The year 2014 is a big one for Bethesda Softworks.
The publisher is releasing a reboot of iconic first-person shooter Wolfenstein, a new hardcore survival horror from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, and The Elder Scrolls Online - the most ambitious Bethesda project yet.
By the time it is released, the massively multiplayer online (MMO) game based on the acclaimed Elder Scrolls franchise will have been in development under ZeniMax Online Studios for a whopping seven years.
Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within hopes to breathe new life into the survival horror genre he helped create, but which in recent years has slipped increasingly into generic action territory.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is the first of Bethesda's 2014 releases, hitting shelves in just under three months. The single-player only title from developers MachineGames follows BJ Blazkowicz as he goes up against the Nazi war machine once again.
Recently, after playing a preview session of The New Order, I caught up with Bethesda VP of PR & Marketing Pete Hines to discuss the three titles.
The first-person shooter (FPS) market is pretty crowded, where in it will Wolfenstein: The New Order fit?
It's for folks who want a really good, compelling, different shooter action/adventure game. It knows what it is and it does it well. It's not trying to provide a multiplayer experience, it wants to tell a story, blend some different gameplay elements, provide you an experience that's both familiar but very different. Something that is worth your hard-earned money and time.
You mention blending different elements together and there's a lot of that in The New Order. There are different types of gameplay, and it mixes quite a lot of old-school FPS elements with newer developments in the genre. Is this an attempt to make the game as diverse as possible?
It's not as if we need to make it diverse to appeal to more people. The guys at MachineGames have made games for a while, there's the core group of them that were at Starbreeze then left to create MachineGames. This is the sort of game that appeals to them, blending some things and mixing different elements. So it's not just a FPS that they've changed the pace with. There's cutscenes and a strong story that provides more depth to the characters, not just having shooting with a gun but combining other elements as well so it doesn't feel too stale. I think that will be more appealing to folks because it's not just a one-note thing, it's trying to do something a bit different than the other shooters out there.
One of the ways MachineGames has mixed things up is with the tone. There's some very graphic violence in this game and some pretty dark stuff with Nazis executing hospital patients and so on, but then you can also dual-wield massive shotguns and blow away robot dogs and have frivolous fun like that. Do you think they've got this tonal mix right?
I do, yeah, but I guess ultimately it's up to folks like yourself once the game comes out and you get to play the whole thing and see it from start to finish. I think the tone is consistent and appropriate. I think we look to other things like Inglourious Basterds and how Tarantino does it. All of that tonally mixed content can coexist within the same space, you just have to be careful that you don't go too wacky or funny, or don't show so much violence that the player becomes desensitised to it. You've got to find the peaks and valleys - you have the violence peak and valley, the action peak and valley, and dark comedic peaks and valleys. You know, sometimes there's violence in the humour itself. There's humour through the game, like Hitler talking about how he wants world peace and will fight to the death for it. The encounter with Frau Engel, she is slightly disturbing but also somewhat comical, because she's just so twisted. And she's got this wacky boyfriend that is just instantly hateable. So the two of them together, that whole encounter is kind of amusing. When BJ interrogates that officer with the chainsaw, it's dark and serious, but also kind of funny. I think those things work to help keep the game moving, drawing the player in, keeping it fun and interesting.
I've played previous demos of this game and don't remember the perk system being in there. Is that further trying to make this game unique among other FPS titles?
Yes it's new, it wasn't in the previous demos. It's an interesting, small wrinkle to the game. It's not a game-changer in terms of you can't finish the game unless you're trying to take advantage of the perks. But you start to pay attention to them and realise the skills are unlocked by stuff you're likely already doing, like getting headshots or stealth-kills, then you can start doing things like throwing knives down hallways. It adds another layer on top of everything else – upgrading your weapons, finding bonuses for BJ that incrementally increase his health and armour. It plays into not only trying to explore the game but trying to play it in different ways in different situations and rewarding the player for doing that.
The New Order builds on the original Wolfenstein a lot, one of the ways in which it does is the character of BJ. What do you like about how this character has been developed?
If you go back and ask anybody who played the previous Wolfenstein games to describe BJ, there's not a lot to tell. He didn't really have much of a voice or personality, he was just the guy you played when you were shooting Nazis. I like that we've put him together as this iconic, altruistic American soldier who is really good at killing things, specifically killing Nazis. But as it shows in the beginning of the game, he's doing it because he just wants to go home. He wants to get married and have a BBQ in his backyard with his wife and kids, lead a normal life. The Nazis are in the way of that. It's not like he's a guy that won't know what to do if there wasn't a war to fight, he'd be perfectly fine with that. So he has to deal with these assholes that have taken over the world and get rid of them. He's going to do whatever he has to so he can get rid of them and get back to being a normal guy. I like that. I also find it interesting the way his dialogue is written. You might not notice this, but he doesn't use contractions. He has a way of speaking that is almost very educated. He's a grunt soldier but an intelligent guy. We don't have cutscenes for cutscenes sake. I really enjoy watching the cutscenes, I feel they tell the story and are always interesting. I remember playing Uncharted and that was probably the first game where I wasn't wanting to skip every cutscene, but instead was like 'ooo there's a cutscene, good, I made it to another one!' I think the MachineGames guys are finding a good balance and a good voice for BJ, telling his story in a way that is interesting and appealing.
