And so we return to Castle Wolfenstein, circa 1940, once more. Having already outstayed our welcome in 1992, back when first-person shooters (and indeed video games) were slowly finding their side-stepping feet; then revisiting the Castle again in 2001, via Microsoft’s original Xbox console, you would think that would be heroes might know to steer clear of the keep’s candlelit, zombie-nazi infested corridors. However, with another adventure soon to be with us, it would appear not. This new Wolfenstein is looking to bring the franchise bang up-to-date graphical effects, sophisticated AI routines, involving multiplayer and even a few brand new special powers, such as the ability to move so fast that it appears your enemies are frozen in time and the power to create a shield around you to ward off bullets and claws alike.
I recently had chance to go hands-on with a level of the game based in an infirmary. As any veteran of gaming knows, infirmaries are never represented in anything like the state you would hope to find your local A&E in and so it proves in Wolfenstein. Walls are liberally speckled with blood, mutilated corpses crowd the floors and blood-stained medical instruments decorate every surface you care to cast your eye over. From my first tentative steps it was clear that something ghastly had gone on here – still, rifle in hand, I pushed open the nearest door and ploughed on in foolhardy fashion. The first enemies to try to take me down were Nazi soldiers and though large in number they were easily despatched. In fact almost too easily – hopefully the final release will see something of an improvement in the AI of these grunts; something hinted at by Activision PR officer who was on hand to lend assistance at the event. Still, finishing off the soldiers was satisfying enough an experience and any gore-fans out there will be pleased to find bullet damage is particularly violent, with legs and heads being severed with each discharge of my trusty machine gun. As combat in this particular level took place in cramped spaces flanking options were limited, however in the final game the developers are looking to increase the player’s choices during combat to give each battle a feel that you really are in control of your assault.
Further exploration reveals that magic will play a key role in proceedings; William Joseph ‘BJ’ Blazkowicz, the character players will assume control of, has access to various mystical powers. A quick jab of the d-pad is enough to allow BJ to view ‘The Veil’, another dimension of sorts, which allows him to see secret passages and hidden items. Using this magical power is essential to enable progression; for instance, faced with a seemingly dead end, a quick switch to ‘Veil mode’ reveals that the brick wall in front of me is merely an illusion. By walking through the wall with this second sight enabled I am able to progress deeper into the castle’s depths. However, access to ‘The Veil’ has a finite usage time and will require recharge if worn out. Immediate revitalisation is available at special energy nodes while BJ will naturally recover this power over time - this is applicable to all abilities including the aforementioned rapid movement and shield powers. Enemies are also able to harness the black arts and some of the most interesting enemies I encountered were able to use their powers to protect creatures in their control. The Sniffers, dog-like beasts, hunt in packs and are controlled and sheltered by Scribes (think necromancer). Only by taking out the scribe and bringing down the magical shield can the Sniffers be picked off - hopefully this kind of squad-based enemy will be the rule rather than the exception in the final game.
Of course, no stage within Castle Wolfenstein would be complete without an end-of-level monster to despatch and the hospital level I encountered was no different. In this case a giant pink demon which looked like it might have stepped straight out of Hellraiser. What it actually steps out of is a giant inter-dimensional portal which the Nazis are using to further their plans of world domination. The creature is essentially bullet proof but not particularly bright, and by tricking it into collapsing the portal’s supports on to itself it was soon dealt with – I was assured however that in the final version of the game the demon would be much smarter and less willing to create its own demise. My defeat of the pink monster signalled the end of my time with the game. While I only got to see a tiny chunk of the game I was never-the-less left optimistic that the final game will prove an excellent addition to the range of shooters out on PS3 and Xbox 360. If graphics and enemy AI are smoothed out in time for the street release then expect an action packed time when the game ships on 14th August. That isn’t even taking into account the multiplayer aspect of the game which should hopefully follow in the steps of the excellent Axis versus Allies formula of previous releases. Expect a full review of both single and multiplayer campaigns just as soon as the final game lands on my desk.