Reviewed: August 25, 2009
Released: August 18, 2009
Whether they are persecuting Jews, vying for world domination, or trying to keep the Blues Brothers from reaching the Cook County’s Assessors Office, I think we can all agree there isn’t much to like about the Nazis, which is why they have become the fodder for countless videogames dating back to the original Castle Wolfenstein game I played on an Apple computer back in 1984. That was a top-down exploration-shooter game that had you exploring a Nazi castle looking for gold and killing soldiers.
It wouldn’t be until 1992 that id Software would team up with shareware giant, Apogee Software, to launch the first game in what has become the FPS genre. In Wolfenstein 3D we met Polish-American B.J. Blazkowicz, who we only knew by his firm-jaw visage located at the bottom of the screen that would become battered, bloodied, and bruised the more damage he took. Now, 17 years later, B.J. is back and so are those pesky Nazis. This time they have tapped into the mysterious supernatural world of the Black Sun where untold power awaits and could turn the tide of the war in their favor. That is, unless B.J. has something to say about it.
Simply titled Wolfenstein, Raven Software has created yet another installment in the FPS genre and the Wolfenstein legacy. Borrowing on a familiar lead character and even more familiar enemies, this latest WWII romp takes us on an adventure that delves into the supernatural – so much in fact I was waiting for a cameo from Indiana Jones. The game uses the premise of an alternate dimension that B.J. can transition to with the same ease as Raziel in Soul Reaver, and with the same effect.
The plot is fiendishly simple and equally as evil. The Nazis, working with a group of scientists and scholars have tapped into the Black Sun dimension and are harvesting its energy to power their own supernatural weapons like super-soldiers, stealth bombers, Veil tanks, and a giant rail gun. With a reasonably solid story to drive the action, B.J. gets dumped into enemy territory, meeting up with resistance fighters at a train station before moving into one of the largest city maps ever seen in a first-person shooter.
Unlike most FPS games that walk you through a linear set of missions via a menu, Wolfenstein seamlessly weaves its missions and diversionary objectives into this massive city, thus creating the illusion of an open world game. The city is so massive it is divided into four parts and each can take hours to explore, especially if you are looking for all the cool hidden pick-ups in this game.
Wolfenstein features mystical Tomes, bits of Intel like notes and blueprints, as well as numerous sacks of gold stashed in diabolical locations. Tomes unlock weapon upgrades and veil abilities while gold allows you to purchase those upgrades at reasonable black market prices. Intel usually gives you tips and hints on monsters and locations, often after you’ve already learned the hard way. I thought it would have been much more logical to have you find a blueprint of a weapon to unlock its upgrades. As it is, Intel only fuels your Trophies.
Speaking of Trophies, Wolfenstein offers a rather unbalanced selection that seems to favor the multiplayer modes versus the single-player experience. Cups are awarded for completing the game on the various difficulty levels as well as destroying objects, finishing the game under a certain time limit or even performing a certain amount of melee attacks. But more than half of the rewards will force you to head online to earn them.
As you travel through the various parts of the city you will encounter numerous NPC’s from two factions. You have the real resistance fighters who actually get out and help you fight and then you have another group who is more scholarly and will educate you on the mysterious Black Sun universe and the power of the Veil. These groups offer you shelter as well as provide you with several missions.
Early in the game on one of your first missions to a Dig Site, you will acquire the Thule medallion that allows you to access the Veil by using various crystals. Additional Veil powers are acquired during the various missions but by the end you will be able to slow time, shield yourself (actually reflecting bullets back on your attacker) and use a devastating Empower mode that allows you to shoot through walls and shields – kind of like the Auger weapon in Resistance.
Veil powers are not a substitute for weapons, but rather enhance their use. Simply going into the Veil will illuminate enemies making them easier to spot and toggling on the Mire mode you can dodge bullets and rush your attackers before they know what hit them. Veil mode is also a great tool for locating hidden passages in walls or the extremely well hidden Tomes that glow red when in Veil. Various powers or combinations of powers consume your Veil energy at different rates, but you can refuel your Veil power at numerous swirling pockets of energy that come out of the ground and walls on every level.
I applaud the rich upgrade dynamic of the game and the decision to not give you enough gold to max out the entire arsenal, however you can sell back upgrades (for half price) if you find one weapon works better than another. Weapons like the MP40 and MP43 work great and nothing beats a KAR98 with a sniper scope or a rapid-fire rocket launcher. Futuristic weapons like a Particle Cannon and Tesla Gun offer flashy firepower and satisfying results.
Controls are solid with standard FPS twin-stick movement and look while the D-pad maps to your medallion icon to trigger the various Veil powers. L2 toggles iron sights or scope and R2 fires. L1 lobs a grenade and you tap R1 to instantly switch to your favorite weapons or hold it down to bring up the radial menu, which thankfully pauses the game.