The two big boys of the FPS genre had some issues with their last release as they came out during the generational transition of consoles. Call of Duty: Ghosts was criticised for looking and playing too "last-gen" on the new-gen systems, whereas Battlefield 4 was plagued with bugs on the new-gen systems. The New Order doesn't have multiplayer so it will avoid those issues, but it was still developed over the transition phase. Is Bethesda mindful of this?
I guess, somewhat. The truth of the matter is, if you look at any game early on in the console cycle, then you look at the ones several years later on the same console, there's a pretty stark contrast. The more time you have working with the new tech and figuring out tricks and secrets, getting the most out of it, the better the game is going to look. The New Order is not a game that is trying to be the most visually stunning thing you've ever seen, it aspires to be more than eye candy. There are some games that are trying to leverage more with their visual fidelity, where what they look like is key to why you want to buy them. We've made sure to be taking advantage as best we can of what the hardware can do, but that's not ultimately the main reason to buy the game. I also think that with the PlayStation 2 - PlayStation 3 and Xbox - Xbox 360 there was such a bigger jump in visual fidelity. It was night and day. You'd put the two consoles together and there wasn't any question. This new generation isn't about that, it's not about a quantum leap in graphics, the difference there is a bit harder to distinguish.
The Evil Within is coming out in August and expectation within the horror gaming fan community is huge for this one. Is it properly scary?
It scares the shit out of me! It's a game that I have to be in a certain state to play. There's only so much of it I can take before I have to stop, because it's genuinely upsetting me or getting to me so much that I have to stop playing for a while. Our brand manager David Clayman is in his office playing it all the time. Every now and then he'll walk out of his office because he needs to go talk to somebody, he's lost a bit of colour in his face, saying "I just need a break". The game is extraordinarily good at what it does. It is a survival horror game that does the survival aspects extremely well, and it does the horror aspects extremely well. You know what you're playing very quickly with this, more so than most of the games we release. I could describe Skyrim to you, but you really need to play it for a few hours to really see it open up and understand what it is. Wolfenstein: The New Order is the same way, like if you play it for five minutes during a shootout that's all you'd think it was, you need to play it for a while to see the bigger story and different elements of it. You play The Evil Within for 45 seconds and you'll know exactly what it is, and that it's very good at it. So we're super excited for this one, I think anybody who has the slightest interest in survival horror is going to find that this scratches an itch that they've had for a long time.
Shinji Mikami created Resident Evil and now The Evil Within and all these memorably horrific and violent game experiences. Is he a nice guy?
Oh yeah, a super nice guy. I know what you're saying, he makes these games and I wonder 'What is wrong with that boy?' The stuff in his head is absolutely terrifying. But he's a very nice guy, very friendly, cordial, seemingly very happy. But you see the games that come from his head and realise he's able to go to a dark place. He really has a good idea of what it takes to scare somebody. You might think it's easy, because everybody knows what is scary, but you try and implement it in a game these days and it's hard. Ten or 15 years ago, seeing somebody graphically get their head cut off or exploded was scary, but now it could be in anything. You can't rely on blood and gore to scare any more. You've got to step it up, have the player so off-balance that even when they're ready to be scared, when they're totally expecting you to jump out and scare them, and yet you manage to scare them anyway. That's a special skill to have and Shinji is very good at it. But it's not just Shinji, it's his whole team that have a very good eye and talent for that, keeping the player off-balance and surprising and scaring them.
As it's a horror game getting quite a lot of buzz at the moment and is also set in an insane asylum, have you played Outlast yet?
I have not. I'm aware of it and it's one I want to get to, but it has to wait for when I'm not travelling and am actually home with some time to spare. There's a pile of stuff I want to play actually.
This is kind of the first time Bethesda has dipped into the survival horror genre, is it something you're keen to expand into further?
Well we had Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth some years back. But Bethesda is into finding people who are very talented and creative and have experience at making really good, AAA quality games and supporting them to do whatever their vision is. So it's not like if Evil Within is a success we'll do more survival horror games. If something fits the team that we find and the game we want to make, then that's what we should do. We want to have them do whatever they're best at. I think that will continue to be our approach, our mantra. If Shinji said he wanted to make a car racing game, that's not something he's really done or had any experience in. But when he says he wants to make a survival horror game, even though that's not something we're known for, who cares? That's what he's known for and players won't evaluate Evil Within based on us, but the guy who is making it.
