Looking ahead at the high-profile FPS titles that will be released in 2014, one major shared theme comes up again and again: freedom of movement. Titanfall was the first game of the year to make major strides in this area, and took what had been done by earlier titles like Unreal Tournament and Brink and brought it to a new level.
As soon as I played my first few games of Titanfall, I knew it was going to be difficult to go back to playing shooters with “regular” player movement afterwards. Fortunately, with most of the big games that will be coming later this year, that won’t be necessary. It’s tough to be sure how much of the freedom of movement trend came from game developers anticipating the massive impact Titanfall would have and how much was just a fortunate coincidence, given that many of the games taking part in the trend were in development before Titanfall details were publicly known, but the reality of the trend can’t be denied. From Evolve’s powerful jet-packs to the sliding and pouncing we’ve seen in early looks at Destiny to the low-gravity fun of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, it seems like everywhere you look players are moving around maps in ways that had rarely been seen before.
The lone high-profile exception to this trend on the horizon is Wolfenstein: The New Order.
I had a chance to try out the playable demo of The New Order at PAX East this year, and was eager to see how the game would feel after I’d spent so much of my recent time playing Titanfall. Unfortunately, what I experienced of the game during my brief demo did nothing to allay my fears that the new Wolfenstein feels very much like a game I’ve played a dozen times before, rather than something new or fresh or exciting.
Though I did notice some small tweaks to the tried and true Wolfenstein formula that fans of the franchise will likely appreciate, including the ability to lean in any direction while holding down a single button, iron sights, destructible cover, and dual wielding, the gameplay on display offered nothing that actually seemed innovative. The New Order takes place in a sci-fi infused, Nazi-dominated 1960s, but what I played could easily have fit into any of a hundred mostly-identical World War II shooters. I ran through trenches lobbing grenades, shooting Nazis with pistols, rifles, and machine guns, and ducking behind cover. Aside from the cosmetic details of the giant robot hanging overhead, the futuristic blue details on my Nazi opponents, and the cybernetic touches to the German Shepards that occasionally ran at me, it was all very, very familiar.
I believe that the freedom of movement offered by Titanfall is something that FPS games in the future will be forced to react to in one way or another. Not every game will need to offer wall climbing and double-jumping to the same extent, but those that don’t give movement tweaks adequate consideration will risk seeming old-fashioned and boring in comparison. Once players have grown used to the abilities presented in a game like Titanfall, games are going to need to give those players a good reason to play without that same freedom.
The regenerating shield system offered by the original Halo is one example of a previous trend that changed FPS games forever. That game was obviously a massive hit, and nearly every genre fan in that era had a chance to experience the way shield management enriched the FPS experience. In the years to come it became difficult to find an FPS title in which the influence of Halo’s shield system wasn’t apparent. The previous standard of health and armor bars that ticked down with damage and up with healing items practically disappeared. Forms of regeneration became part of the standard lexicon of FPS tropes, and a thousand tweaks and variations rippled throughout the genre. Wolfenstein: The New Order
itself features a health system divided into sections that regenerate on their own.
It’s probable that The New Order will appeal to some players seeking “old-school” gameplay, and I don’t think that’s wrong at all. The action in the demo was solid, the graphics were decent, and dual-wielding assault rifles is always cool. But the entire time I was playing I was unable to keep from glancing up at the edges of the trench on either side of me. In most places they were low enough that it wouldn’t even be necessary to double-jump for a player to reach the edge and climb up in Titanfall. But in The New Order, these trench walls were insurmountable obstacles. I was, for all intents and purposes, confined to a graphically-enhanced version of the linear hallways that dominated FPS games for the first decade of their existence…and that just felt tedious after the incredible freedom offered by Titanfall.
Wolfenstein: The New Order will be released in May, and as of yet very little gameplay has been made public. It’s possible there will be aspects of the game that address all the concerns I’ve raised…though if that is actually the case it would have been nice to have those on display at PAX East.