior's "trademark" this time around is an odd buddy cop dynamic between Wang and the demon that ends up trapped in his body. The game's humor (or attempts at humor) come not from hoary racist jokes but rather from the fact that Wang's version of Cortana is a sarcastic, amoral demon. This isn't a bad idea -- it allows the writers to let Wang be the straight man (a more "serious" protagonist) without abandoning the humorous conceit altogether. How well this actually works in practice remains to be seen; what I saw of the banter in my brief demo seemed to hew pretty close to boilerplate action movie quips.
In any case, it makes for a different but not unfaithful take on the original game, just as with The New Order. I'm not sure how well either game will work in the end, but I admire each one's respective developers for making the effort to buck the relentless tide of games that dearly want to be the next Call of Duty. Both Wolfenstein and Shadow Warrior revolve around their single-player campaigns, and neither demonstrate the zippy weightlessness and encounter design that so many other contenders in the FPS genre aspire to. Not every shooter needs to play exactly the same, and these two look to make a mark by standing apart -- while standing on their respective history. Or least a loose interpretation of it.