Review: Wolfenstein for PC, XBOX360 & PS3

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As I’ve tossed out before while talking about the Wolfenstein iPhone releases, my history with Wolfenstein is nearly 30 years old. I’m not sure how I initially found out about it – it could have been an impulse buy at the local computer center – but from the moment I started playing Castle Wolfenstein on my Apple ][+ I was hooked. Locks that told you they would take 75 seconds to pick – and that was *real time*! During which you were vulnerable to the ever-roaming guard patrols.

By the time Wolfenstein 3D came out in 1992 the gaming press was better so I knew it was coming and got it quickly after release (day of release rush wasn’t the sport it is today). I played the heck out of that for quite a while, and still love that game, having gotten it for the iPhone recently. My wife bought me Return to Castle Wolfenstein when that arrived, and I have recently replayed that on my netbook, and it is still a wonderful experience. So I was a natural ‘easy sell’ for Wolfenstein. Except for the fact that I found nothing particularly intriguing in the pre-release press.

The Hype:
Combining intense action and stunning graphics, Wolfenstein picks up immediately after the events of the award-winning Return to Castle Wolfenstein. In the newest chapter to the famed franchise, the Nazis’ have returned to their dark experiments and unearthed a dimension that contains amazing powers, simply known as – The Veil. With the help of the resistance faction of the town Isenstadt, players return to enlist as super OSA agent BJ Blazkowicz to uncover the Third Reich’s evil aspirations and stop them before it’s too late.

As players embark on an all-new mission deep in the heart of the Third Reich, they will have access to an arsenal of upgradable conventional and sci-fi weapons, while battling a multitude of escalating enemies, from Nazi combat troops and super soldiers to paranormal forces and experimental creatures.

Following in the footsteps of its predecessors, the Wolfenstein multi-player experience features the Axis and Resistance squaring off against each other in Team Deathmatch, Stopwatch or Objective based games. With three classes from which to choose, players can fight on the frontline as a soldier, heal their compatriots as a medic, or help gather objectives as an engineer all while using the Veil powers in special ways. Additionally, the persistent gold found within the multiplayer maps allows players to purchase upgrades for weapons and Veil powers on the fly, ensuring a deep and continuous variety of action along with tremendous replay value.

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The Reality:

There were additional reasons for me to be frothing at the mouth waiting for this: I’ve always been a huge shooter fan, gobbling up nearly every release from Wolf 3D until being burned too many times by consolized ports in recent years has made me more selective. Throughout the years there have been two companies whose work I have loved: id Software and Raven. The history of id is pretty well known, from Wolf 3D to Doom and Quake and beyond. I have generally liked what they have made, though I am much more drawn to story-based games than free-for-all romps like Quake III. Raven is less known, but I have been a fan since Heretic and HeXen in the wake of Doom (using the engine licensed from id). I mark a couple of their games – Star Wars Jedi Knight 2 and Soldier of Fortune 2 – as being on my list of ‘favorite games ever’.

So why wasn’t I there at the day of release? The reasons for that are key to my overall thoughts of the game.

First, I was not particularly impressed by the press info that was coming out prior to release. To me it felt very generic and never really painted a compelling picture of what was happening. I mean, in earlier games the castle was central to the game, there were allusions to previous events from Wolf 3D in Return to Castle Wolfenstein. And, of course, each of the earlier games featured a strong core plot that had you feel like you were constantly progressing towards a final goal.

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But there were two things that soured my initial interest even further: one is that I am just not a fan of the whole ‘reboot’ mentality. The past few years has seen countless resets of films and shows and games, and while some of them have been good there is seldom any real feeling that any of it is necessary. The last thing was that the trailers seemed to reek of this being a console-first production – which actually ties in well with the reboot mindset. While it might have made sense from a business perspective, there is something about having a trailer depict a beloved franchise that has spent nearly 30 years on personal computers suddenly return as a generic looking ‘dark & gritty’ consolized game with some occult stuff tossed in as an afterthought that really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Here is basically how I felt: Wolfenstein is a fun romp with some interesting sci-fi / occult overtones and elements, but ultimately a throwaway in every respect. The story is a huge thing for me, not because it is too shallow, but rather how it is implemented. Let me explain a bit why it matters. Of course in the original game the entire plot was trying to escape the castle. The sequel, Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, had you attempt to kill Hitler. Wolfenstein 3D had a mission where you had to defeat the head jailer (Hans Grosse … a name taht will sound familiar if you play the new game) and escape the castle; another where you need to destroy the Nazi zombie / biologic war program; and finally a huge campaign ending with a major conflict with Hitler himself once again!

