Wolfenstein is a rarity in the world of gaming. Sure, first person shooters based in World War II that have you blasting wave after wave of Nazis are a penny a dozen, but that's not what I'm talking about. As one of the major franchise players in the genesis of the first person shooter genre, it's absolutely surprising that this franchise hasn't been run into the ground with constant yearly updates and expansion packs. In other words, it's rare that a franchise with this much clout doesn't milk its name like many others (cough, Call of Duty, cough). With such a long layoff between instalments, were the FPS gurus at Raven able to do the dormant franchise justice?
In the eight years since Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the FPS genre has had many innovations, and a simple blast-a-thon like the classic Wolfenstein games simply won't cut it this days. For better or worse, this new Wolfenstein incorporates many of the improvements and cliches that have littered the genre in the past decade.
Despite the title which suggests a total reboot of the series, Wolfenstein is actually a direct sequel to the aforementioned Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Once again you fill the combat boots of one B.J. Blazkowicz, the American spy who has singlehandedly brought down the Nazi regime time and time again on many a gamer's lonely Friday nights. This time around, the Nazis have discovered a parallel dimension called the Black Sun, a world filled with terrifying creatures and potential for devastating weapons. By using their new weapons and powers against them, Blazkowicz must team up with the local resistance in the German town of Isenstadt to take down the Nazi war machine once and for all.
While the story is rather silly and goofy, the game presents with just enough seriousness and a wink-and-a-nod that it becomes entertaining. You'll certainly want to press forward to see what insane situation the game will throw at you next. You can take this game's plot about as seriously as you can Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, and that's definitely a good thing.
After an initial mission in a train station that introduces you to the basics and themes behind the game (including a bravura sequence where gravity goes out the window and you pick off floating Nazis) you'll be thrust into the main hub of the game, the fictional town of Isenstadt. Isenstadt acts as a hub between all your missions. While in the town, you'll be able to explore, speak to resistance members, buy and upgrade new weapons, select which mission to play, and engage in some firefights with the local SS in the streets. While the hub levels would suggest that the game is non-linear, it's truly anything but. You rarely have more than two missions at any given time to select from, and the always-on compass tends to discourage unabated exploration.
Despite the linearity, there's no mistaking the fact that this is a Wolfenstein game. It's once you get into the missions that the real meat and potatoes of the game reveal themselves. After a few nicely varied missions (including some awesome ones in a hospital, a cannery, and a farm house), you'll gain access to a magical medallion that gives Blazkowicz a few powers, giving the game a welcome BioShock feel. The medallion gives you access to "The Veil", which essentially lets you shift between the Black Sun dimension and our normal world. When you activate the Veil, the entire world takes on a green twinge, turning your enemies into glowing green targets for easy sniping. While in the Veil you'll also be able to walk through certain walls, and move faster. Other powers also allow you to slow down time, turn your enemies to dust, put a reflective bullet proof shield up, and power up your shots for extra damage. You can refill your energy by standing on the generously spread out pools of energy throughout the levels. The medallion adds a layer of fun and strategy to a game that could have easily turned into a generic FPS experience. The only qualm I had with the system is that it encourages you to play the majority of the game with a green haze, which undermines the admittedly good looking graphics.
Your arsenal involves a nice mix of real and fantasy weapons. You'll have the standard WWII load out of k98 rifles, MP40s, and MP43s. The real fun begins when you get your hands on weapons like the Particle Beam and the Tesla Gun which dissolve and electrocute your enemies respectively. Ammo for these weapons is a little scarce, but more can always be purchased.
The other wrinkle in the formula comes from collecting hidden gold, tomes of power, and intelligence throughout the levels. Not only do the intel logs help fill in the blanks in the storyline, collecting them and the tomes allow you to unlock new powerups for the medallion and upgrades for your weapons. While the K98 rifle is weak to start, by the time I reached the end of the game, it was a long scoped, bayonet equipped, death dealer that would blow off Nazi limbs and heads with satisfying aplomb.
The main campaign will last you between 8-10 hours, and there's a middling multiplayer mode to keep you busy after that if you're into that sort of thing. Unfortunately, Wolfenstein's multiplayer is limited and dull. The game uses a class based system not unlike that of Call of Duty 4. You earn money for kills, healing teammates, placing well placed explosive charges, and the like. You can choose from one of three classes that will affect how you play the game. Sadly, there's only three modes of play; Team Deathmatch, Objective, and Stopwatch, which is simply a timed variation of objective. At the time of this review, no one was playing the latter two modes, so if you want to take your game online, Team Deathmatch is the only real option. The added Veil powers add a little spice to a bland meal, but not enough to make the multiplayer mode compelling beyond an initial curiousity.
Wolfenstein is built upon idTech 4, the same engine that powered Doom 3 five years ago. The game looks good, but the engine is really starting to show its age in what is undoubtedly its swan song. The environments are large, spacious and detailed, with solid texture work. Your enemies are well animated and varied as well. The gore effects are also fantastic. Enemies get blown apart by grenades, you can snipe off individual limbs, and stab an enemy with a bayonet in the throat and watch him writhe and gurgle his way to an imminent death. However, facial animations are definitely lacking, and when up close, in game characters have a weird shiny look to them that looks out of place in the gritty environments. The weapons models and lighting caused by the weapons are very solid.
Sound design is a definite plus for Wolfenstein. The game is accompanied by an excellent orchestral score that really adds to the intensity and atmosphere of the game. The weapons sound punchy and powerful, but not to the point of excess. Voice acting is above average too, but not without a few groan inducing moments. Blazkowicz is certainly the best of the bunch in this area. However, I find it weird that all of the Germans speak English, especially considering they all spoke German in the original Wolfenstein 3D 17 years ago.
Wolfenstein is a fun shooter romp that certainly reflects both its developers' superb pedigree and the legacy set forth by it's influential previous of kin. The game brings just enough originality to the table to ensure you'll see it all the way through to its thrilling conclusion, but its multiplayer is sadly lacking in any sort of longevity. If you're looking for a different way to blast those same Nazis you've been battling for years, look no further than this fun and exciting shooter.