Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
The granddaddy of first person shooters makes a glorious return in a brand new game.
It's a depressing thought that many of the young gamers out there playing COD4 or Halo 3 or Killzone 2 have never played Wolfenstein 3D. Some have probably never even heard of it, and if an "old-time" gamer like myself were to try and talk to them about it, they'd probably give me that universal look all young people give to older people when they start sounding old. You young pups are probably giving your computer screens that look right now, aren't you? Fuck.
Before I get into reviewing Wolfenstein, let's talk just a little bit about its forerunner Wolfenstein 3D. Released in 1992, W3D now qualifies for great-grandfather status of the FPS gaming genre. As popular as it was in its own right, W3D did more for gaming by paving the way for the release of Doom the next year, a game that pretty much cemented the FPS genre's place in the world of gaming. In the run up to Wolfenstein's release, W3D was recently ported to Xbox Live Arcade. Twinges of nostalgia caused me to download and revisit this old favorite (emphasis on old).
I had forgotten just how primitive W3D is. Sure, at the time the graphics made Super Mario Bros. look like Pong, but that was seventeen(!) years ago. Not only is there not a curve to be found in the entire game, but everything is drawn in right angles. And while you can look left and right, W3D is really only pseudo-3D, as you can't look or move up and down, meaning the game really exists in a single (2-D) plane. Your arsenal is a paltry three guns: a pistol, submachine gun, and the chain gun, which yeah was über-cool at the time, but that is only the fourth coolest gun in Doom. Come on. And the enemies? After killing enough dogs to infuriate PETA and mowing down a battalion of Nazi soldiers, admittedly those zombies were pretty bad-ass, but even they got old after awhile. W3D is a game from a different time in gaming terms. It deserves respect for what it accomplished and for the trail it blazed for all the great games that came after. Games like Quake and GoldenEye 007 and Half-Life and so many more. And W3D's direct descendant Wolfenstein, released on August 18th, 2009 (enough with that look you whippersnappers; I'm getting to the review now).
Wolfenstein features hero of the earlier games soldier/spy William "B.J. Blazkowicz once again in a battle with Himmler's Nazi SS and their obsession with the occult. Determined to exploit the world of the paranormal for their dark purposes, it's up to the player (as Blazkowicz) to stop their sinister machinations. Wolfenstein departs from its outdated forebearer in a number of significant ways. Like 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein abandons the linear escape-from-the-castle story and features a much larger, almost open-world setting. Granted, Wolfenstein isn't as big or as open as inFamous or Prototype, but the city of Isenstadt serves as the central hub from which players will embark on missions. Scattered throughout Isenstadt are three factions that serve as allies in your mission to stop the Nazis. The Kreisau Circle is a group of German resistance fighters that continue to engage in guerrilla warfare with the much larger Nazi military. The Black Market is run by two brothers capitalizing on the chaos of war by seizing and selling anything of value they can get their hands on. The Golden Dawn are a mysterious group of scholars specializing in paranormal study that have committed themselves to stopping the Nazi SS from forcing their way into a world they cannot understand and should not be meddling in. While each faction as a safe house around Isenstadt, this is a city firmly under Nazi control, and travel in and around Isenstadt is treacherous.
Additionally, whereas W3D saw gamers using more traditional methods to fight the twisted results of Nazi paranormal experiments, in Wolfenstein you actually get to use occult powers in your battle. At the beginning of the game you learn that SS forces under the command of General Zetta are attempting to harness an ancient occult power known as the Black Sun. In the game's early-goings, you discover an artifact called a Thule Medallion at an archaeological dig site. When empowered with various mystical crystals, players can use the Thule Medallion to augment gameplay and combat with awesome results. It's most basic power allows players to enter a supernatural realm called The Veil for a short time. While in The Veil players move faster, can easily pass through certain real-world obstacles, and discover weaknesses of particular enemies. As the game progresses you will obtain new powers for the Thule Medallion such as being able to generate a protective energy shield and slowing (or even temporarily halting) the passage of time.
Though these newfound powers can give you an edge, just as in any good FPS game your success in combat is determined more by the arsenal of weapons at your disposal. Fortunately, Wolfenstein boasts an array of real-world (such as the MP40 sub-machine gun) and supernatural (e.g. the Particle Cannon) weapons with which you can decimate your Nazi foes. About four hours into the game and it looks like I've found just under half of the available weapons. But in a very cool move that reminds me of the weapon customization element in Bioshock, in Wolfenstein as you complete missions you are rewarded with money, and throughout every mission, as well as the city of Isenstadt, bags of gold are hidden away waiting to be found and collected. Pay a visit to the Black Market and you can use this money to purchase various upgrades for every weapon in the game, upgrades that are unlocked as you progress through the various missions. This allows players to customize weapons to their particular style of play (not to mention give some of the early guns a bit more punch). Want to incorporate some stealth tactics into your game? Outfit your MP40 with a silencer. Feel like sitting back and picking off the enemy from a distance? Save up and purchase the sniper scope for your Kar98. Though be sure to upgrade wisely; a note on one particular loading screen promises there is not enough money in the game to purchase all available upgrades. However, you can sell back upgrades you no longer use, so feel free to experiment without the worry of being stuck with any particular upgrade for the game's duration.
In other aspects of gameplay Wolfenstein competes with any FPS out there today. The controls are very intuitive and sensibly laid out (at least on the Xbox 360 controller, though I imagine the same can be said for the PS3). For example, the various Veil powers are assigned to the D-pad, and holding the right bumper brings up your weapons, allowing you to choose your active weapon with the right thumbstick (you can even assign a favorite weapon to the A button), and a quick tap of the right bumper quickly switches your current gun for the last one you had equipped. Instead of a health meter and scattered first aid packs, as in Gears of War 2 in Wolfenstein you can only take so much damage before a "close to death, find cover!" message appears onscreen. Suffer another hit or two and you're dead. If you do manage to find respite (or eliminate any immediate threats), you'll have to wait a few seconds for the blood red smear that has been encroaching from the periphery of your television screen (the sign of accumulating damage) to recede before getting back in the fight.
In terms of graphics and sounds this game shines. The war-torn city of Isenstadt looks as good as any setting from Call of Duty: World at War. Gunfire and artillery explosions sound incredibly realistic. The voice over work is good but not great, though personally I would have preferred more actual German spoken than German-accented English, though I can understand why the developers went this route. The look of the entire world around you changes drastically once you enter The Veil, and though striking, IMO it seemed rather unoriginal as it's highly reminiscent of the spectral realm in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.
I have yet to try out the multiplayer component of Wolfenstein, and so I won't offer any critique of it in this review. I can tell you that from the description on Wikipedia that it doesn't look like it offers the sort of variety of play to be had in Halo 3, COD:WaW, and the like, which might not bode well for drawing in gamers.
All told, I was second-guessing my decision to purchase Wolfenstein as I walked out of the store on its day of release, wondering if I should have just saved my money for Batman: Arkham Asylum instead. After spending just about every free minute I've had in the past several days playing Wolfenstein, that doubt was misplaced. Wolfenstein has yet to really disappoint and I expect it will come out of 2009 as one of the better games of the year.