Discussion Review: Wolfenstein

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After an eight-year hiatus, Wolfenstein has returned and B.J Blazkowicz is back to take it to the Nazi regime once again, albeit with a few new tricks up his sleeve. But does this genre-defining franchise still have what it takes to compete with the FPS elite or are its best years behind it? Let’s find out!

Matt: Activision, id and Raven Software’s new Wolfenstein reboot brings us another game I imagine you have much more invested in than I do. I’ve personally never been a huge fan of id games, but as I’m sure they do for many gamers, Wolfenstein 3D and Doom hold a special place in my heart for basically inventing the FPS genre and sparking my early interest in PC gaming when at the time I was strictly a console guy. But other than the original Wolfenstein 3D, I don’t recall ever playing any of the other Wolfenstein games.

So the new Wolfenstein for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 is a game I hadn’t followed all that closely (watched and posted a couple trailers, but that was about it) and didn’t expect much from. Maybe lower expectations made it easier for me to enjoy, but I was shocked by how much the game entertained me. It’s certainly not a memorable, genre-busting experience, but it is an incredibly solid and briskly paced FPS that’s hard not to have a good time with.

Normally, I’d probably start off talking about storyline, but in a game like Wolfenstein the story is a throwaway — you get a series of plot points propelling you through the game and forcing you into pitched battles against undead Nazis, and that’s about it. And that’s fine. I would have appreciated a more in-depth plot, but didn’t find myself lamenting the absence. After a few missions I accepted it and enjoyed not having some epic narrative bogging things down in such a wacky-premised game such as this. But feel free to elaborate more on the plot if it’s a more integral part of the game to you.

The game itself actually reminded me more of a Call of Duty game than what I typically expect from an id-franchise production, in terms of the faster pacing and more open levels and objectives. Of course, Raven Software headed development on this one, and as far as I know id’s only involvement was providing Raven with the id Tech 4 engine to power the game, so that probably explains the different feel. As a more seasoned Wolfenstein fan, did you notice a similar change in style?

Mike: I’m sure I’ve tossed this out there before, but 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. 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 – similar to you – I found nothing particularly intriguing in the pre-release press.

But 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, as mentioned 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.

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.

OK … by now you are probably sorry you asked my thoughts!

In your opening you summed up much of 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 … sound familiar?) 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!

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.

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 your 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, but 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.

OK, Matt … so ARE you sorry you asked for my opinion now? And what did you of the Veil and all of the other associated gameplay elements? Also, did you like the hub-and-mission mechanism?

Matt: Wow, I guess you really do have more invested in the Wolfenstein franchise than I do!

As you recap the series’ progress, I can certainly sympathize with your thoughts on the lacking narrative. But again, without much of a vested interest in the series prior to this the things you mention just don’t hit home with me. The whole occult Nazi theme was enough for me, and I really didn’t see that it needed to be fleshed out any more than it was.

I’m not sure I understand all the angst towards the consolization of the FPS genre though, partly because I don’t really see how FPSs can be consolized — RPGs and strategy games, yes, but FPS?

While I’m certainly no hardcore PC gamer — though I would be if I could afford to keep up with the constant need to upgrade hardware — I have been playing FPSs since the Wolf 3D and Doom days, as I said before. And honestly, I don’t see how FPSs are any different on console than they are on PC, or how the increased migration of FPSs to consoles has negatively impacted their design on the PC side. Other than improvements in technology and subtle innovations here and there, the FPS genre has stuck to the same core values for a long time now. The only difference I’ve ever noticed in playing FPSs on PC versus console is how they control (mouse and keyboard vs. analog stick controllers).

But I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, so let me refocus my thoughts specifically on the new Wolfenstein. The pseudo open-world part of the game is what caught me by surprise the most. I just didn’t think it was going to be that type of a game. And for the most part I think the format worked to the game’s advantage. I liked having a mini-hub to roam through in between missions, especially since it’s populated with enemy patrols, hidden collectibles and a few side missions. Because of it, the game has a good flow to it and a greater sense of continuity than the FPS norm.

There isn’t anything particularly original about the game — outside of the occult vibe it plays like “just another WWII shooter” — but all mechanics are soundly designed. The weapons are fun to shoot, the upgrade system is solid, the levels and missions are generally entertaining, and there are some cool boss battles. And then there is the Veil mechanic by which you can use a medallion to switch into an alternate dimension known as the Veil, and when doing so you can spot hidden paths and enemy weaknesses or activate special powers, like a protective shield, a damage booster, and, of course, slow-motion. The only problem with the Veil is that you generally feel like you can’t play the game without it activated at all times. I don’t know about you, but whenever I wasn’t in the Veil I felt like I was missing out on some hidden secret. I’m actually going through the same thing with the Detective Mode in Batman: Arkham Asylum right now, but that’s a topic best left for another discussion.

