Wolfenstein Hands-On Impressions

We strap on our boots, blast some Nazis, and try out the supernatural powers of the upcoming first-person shooter Wolfenstein.

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With id hard at work on the as-yet-undated Doom 4 and Rage projects, it's no surprise to hear that the company with fingers in 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein and its own Wolfenstein 3D pies could use an extra set of hands. For this the company has handballed the job of revisiting and revitalising the next instalment in the franchise to first-person shooter developer veteran Raven Software.

The new game, which does away with the renaissance fair and 3D moniker guff and is instead simply dubbed Wolfenstein, is headed to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC platforms. We recently got some hands-on time with a work-in-progress 360 build to blast some Nazis and give the new occult gameplay elements a whirl.

Nazis. Zombies. Skeletons.
Nazis. Zombies. Skeletons.

The game takes place in the fictional city of Isenstadt during the Second World War and puts you in charge of returning American soldier badass B.J. Blazkowicz. The Nazis have found and are attempting to unlock the power of an occult artefact known as Black Sun. Naturally your job is to stop Hitler and his army from getting their grubby mitts all over it. The details of the story are still sketchy at this stage, but rather than just chasing the artefact, you'll be able to harness it to power new abilities in this iteration of the game, using it to enter a new alternate, parallel universe where things are slightly askew. It's known as "the veil," and you can enter and leave it at will by tapping a direction on the D pad without taking a hit to your occult energy stores. It also serves as an additional system to micromanage on top of the standard bullet-count shooting mechanics, which remain core to the game's main experience. Energy is restored by locating veil pools and sitting in them long enough to recharge your meter. Veil abilities appear to be primarily designed to help you achieve more with your standard ballistic weapons by allowing you to fight in several different ways instead of relying entirely on cover-to-cover hopping or basic run-and-gun gameplay. That said, if you're not a big fan of the supernatural, you can still play the game as a traditional first-person shooter.

Entering the veil changes the gameworld in several ways. Your field of view is slightly increased, the murky brown and grey colour palette of war-torn Germany is ditched for a monochrome-like green and black '80s monitor look, and objects you may have otherwise missed are highlighted. Since the veil isn't a mirror image of the real world, objects and walls aren't always present in the same locations as their real counterparts, meaning you can enter normally inaccessible areas to flank guards or seek out hidden treasure of which we've been told there will be plenty. Inside the veil, enemies remain in place, but eel-like creatures (the veil's only natural inhabitants) also join the fray. They're passive to B.J. unless provoked, but since they tend to lurk around veil pools and consume energy, they can also be used as impromptu explosive devices if you lay a few rounds of your weapon of choice into them.

Though the build we saw included room to store three veil skills, we were told all three could potentially be used concurrently (at the cost of massive energy depletion). The only one we had a chance to try ourselves was called Mire. This veil acted as a type of world-slowing bullet time and allowed us to scurry up stairs to capture heavily fortified machine-gun nests without getting a face full of lead. Mire also became a requirement during our demo when we were confronted by a heavily armoured enemy with a particle cannon. Here we were forced to enter the veil, crank up Mire, and use it to locate three weak spots on his back marked in red. Even with the additional speed the veil provides, it took us a couple of tries to snake successfully through the environment to get behind him and hit his vulnerable points without his busting beams at us. Taking him out rewarded us with his weapon, which, while slightly slow to warm up, completely obliterated soldiers with a single shot, reducing them to a quivering pile of goo.

Just because it has supernatural themes doesn't mean it's not a first-person shooter.
Just because it has supernatural themes doesn't mean it's not a first-person shooter.

Later in our demo during a level called Church our Mire powers were called on again to slow time to shoot out weak points of a spinning interlocking set of rings. Even in the slowed alt-reality state they were tricky to hit and took us several attempts as they continued to move along several axes. Once we had destroyed the object we were confronted by a despoiled skeleton, one of the game's minibosses, and used both machine-gun fire and the veil's eel inhabitants as makeshift mines to destroy him.

Visually the game appears to take a lot of pages from the Return to Castle Wolfenstein book and stays true to its predecessor. Raven and id reps at the event confirmed that it was running on a heavily modified version of the Quake 4/Doom 3 id Tech 4 engine, and while it's showing its age compared to other Unreal titles on show, Wolfenstein is certainly no visual slouch.

Completing levels indicated not only our play time and the number of unlockables found, but also rewarded us with some of the sporadically sprinkled weapon upgrades available during the single-player campaign. Gold bars, military intelligence, and occult items are scattered throughout zones. Finding and turning them in to their appropriate factions--the Kreisau Circle, Golden Dawn, and the black market--will allow you to buy veil powers as well as more traditional weapon upgrades, such as larger-capacity ammo magazines, scopes, and silencers. Raven reps also confirmed that the game won't feature any type of dynamic faction adjustment, meaning that you won't gain or lose favour by trading with one or more groups, though the concept was apparently discussed during the early stages of development.

Multiplayer is still in the cards, though no one was willing to talk details of modes or features beyond saying, "If you liked previous Wolfenstein multiplayer, you'll like this." We're hoping to get our hands on an updated playable build at E3 this year. There's no confirmed release date yet, but Wolfenstein will hit the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC when it's done.

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