The New Order, Bethesda's latest entry in the Wolfenstein franchise, plays up the retro angle: Set in an alternate-reality version of 1960 in which the Nazis won World War II and rule the world with advanced-for-the-era technology, it deliberately adopts a sort of chunky, solid-state aesthetic. Old-style guns and tanks sit alongside "futuristic" weapons that look to have been plucked from a lurid '50 pulp comic cover painting.
The look and setting aren't the only way Wolfenstein goes retro, though. The game itself feels like it fell through a timewarp from about 10 years ago. While it incorporates a few contemporary shooter mechanics, it does so in a tentative, unobtrusive way. Yeah, the vibe of the prologue – storming a Nazi castle stronghold in the thick of World War II – smacks a bit of Call of Duty, with perpetual protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz constantly regrouping with his squadmates, who urge him to advance on the enemy's position. But then you march ahead and fight alone, always taking point and fighting solo; you never really team up for battle, just for interactive story sequences. Many scenarios allow you to fight stealthily as long as possible provided you can take out bad guys with melee kills or very precise silenced shots, but when someone spots you the old fashioned approach of shooting everything in sight works just as well.
Nor will you ever hear a voice in your ear telling you what to do next, unless you count B.J.'s hoarse, whispered musings. If you want a waypoint, you need to pull up the minimap; it never appears on the HUD. You can swap between two weapons with the press of a button, but you can also pick alternates by bringing up a selection wheel, while the D-pad lets you switch to alternate fire modes and dual-wield. You can dual-wield all kinds of things – pistols, machine guns, even knives. And while B.J.'s health regenerates outside of combat, it always maxes out at 80 points – to top it off, you need to pick up health packs. Remember those? And there's no obligatory multiplayer mode, either. Wolfenstein's is strictly a single-player campaign, relying on at least one branching story path and a multitude of difficulty levels to encourage replay.
That characterizes the sum total of the three or four hours I've spent cumulatively with Wolfenstein over the past year at various trade shows and events. It mixes old and new first-person shooter methodology, with an emphasis on the old. It doesn't feel confused or schizophrenic, though; rather, the impression it leaves is that its designers recognize that players have grown to expect certain conveniences and conventions, yet they don't want to give themselves wholly to the current-day shooter design formula. What you end up with is a game that offers some of those niceties (the easier the difficulty setting you play on, the more you benefit from) but expects you to put forth a certain amount of old-school elbow grease.
As an FPS, Wolfenstein feels deliberately regressive. You can't simply snap to cover; instead, you can duck behind a wall and hold down the "lean" button to duck out and draw a bead on targets. The action moves more slowly than Call of Duty or Halo 4, and there's more heft (not to mention differentiation) between the different weapons. Dual-wielding machine guns has always seemed hilariously stupid, but it's even more so now that it feels so out of keeping with contemporary game conventions.
Even the narrative stops shy of going full-on contemporary. Once B.J. escapes from the asylum where he spends 14 years after taking a lump of shrapnel to the head (thus allowing the Nazis to conquer the world), he interrogates a captive German officer to determine the whereabouts of his army comrades. I felt my stomach sink when this sequence began – the game places you in a small shed with a captive Nazi in a chair, and no interactive elements save for a chainsaw, workman's apron, and googles. I looked around for alternatives, but it was clear the only way to advance in the game was to perform torture. Just like Grand Theft Auto V, and just like (from all appearances, anyway) Metal Gear Solid V.
So, reluctantly, I picked up the chainsaw and accoutrements, not particularly looking forward to becoming a willing participant in gaming's most unpleasant new trend. And, much to my surprise, once I had the chainsaw in hand, the game took over – the Nazi sprung from his chair and began attacking me with a stiletto, creating a prompt-free quick-time event in which I had to subdue him with my fists. At that point, the action switched to a third-person cinematic in which B.J. threatened him with the chainsaw without cutting him. The scene faded with the possibility that much greater violence was about to happen – but the chainsaw violence was never shown or even suggested. The only interactive portion of the sequence was about suggestion and fighting a better-armed opponent. However the interrogation ends, the game leaves the results to the player to decide.
As an M-rated title, Wolfenstein certainly could have gone that extra step and showed a gory dismemberment, or even placed the responsibility in the player's hands. It's not like the game shies from violence; B.J.'s initial asylum escape involves the vicious neck-stabbing of two different Nazis. But it's an old-school game at heart, and that means it calls back to a time when the medium occasionally exercised discretion. As the recent conversation over some of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes' more explicit content has reminded us, a story need not connect all the dots to get its points across. Audiences are smart enough to fill in the blanks themselves. As the rest of the industry seemingly scrambles to push the envelope of acceptable content, Wolfenstein's decision to walk up to the edge and take a deliberate step backward makes for a welcome surprise.
The question is, does a shooter that doesn't fall into lockstep with the genre's current trends have a place in today's market? With its deliberate defiance of the status quo, Wolfenstein seems like a serious gamble in a medium increasingly allergic to risk. I'm happy to see a publisher recognize the possibility that there are other paths forward besides the most obvious one. But I'm curious to see if the rest of the world agrees.