I only have a few complaints with the actual structure of the game. I would have enjoyed going back to previous missions through the city interface, but once you finish a mission that “portal” is locked and you have to select the mission from the menu. I am horrified at the checkpoint system used in this game – one that breaks every rule of game design and tests your patience to no end. First, the game checkpoints prior to cutscenes, and every boss fight has a cutscene that you will likely die one or twenty times trying to defeat. At least you can skip the movie but why not simply checkpoint afterwards.
My other main complaint is that the game doesn’t save your pick-up items as you get them, so it is quite conceivable that you will play a lengthy section of a level (say 10-15 minutes) killing all sorts of enemies and picking up gold and intel and then die. Now every other game in the past five years keeps your pick-ups and resets you at the last location checkpoint but Wolfenstein restores your complete personal and level status, forcing you to get all those sacks of gold and kill all those enemies over again. Perhaps this is why an 8-10 hour game took me 16:23:32 to beat on Hard mode.
There is a lot of backtracking, especially through the various parts of the city getting from one mission launch point to the next, and the Nazi occupations grows in size and power with each new trip across town adding unnecessary time. You can kill everyone in the street then go in a door and come right back out and the streets are full again.
Wolfenstein brings back the classic boss fights usually hinted at with a room full of weapons and ammo. These can be fun, challenging, frustrating, and downright evil at times. Interestingly enough, the hardest boss isn’t the last, which sort of destroys the usual ramp of difficulty you expect from these tiered missions.
Many gamers will have fond memories of the countless multiplayer hours they spent with Return to Castle Wolfenstein back in 2001. Raven brings back that multiplayer concept with massive and complex levels perfectly balanced for up to 12 players, but not without a few caveats. There is a nice selection of game modes including the traditional DM and Team DM as well as new modes like Objective and Stopwatch and even new Veil attack powers not available in the single player game are added to the mix. An upgrade system is in place that allows you to earn cash for kills and completing objectives then spend that on weapons and Veil upgrades specific to any of the three character classes – Soldier, Engineer, or Medic.
Both the 360 and PS3 versions of Wolfenstein received launch day patches which were supposed to fix a few things and iron out some wrinkles in the multiplayer, and while the 360 version became a better game post-patch, the PS3 is still plagued with horrible lag and jerky gameplay that virtually makes Wolfenstein unplayable online. Perhaps a future patch will fix this problem, but until then, only consider this game for its solo offerings.
From a presentation standpoint, the visuals in Wolfenstein are excellent, although just a slight step down in clarity from the Xbox 360. Things start off a bit bland, especially in the city levels that get rather repetitive and maze-like, but once you head out to the various missions like the Farmhouse, the Dig Site, and especially the Castle and the Airfield, you can’t help but be impressed. The animation is awesome and the gore is over-the-top with decaps and dismemberment, especially with big bore upgrades, and you can even bayonet a soldier in his neck and listen to him gurgle as he clutches his throat and collapses.
I loved the Veil effect which turns the real world into a bluish-green monochromatic world with subtle enhancements like glowing enemies and the sudden appearance of Geists, floating creatures that are best left alone. Subtle touches like having ammo, Intel, and gold sacks sparkle, and Veil openings marked with a starburst logo in the real world make the extensive exploration of Wolfenstein tolerable.
The audio package is outstanding, a slight improvement over the Xbox 360 with exciting music and score that matches the action on the screen but knows when to back off so you can immerse yourself in the powerful Dolby Digital sounds of battle. All the guns have great sounds and the explosions are deafening. One part of the city is under random airstrikes and trying to dash across the fountain square between explosions is like something out of Saving Private Ryan. If you have a good subwoofer this game is going to rock your world. I also loved all the speech and semi-authentic accents. Even the Intel reports are narrated for you.
It’s easy to see that Wolfenstein was designed primarily for its single-player story for therein lies its most appealing features and gameplay design. For the time being the multiplayer is “broken”, not in its mode but its infrastructure. But even if it were working it still doesn’t break any new ground and was probably tacked on to keep the RTCW fans from rioting. Face it – there are better online games out there but not many single-player, story-driven FPS titles come close to matching the classic FPS goodness of Wolfenstein.
Wolfenstein has perfectly positioned itself with a strategic release date where the game has no real competition. But when games like the new HALO and Modern Warfare show up I can see Wolfenstein slipping into obscurity, so act fast and get your copy today. Wolfenstein is an awesome blend of old-school memories and next-gen ideas assembled into a rewarding game experience you can’t afford to miss. Just don’t plan on heading online anytime soon.