Bethesda’s revitalization of the Shooter Campaign
Bethesda Softworks’ Wolfenstein: The New Order, its standalone expansion The Old Blood and the recently released Doom are three of the best first-person shooter campaigns I have played in this current console generation. It’s that simple. Bethesda Softworks published three stellar games that are chock full of gritty action, compelling storytelling and innovative takes on the old tropes of the two 1990s hits. While blasting my way through these meaty tales I found myself stopping to think, “Why do I like these so much?”
If I’m being honest, I missed out on games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom in 1992 and 1993 respectively. I was too young to know better and before long I was into the latest games. I dabbled in them when I started to develop a taste for FPSs, but I missed the zeitgeist. Those games were very much a time-and-place event that came and went. I don’t have that same nostalgia. I guess Halo would be the series that gave me something of a similar experience. Wolfenstein and Doom were praised for their pioneering of three-dimensional graphics and FPS mechanics that revolutionized video games as well as online multiplayer in the case of Doom. Over two decades and a few developer acquisitions later, Bethesda has brought back these franchises with a twist for a modern audience.
The question of “why” rattled around in my head from the spring of 2014 until now. After multiple play-throughs of the two newest Wolfenstein titles and many hours in Doom, I think I know the answer. It’s simpler than I thought. Wolfenstein: The New Order, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood and Doom are just different. They’re not Call of Duty, Halo, or Battlefield. They’re not trying to be those games either. There is a consciousness that exists in the modern Wolfensteins and Doom that keeps one eye on the current trends of FPSs and another on what could make their games stand apart from the repetitive nature of annual releases and competitive one-upmanship of those titles. Wolfenstein hit at a time when World War II shooters were few and far between. That said, Wolfenstein: The New Order did move into an alternative 1960s, but the feeling was still there. B.J. Blazkowicz shot a bunch of high-tech Nazis with some loud guns and stood alongside like-minded resistance fighters. It caps off with a fantastic boss fight and you’re left satisfied. The newest Wolfenstein games were linear stories, but not every waking moment was spent running and screaming with seemingly endless monster closets triggered repeatedly by your movements. There was downtime. There were quiet moments. There was character development, optional story threads, emotional connections and great humor. These are things that boost the run-of-the-mill FPS to become something greater, in my opinion. That’s what I look for. There is room for all of these things in Wolfenstein and Machine Games delivered for Bethesda on their debut release by packing it all into a game that played great, too. Give these guys more work because they’re going places.
Comparatively, it may seem like I’m contradicting myself with Doom. Unlike Wolfenstein, Doom is non-stop, blood-pumping action at 57 miles per hour. The concept is very simple. A crazy scientist named Olivia Pierce opened a portal to Hell on Mars and let a bunch of demons out. As the Doom Marine, you must kill those demons and close the portal before the whole world goes to, well, Hell. You will go to Hell and back, and you’ll do it at full tilt with your finger clamped firmly down on the trigger. Doom is absurdly fast, frantic and gruesome. The player is rewarded for performing beautifully animated Glory Kills by getting up close and person with staggered enemies. The combat is unforgiving and discourages hesitation. The best method of operation is to stay mobile and aim for the biggest demon to gain a wealth of health and ammo. Without it, you’ll die faster than you can say “Cyber-Mancubus.”
When I sit back and think about it, Doom seems pretty mindless. When I play it, Doom is too in-your-face hectic to let me think about anything other than fighting to survive. It’s not like Wolfenstein in that it emphasizes the core gameplay mechanics over everything. As the Executive Producer and Game Director at id Software Marty Stratton put it, “the game is about guns.” The reminiscent yet modernized music is blasting in your ears and demons wail all around you. Hurriedly, you swap between weapons and fire off hundreds of rounds and shells without having to reload. Run, jump, shoot, repeat. It sounds very simple on the surface, but the variety of enemies and a rich progression system for almost everything in the game combine to make this Doom title fresh and consistently fun. Found a new gun? Look for a Field Drone to modify it for alternate firing modes. Kill some demons and earn points that will unlock their subsequent upgrades. Pick up suit upgrades and Argent Energy to make yourself a tougher, more efficient Doom Marine. Look for optional, but very important, Rune Trials that put your skills to the test with a fast objective mini-game that rewards your efforts with ability modifications. The ability to tailor the Doom Marine to your playing style contributes to the depth and responsiveness of Doom.
Bethesda released these games during an era of FPSs that emphasizes multiplayer. Titanfall was a great shooter, but it lacked a campaign. Star Wars: Battlefront followed suit, sacrificing the opportunity to release a story-driven game in that vibrant universe in favor of a launch that coincided with The Force Awakens. Halo 5: Guardians responded to criticism of the previous title and poured into bettering the multiplayer experience with an Arena mode that was true to its roots and a more complex Warzone alternative. Frankly, the story and gameplay of the campaign was the most significant misstep in the franchise’s history aside from its Spartan Locke prequel show. Many fans and critics have been clambering on about the death of the single-player shooter campaign, and I understand that there has been a real threat to its legacy in recent years. However, Bethesda refuses to let it happen. Instead of following the trends, they’re bringing back their faltered IPs and allowing them to swim against the current. Maybe these games don’t play as well if other publishers and developers did not opt to shift away from strong campaigns. Maybe we don’t even see a new Wolfenstein or Doom. The fact of the matter is we have seen more than one excellent FPS campaign published by Bethesda in two years and there is room to grow. Maybe id Software takes on Quake? Maybe Machine Games will unleash the next installment in Blazkowicz’s harrowing journey through that alternate history. I’d love to see what else they have up their sleeve, even in the form of a new IP that could blow Bethesda’s healthy line-up wide open. Whether it’s killing Nazis, demons or anything in between, Bethesda has put out fun and engaging experiences through campaigns unlike any other publisher today. Let’s hope others will find inspiration in their recent efforts.