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Return to Castle Wolfenstein is partly a reboot, partly a reworking, and partly new stuff. As was true with each of the earlier games, you start alone in a cell after killing a guard, and take his pistol and a few rounds as your weapon. You then have to escape from the castle, but that is just the beginning – you were investigating the SS Paranormal Division and some bizarre activities before being captured, and that is what you continue doing after escape. The OSA (Office for Secret Actions, a secret Allied office) features heavily, as you watch cutscenes full of exposition about the head of the division, known as Deathshead. You are tasked with conducting secret investigations and facing hundreds of soldiers, as well as mutant products of Deathshead’s UberSoldat program, and ultimately a number of ultimate paranormal entities that you must defeat to spell the end of the entire SS Paranormal Division. Or so you are led to believe.

Wolfenstein is set as a sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but it reminds me of a parody commercial for a movie called ‘Hoover 2’ where a group plans to cripple the US and make huge demands by destroying the massive dam … again. Wolfenstein has as a core element that the SS is planning to deliver ultimate power to the Third Reich by scientific exploration of ancient cult relics and rituals. Wait … isn’t that what I just said about Return to Castle Wolfenstein? Yeah, but apparently they are after a NEW cult item, which is based on the old Germanic pagan symbol of the Black Sun whose figure was the inspiration for the striking SS lettering.

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And once again, BJ Blazkowicz is sent out to stop the SS and save the world. To do so you have to ally with a few different groups running resistance operations centered in the town of Isenstadt. This allows them to provide a pseudo ‘open world’ feel to the game as you travel from area to area within the city to pick up new missions. The factions are the Kreisau Circle and the Golden Dawn … oh, and the aptly named ‘Black Market’. The Kreisau Circle was an actual resistance group that struggled between loyalty to Germany and rebellion against the Nazi regime. The Golden Dawn is an actual sect, but the focus was much less paramilitary in reality during World War II, but given the role of Black Sun it is forgivable.

Sadly I think I have just placed more importance on these factions than most gamers will – certainly I have seen many who echo the sentiments about the occasional plot elements ‘getting in the way’ more than anything else. I blame the developers for that – in Return to Castle Wolfenstein you wanted to understand what was happening … here you just want to figure out who is giving out missions, get the mission, and get back to shooting stuff, possibly grabbing some upgrades from the Black Market along the way. The game makes all of this pretty easy, as each of the faction’s ‘safe houses’ has a label on it so large that you begin to believe that either you have special perception abilities that let you spot the labels or everyone else in the game is a massive idiot. And given the apparent lack of a preservation instinct, I’ll go with the latter.

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To sideline things for a moment as a means of explanation, let me talk about consolization of the FPS genre. In general, since around the time of Halo and dual analog sticks on consoles, games of the FPS genre have largely played the same. But right around that same time a number of games on the PC started introducing gameplay elements that enhanced the experience … but that have been lost. The first is leaning: games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein had the Q and E buttons mapped to lean left and right, which certainly adds to a wider variety of pacing options instead of just run & gun. Also, games such as No One Lives Forever utilized the higher response rate of a mouse to allow players to make ‘snap turns’ which could translate into intense ambushes from cover. Even FEAR (made by No One Lives Forever developer Monolith) has lost that feeling in its latest iteration. Of course, the penchant for auto-aim (or ‘aim enhance’) on consoles speaks volumes. And the final area is user interface – I talked about it in my review of Fallout 3 and unmappable keys, but the simple reality is people with a mouse want to move their cursor somewhere and select something, not have options scroll as they mouse over and then select. It may seem minor, but as I have been playing so many classic shooters on my netbook I have been struck at how much tighter and visceral the gameplay is on those compared to newer games that are apparently optimized to feel ‘just right’ on a console controller.

And now back to Wolfenstein! I thought that having a centralized hub city that served as a center of operations was an excellent idea. I remember playing Jedi Academy and discussing with friends how cool it would have been if they had done a centralized hub at the Academy where you could spar against NPC’s and practice Force power and so on between missions … if I remember correctly one of the developers had dropped by the forum and had said that was under discussion but out of scope. I found it a simple yet effective way to break free from the typical mission structure without really doing anything radical. My only complaint was that enemies would spawn at a ridiculous rate, often ghost spawning around you if you popped quickly into an area. More on that later.

So … the Veil. It is interesting in a way, a hidden dimension you have access to based on the amulet you find in the opening cutscene. As you progress, you gain access to three additional powers: Weapon Power, which enhances damage from your weapons in three levels; Shield, which absorbs damage; and Mire, which slows down time considerably. Taken in combination, these three powers can make you an absolute wrecking machine. Of course, balancing that off is the fact that you have a ‘Veil Power’ meter that is sort of like mana in a fantasy game. There are a generous amount of ‘Veil Pools’ located throughout the game world to help you quickly replenish your powers, but you can forget about the possibility of running around the whole game in the Veil hunting for secrets. In fact, one of the strategic elements is learning judicious use of your Veil powers.

