I was skeptical the first time I saw Wolfenstein: The New Order. It was during a preview at E3 2013: much had been made of the game’s then-puzzling turn into actual narrative territory, and half of the presentation showed an early stage, wherein a disguised B.J. Blazkowicz hiding on a Nazi train stumbles on senior officer and her young lover. It’s one of the games weirder scenes, as Blazkowicz is forced to take a “test” designed to root out anyone with impure blood, and as far as convincing anyone who found a narrative in Wolfenstein unnecessary it was intriguing, to say the least.
Following the end of that scene, Bethesda showed some combat from a level pretty late in the campaign. This felt more like proper Wolfenstein, with a fully-loaded Blazkowicz blowing away German super soldiers and mechanized machines.
Incongruously, Blazkowicz was also spouting one-liners like Duke Nukem. Wasn’t this game, made by a team with several ex-Starbreeze guys (known for narrative FPSes), supposed to be taking itself seriously? What about that train scene? I walked away ambivalent. It wasn’t until the game had been out for some time —and everyone I knew had raved about it — that I discovered what was missing: a ton of exposition to get Blazkowicz to that point. It turned out that Wolfenstein could make you engage with a real story, even to a point where one-liners made some psychological sense.
Now a new DOOM is upon us), and as far as expectations go, it wouldn’t be fair to assume it should have the New Order treatment. For starters, it wasn’t made by Wolfenstein’s MachineGames, but id themselves. Secondly, DOOM is DOOM. It’s the slasher film of video games in the best way possible. Who cares about a story?
Of course a narrative, or at least showing off moments from a campaign that has some semblance of a script, is typically an integral part of a big of a triple-A shooter’s push. Sure, you can show the gameplay of shooting guns, in-engine destruction and level design, but where the lion’s share of a dev team’s work goes is into the explosive moments that make up a linear, movie-like campaign. Just look at the Infinite Warfare trailer and imagine the staggering amount of work that went into making everything on display. This is what hypes players up; it’s why when major publishers first show a new game the footage tends to very rarely depict much of what gameplay itself looks like.
In the lead-up to DOOM’s launch, Bethesda and id have interestingly gone the other direction, leaning heavily on what makes the game what it is — weapons, speed and a truckload of up-close-and-personal violence. Its trailers (with the exception of the first pre-rendered teaser) have all been montages of run-and-gunning, blood and death. Even the so-called campaign trailer spends all of about three seconds visually explaining the scenario in which your marine finds himself spilling demon guts. There aren’t any cinematic set pieces to fall back on, because the bloodshed, by all appearances, is the set piece, and it just keeps going.
Again, this makes total sense for the series about gorily mowing down hellspawn (and in the era of Brutal Doom its possibly that the best way to convince fans is a similar relentless graphic spectacle). Yet the game is surprising in 2016. Are customizable weapons enough and old favorites like quad damage enough to keep players engaged? Should we expect a modern re-interpretation of DOOM to have a much of a story just because the majority of triple-A shooters have campaigns that, at the very least, attempt one?
Maybe not, because everything about the new DOOM — its design, presentation and feel — is undoubtedly a direct response to the cancelled Doom 4, which spent years in development hell before Bethesda pulled the plug.
“We decided that it wasn’t Doom enough,” Bethesda vice president of PR Pete Hines told Polygon in 2015. “The combat was more disconnected, you almost found yourself taking cover at times and using things from other FPSes, which might be fine for them, but for Doom it just doesn’t feel right.”
From the scant footage that still survives online, it certainly seems that way. Visually Doom 4 married the desert browns of 2010s military shooters and ids own stab at a Mad Maxian post-apocalypse, 2011’s Rage; not particularly a great sign. At the same time, if its trailer was any indication, it’s not hard to envision a game where narrative would take on a much bigger, and probably unnecessary, role. It’s not like anyone was clamoring for more in-game PDA messages to read post-Doom 3. Besides, few players statistically finish campaigns anyway, so the point may be moot.
Overall, maybe this is a good thing. As it stands, DOOM appears to be in a kind of reverse New Order scenario: a modern anomaly whose single player is more old-school corridor shooter than modern FPS.
If I had to guess, I’d say without the character beats, Wolfenstein would’ve be regarded as good, though without quite as much of a hook, just as quickly forgotten. With DOOM, trying to contextualize a mass-murder spree of demons with character development or a dramatic arc would be like if they had tried to give much gravitas to the stupidly entertaining Doom movie — it just would’ve sucked.