When we spoke at QuakeCon you were right into the fishing in Elder Scrolls Online. Is that still one of your favourite activities in the game?
Right, haha, yeah I'd just discovered bugs and fishing. Oh for sure. Ultimately what I continue to enjoy is to just drop into the world, pick a direction, go that way and find stuff to do. I'm very much a solo MMO player. I'm not big into finding groups and doing stuff with them. The way I play games, with my schedule, I can't commit in advance to a time to play - stuff comes up, kids have homework and so on. I love that ESO allows me to play on my own schedule.
Have the beta periods and tests been as successful as you'd hoped?
I think in general, yeah. There's obviously gives and takes because there's times when you test stuff and you find out that folks don't like the way you've done something as much as you'd hoped. So you go back and fix it, change it, throw it out there and now they like it better. You can't assume that every solution you have to every thing is going to be a massive hit. For example, we changed the way combat works. It used to work entirely differently, now it works much more like Skyrim did and people like it a lot more. If we don't go through a process of trying the other thing that people don't like and then fixing it, then we never get to where we are. So it's been a process, but I think we're very happy with where we are. We continue to make changes and tweaks and fixes as we continue to go through testing. Our focus right now is still making sure people like the game in all of its various stages, but also dealing with masses of people showing up and wanting to play the game, all the back-end stuff. We don't really quantify that in an on-screen experience other than there's not like a giant line to sit in. But you gotta put the game through its paces, push the limits to see if your solutions to fixing those things actually work. Essentially you're trying to break the game to see if fail-safes respond the way they're supposed to.
How is the Megaserver system handling latency issues?
With our last beta test we pushed the boundaries on that and found some things that we want to adjust. So we'll fix those and throw them into the build, then throw a whole bunch of people at it again. You don't go from having one person play it to having millions of people play it and find no skips along the way. So we're continuing to ramp up the amount of people we throw at it to see how it holds up at these different thresholds. Along the way we're finding some things that don't work quite the way we thought they would and found better ways to handle some things. The Megaserver system handles this situation better and we continue to find and identify those things. Again, we would be more scared if nothing went wrong. There's no possible way we got this 100 percent right the first time. That would mean the problem was something we hadn't found yet and it was waiting for us in the deep dark recesses of the code. Finding those things is reassuring because you're able to then fix it.
Has anything surprised you pleasantly from the beta periods with people using the game in a way you didn't expect?
I'd say the hours of gameplay that people have put in. We expected a certain amount of people to play it for a certain amount of time, and they've gone past that. Also some players have gravitated a lot toward a particular feature that, y'know, we thought was good, but they think it's amazing. I'm really happy how much folks seem to be enjoying the PvP stuff. That system is one of the key elements to longer term gameplay and end-game stuff. It's holding up well and people are enjoying it. With anything, there's always feedback. 'This should work like this', 'You guys have got to fix the way the weapon spawning works', 'this class is nerfed', 'that skill is too powerful, it's unbalanced'. This is an MMO, that's the kind of stuff we need to keep polishing and tweaking it. And honestly, that will never stop. There will never be a point where we're like 'OK, it's good and we don't have to touch it'. We'll always have to be monitoring it. But for where we're at, a couple of months before launch, we're really pleased with the feedback from consumers, how much they like the game, how much they want to play, what they like about it. We're pleased with what we've got.
The Elder Scrolls Online is a full-price game to buy, and then there's a monthly subscription fee to play it. That's quickly going to add up to a lot more money than people spend on a lot of games. Is it worth it?
That is something we're going to continually work to prove, that you're getting value for that $15 per month. That's going to come from two things: continuous improvements to the game, and the content updates. They won't be little things, they'll be regular, consistent, meaningful updates for the game that are the kind of things that players want to see. Whether that's a new zone to play or a new feature that players want to see - maybe someone wants there to be a Dark Brotherhood guild they can go to with their Argonian, that's something we can add. That content can come in all different shapes and sizes.
Even just the base game as it's shipped is worth continuing to play because your story with this character doesn't end when you reach level 50. You can't go to level 51 but you can still level the character up by continuing to improve what that character is good at. You can take that character all the way through an alliance, start to finish, then take them and start a different alliance as a level 50, fighting not level 1 stuff but enemies that are appropriate for your level, unlocking cool new stuff you can only get to by doing that. There's three alliances to play through, each of them hundreds of hours of gameplay, plus you have PvP, plus there's the new content that we're adding. We think it is a value proposition that folks are going to warm to the more they see how much there is to do and play. We want it to feel like a AAA game and we want to have AAA support, and a subscription will allow us to do that in a way we simply wouldn't be able to with a pay-once proposition.
- Wolfenstein: The New Order releases May 22 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
- The Elder Scrolls Online releases April 4 on PC and Mac and in June for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
- The Evil Within releases August 28 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3