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Again, this is nothing new – Mire is ‘bullet time’, weapon power is more or less like Berserk mode from Doom, and the entire Veil reminds me very much of The Gloom from the Night Watch books of Sergei Lukyanenko and the video games based on them. And, similar to The Gloom, the beautiful job the developers did building the world of WWII Germany is lost in the hazy green sub-world of the Veil.

I also like the whole concept of the Black Market – and two things in particular. First off, I like that there are requirements for getting certain upgrades such as finding a certain number of Tomes; and also I love that you will never gain enough money to buy everything. It is also nice that most upgrades to weapons are immediately felt in gameplay. I loved the MP43 as a standard weapon, and any of the enhanced technology weapons, and so I was thrilled that as I added to each weapon I could feel the change immediately. Some are obvious – like the scope for the MP43 – but other enhancements give you a larger magazine or better accuracy and power. You can also upgrade your veil powers … and as soon as I discovered that I focused on getting those up to their maximum. I was glad that one of those ‘tip’ screens alerted me to a scarcity of money, because otherwise I’d assume the typical ‘pauper to tycoon’ approach used in just about every game with currency.

Of course, wanting to get upgrades puts you on the treadmill that is as much punishment as reward. You need to hunt for all of the secret items (gold, intelligence, and tomes) that you can find in an area, which means painstakingly exploring every detail and looking for hidden spots in the Veil. This can greatly increase the playtime, but not enhance enjoyment. In fact, as I progressed further and further, finding secrets felt more and more like a chore.

Despite finishing the game fairly recently, I needed to go back to my notes and screenshots to remember stuff – which goes back to the earlier statement that while it is a fun romp, it adds nothing to the genre and isn’t an artful representation of the current state-of-the-art, nor does it in any other way distinguish itself as a game that should be replayed. I found it entirely solid and adequate, but never spectacular.

It is interesting to describe Wolfenstein as an ‘Average Joe’ game, since you would think that a sequel to the game that launched the FPS genre would be highly anticipated and have loads of buzz. I mean, there are loads of fans out there, and id has released tons of stuff to Steam and on the iTunes App Store recently. There have been some advertisements out there, but nothing that ever really staked a claim to the legacy of the game or made a case for why it is unique. They never even touched upon the history – and there are some decent nods in the game to previous entries.

A bit more on the Veil power: in reality, if you just wander around looking for secrets you can engage the Veil and you won’t run out before finding a power pool to quickly replenish and go along your way. I played at the highest difficulty level, and found that I would tend to activate all four powers at once when I was in an area with enemies, which drained quickly. But then again, I really loved using fully charged Mire and sending out waves of destruction, or fully charged Weapon Power to shoot enemies through solid objects.

One of the cool things about the use of the id Tech 4 engine is that despite being the same engine that powered Doom 3 back 5 years ago, it really does still look good. It is amazing to see how these engines are enhanced and optimized through the years so that they can produce excellent visuals and perform very well. I had everything pushed to the maximum in Wolfenstein and it looked great, and also ran flawlessly without every stuttering on my PC.

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When I play a FPS, I seldom revisit areas before completing the game. From what some of my friends have told me, that was a good choice. At the end of each mission there is the option to replay a mission. I had considered doing this to grab more secret items, but instead just kept chugging along. Apparently replaying missions is linked to a fairly widespread bug that corrupts your saves and makes it impossible to progress! Some folks could go back to earlier saves, but others were completely out of luck. After completing the game I jumped back and replayed areas, but never ran into any issues.

The one bug I did have to deal with was right at the end – and I mean what I found was within 5 minutes of the credits rolling! Without spoiling too much, the end boss would move at certain times, but in my game he got stuck as he started to move. I reloaded, rebooted, and eventually had to go back to the autosave from the beginning of the area and repeat the whole thing. Of course, at that point I could work through the sequence with ease, and made it to the end with a feeling of letdown that after a long and robust romp without an issue I ran into that frustration right at the end.

But my final thoughts about Wolfenstein are that it failed to ever define a reason why anyone should buy it. As I said, the Wolfenstein legacy should have given them plenty to work with, but they decided to just do it as a ‘reboot’ and never try to capitalize on all of that history. Perhaps they were concerned about what I called the ‘Hoover 2’ syndrome; perhaps they figured that in the 8 years since Return to Castle Wolfenstein everyone had forgotten about the game. Whatever they thought, it is clear that the ‘vanilla’ approach to marketing is not working – the game barely cleared 100,000 units sold in the first week or so, and since then there have been layoffs at Raven, officially described as a re-balancing, but unofficially ascribed to the over-budget and under-performing Wolfenstein.

Where to Buy:

Price: $49.99 for PC, $59.99 for X360 / PS3

What I Like:
– Nice graphics and performance
– Veil system
– Nice nods to earlier games

What Needs Improvement:
– Never answers the ‘why should you spend $50/$60 for me’ question
– Reported bugginess in both PC and console versions

Originally reviewed for VGBlogger

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