Bethesda's new Wolfenstein: The New Order is a modernized take on an old formula, but that might not be enough for players who are looking forward to groundbreaking new games like Titanfall and Destiny.

Playing a three-hour preview of the upcoming game, we had to ask: is there still room for this kind of shooter in this ever-evolving game landscape?

On the other hand, the new Wolfenstein might be exactly what some players are looking for. If you're an old school Wolfenstein fan who just wants to shoot some Nazi robots then you might not be put off by The New Order's less modern aspects. If nothing else, it's a solid shooter.

Of course, all these questions and judgments are premature. The game is scheduled to ship May 23, but so far we've only seen a short portion of it.

Stuck in the middle

Unfortunately most of what we saw of Wolfenstein: The New Order feels five or six years too late. It's not an all-too-faithful recreation of a revered classic like the recent Rise of the Triad was, but it's not a fully modern sequel either. It brings to mind the glut of linear, narrative-driven shooters on the Xbox 360 and PS3—games like Singularity and Haze (New Order is even single-player only; no multiplayer). Some of those games were better than others, and exactly how well Wolfenstein stands up as a whole depends on a lot of factors.

We started out in a World War II-era fighter plane flying low over the churning ocean with bombs and ballistics flying every which way. The sky was crowded with friends and foes. After a brief stint on the turret and some pointless tinkering around the plane, everything went to shit and we found ourselves back on solid ground.

The rest of the level was like a re-imaged Normandy landing, only with evil robotic cats and dogs, gigantic, many-legged mechs stomping around the battlefield, and some other futuristic technology. There were a lot of big set pieces, and a lot of small corridors to run down guns blazing. The trenches (oh, so many trenches) ran thick with nazi blood as we made our way from one end of the battlefield to the other. 

Wolfenstein: The New Order starts out as the kind of game where there's a grizzled British superior barking orders to the "lads." You rappel up a vertical castle wall while Nazis poke their heads out for your target practice. You've played this game before. Do you want to play it again? That's up to you.

Weird science

In the original Wolfenstein it felt so irreverent to be shooting up swastikas on the wall and confronting Mecha-Hitler—like you were messing with history itself. In The New Order developer MachineGames has a lot of fun with that motif—and it actually gets pretty disturbing.

As far as historical revenge porn goes it's about on-level with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: Nazis need to get blown up, and you love blowing up Nazis. There's nothing wrong with that. But The New Order goes to some dark places.

The game sees you at one point getting stuck in an operating room full of half-dissected corpses, the skin of their backs flayed into limp flaps attached to hooks. Here the series' returning villain, General Deathshead, makes you choose which of your companions he's going to vivisect. You have to choose, or you get sent back to a previous checkpoint. Then he snuffs the poor guy right in front of you when you do. And this is before the opening credits take place.

Things really get going when The New Order asks: what if the Nazis won the war? To get there it puts the protagonist into a 14-year coma, and that comes with its own horrors, including watching a lot of innocent people get gunned down at point blank right in front of you while you're powerless to react. It gives you the heebie-jeebies, and no doubt that was the point.

To have it both ways

Everything we've described so far takes place before and just after the opening credits. All told it's about two hours of gameplay. What happens afterward is where things start to get interesting, and this is where the hope for Wolfenstein: The New Order is.

This could have been just another war shooter—albeit with mech Nazis—and for those first couple of hours it really feels like it. But when our hero wakes up, the war is over, and the Nazis already won. The U.S. and the other Allies surrendered, and Germany rules the world. Everyone who might have formed a resistance is locked up in Berlin, and that's where you're headed. Busting them out seems dicey at best, and it will be fun to see what other fucked up places the story goes to. There's even a love story.

The final section we played involved eliminating all the soldiers at multiple fortified roadside checkpoints so your civilian companions—including the aforementioned love interest—could drive past unscathed. Using a silenced pistol to take out as many patrolling guards as possible before being noticed felt satisfying, albeit in a familiar way. It culminated in a difficult fight with two hulking, stomping robots (we played on "Bring 'em on" difficulty, one of five choices, and died a few times on this fight despite having some helpful EMP grenades). The final scene took place on a train, where a high-ranking female Nazi officer joked about testing us for "impure blood." Icky.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is pleasantly old school in many ways, and unfortunately so in others. Your health and armor don't fully regenerate automatically, and you don't pick up ammo unless you constantly jam on the "pick up" button as you walk around. There seems to be no limit to how many guns you can carry, and you can even dual-wield big rifles—rifles that routinely cut enemies in half with bullets. And there's no shortage of cannon fodder Nazis.

Then there are modern touches, like detachable turrets that you can haul around with you, and environmental damage that makes you think twice about where you take cover.

It's hard to say at this point whether The New Order will turn out to be a beloved retro throwback to old school shooters with modern production values (the guitar-heavy music in particular seems promising)—or a linear mess of different play styles and themes that makes little sense and ultimately goes nowhere. There's still plenty of Wolfenstein left to explore, and as we learned this time, a lot can go down over a few hours.

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