Mike: OK, hopefully without totally derailing us, let me talk about consolization of the FPS genre. As you say, 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 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 – we talked about it with 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! Like you, I did actually think 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.

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 your 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.

What other thoughts do you have on any of this?

Matt: OK, now that you’ve elaborated more I sort of understand where you’re coming from, though I’m still not sure I’d attribute those feature losses you speak of to consolization. Seems to me that leaving out things like peek-and-lean and basic interface adaptations is more just lazy/rushed development. Stuff like peek-and-lean has been done on consoles before too, but not so much anymore either — and I’m with you in wishing it was a more standard mechanic like it used to be. Given the rising development costs and oversatured market, a lot of average Joe games like Wolfenstein — known franchise, but not a lot of marketing buzz behind it — get somewhat dumbed down to cater to as broad an audience as possible, be it PC, consoles, handhelds or whatever.

You raise a couple other topics I was planning to touch on. First, the balancing of the Veil mechanic. Unlike you, I felt like I was playing through the entire game in the Veil dimension without much difficulty. As you say, the availability of Veil pools is very generous, and except for a few spots in the game I found it pretty easy to keep my Veil power running virtually nonstop at times. Because of this, I found that the game severely lacked in difficulty. I played through the game on the highest difficulty setting (Uber I think it’s called) and breezed through much of the game up until the final couple missions and bosses when the encounters finally began to force more judicious use of the Veil powers.

I’m in complete agreement with you on the Black Market system, though. The upgrade system is really well implemented. Like you, I was incredibly pleased to see the game cap your ability to purchase every single upgrade, thus forcing you to carefully choose which weapons and powers suit your particular play style. I also love the instant gratification upgrading weapons provides. Purchased weapon mods, be it increased clip size, improved sighting, sound suppression or whatever, are reflected on the gun models for visual satisfaction and really do provide a noticeable benefit to weapon use in battle.

Changing topics here for a moment, what’s the polish level like on the PC version? By and large, the PS3 version is solid. The graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge, but the id Tech 4 still pumps out some impressive detail and smooth frame rate performance. And I must say, the filter effect when switching in and out of the Veil dimension is pretty damn slick.

However, there are some nasty bugs lurking in the game code. At the conclusion of one boss fight when I was being sucked into a portal, the game world vanished from sight and I was left floating around a blank screen. Worse still, there must’ve been an auto-save in there somewhere, because when I restarted from the last checkpoint it reloaded me in the glitched state, so I had to go back to an older checkpoint and replay part of the level again. And that’s not all. One other time I was in a safe area and paused the game for a quick break, then came back, unpaused the game and magically a Nazi spawned right on top of me and instantly killed me. For a second I didn’t even know what happened. I hit the start button and “bang” I was dead!

You have problems with any major bugs like this?

Mike: It is interesting that you 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.

I understand what you’re saying about using the veil power quite a bit, and 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 also 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 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.

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 auto-save 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.

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Pros:
+ Nice graphics and performance
+ Veil system
+ Nice nods to earlier games

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

Matt: Oddly enough, we’ve gone through all this and have yet to even utter a single word about the game’s multiplayer. But that actually works out as a perfect indicator of how bland and forgettable it is. Three modes, three character classes and eight maps are all you get, and while the excellent weapon and Veil upgrade system from solo play carries over, the online performance takes a noticeable dive and the core shooting mechanics don’t seem nearly as fun as they do in the campaign. Apparently, Endrant Studios handled development on the multiplayer component, so I suppose that explains the inconsistencies. And like Raven, I’ve heard Endrant also laid off staff following Wolfenstein’s completion, so obviously the game hasn’t been a success for anyone involved.

The lacking multiplayer hurts big time, too, particularly on consoles where Xbox Live and PSN users seem more demanding of their online FPS experiences to get maximum replay value for their $60 spent. Which leads me to agree 100% with your conclusion: Wolfenstein is a solid — I’d even say above average as a single-player game – FPS with a few standout features, such as the upgrade system, mini-hub world structure and the Veil powers, but nothing about it jumps up and screams “buy me!”

Wolfenstein is a great rental… nothing more, nothing less.

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Pros:
+ Great upgrade system
+ Cool Veil dimension powers
+ Mini-hub adds unexpected open world element
+ Solid FPS mechanics and pacing

Cons:
– Too easy, even on the highest difficulty
– Veil use slightly unbalanced
– A number of serious bugs slipped by QA testing
– Weak multiplayer

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC and PS3, also available on Xbox 360
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Raven Software / id Software
Release Date: 8/18/09
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-12

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!