After the success of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, id Software with co-dev Raven Software decided to take things in a different direction with 2009’s Wolfenstein. The result was a game that polarized reviewers and fans alike. Some viewed the game as the “same old same”, with nothing that revolutionized the genre. Others were dismayed at the weak multiplayer aspect. Ultimately, the title sold poorly, and id Software has ultimately decided that gamers should forget about it. A decade later, it’s high time that Wolfenstein, with its focus more on mysticism and horror, gets a second look.
After the events of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Blazkowicz finds himself aboard the German battleship Tirpitz. After stealing a medallion from a general, B.J. is captured. However, B.J. unwittingly unleashes the power of the medallion, vaporizing the crew. Hijacking a plane from the Tirpitz, he escapes and returns to the OSA headquarters. There, he learns that the medallion (called a Thule Medallion) was used by a group of mystics that worshipped something called the Black Sun. The Thule Society, a group of high-ranking Nazis interested in the Occult, has now set their sights on the Black Sun. It also turns out that the Thule Medallion needs crystals called Nachtsonne, mined only in a city in Germany called Isenstadt. The city is currently under martial law, and under the command of a general named Viktor Zetta. Blazkowicz’s mission is to infiltrate Isenstadt and stop the Nazis’ plan.
As mentioned, Wolfenstein takes on a supernatural turn with its subject matter. The game makes use of an alternate dimension mechanic known as as the Black Sun, and between the two dimensions is the Veil. The Thule Medallion that B.J. holds gives him access to the Veil, which in turn grants him powers, such as the ability to enter the Veil (which reveals secret doors and ladders). The world of the Veil is bathed in greens, and is home to Geists – floating, non-aggressive alien beings that explode when you shoot them. Careful, as if you kill too many of these geists, you’ll end up with red-bellied “suicide” Geists appearing. And they’re all too happy to fly up and explode near you.
Later on, you’re granted the typical slow motion power, a shield, and the Nazi-destroying Empower ability. Of course, B.J. isn’t the only one who has access to the Veil. Along with the appropriate Nazi experiments resulting in monsters, you’ll come across Nazis are able to use the Veil, with disturbing results. In one instance, you find yourself in a hospital with Nazis that are able to turn invisible, with their creepy laughter both taunting and terrifying you. And it wouldn’t be appropriate (cliché as it is) if one of the antagonists didn’t turn out to be a monster when viewed through the Veil, now would it? Then of course at a certain point, you’ll have to do battle with the Queen Geist, which involves the use of a mounted gun as she sends waves of soldiers after you.
Speaking of guns, it just wouldn’t be a Wolfenstein game without ’em. Unlike the often underwhelming weapons in Return to Castle Wolfenstein (the flamethrower was a waste), Wolfenstein gives us an assortment of firearms that are an absolute delight to use. Despite not having a shotgun (which is inconceivable in an FPS), we do get the standard MP40, a bolt action rifle, rocket launcher, and grenades. From there, things get really good. The Particle Cannon vaporizes Nazis with a delightful sizzle, while the “fire and forget” Tesla gun will literally hit everything in a 90–degree arc in front of you. And the flamethrower finally gets some justice, as one spurt of flame will set an entire room ablaze.
Lastly, there’s the Leichenfaust 44, which might as well be the BFG for the game. Essentially an energy rocket launcher, with the added bonus of cancelling gravity in its blast radius. The beefier enemies that aren’t killed by the first shot will be left floating helplessly, giving you a nice target for a follow-up. As their body evaporates, individual bones are left floating away into nothingness. It almost makes the game feel a little cheap, as you can upgrade these weapons using the gold you find around the levels. Combined with upgrading the Thule Medallion, B.J. practically becomes godlike. You’ll end up slowing down time using the Mire power and gunning down soldiers before they even have a chance to react, or using the Shield power to bounce bullets right back at soldiers (or vaporizing them if they come too close). It almost makes you feel sorry for them. Almost.
As far as the graphics go, Wolfenstein uses a modified id Tech 4 engine, also known as the DOOM 3 engine. And while for the most part, the graphics still hold up today with some pretty good textures and depth of field effects, the engine does show its age. Not to the point where every human uses the same body type, mind you (as in DOOM 3). As for the sound, as previously mentioned, the screams of Nazis and appropriate effects for the carnage you unleash really complete the badass feeling you get while in combat.
So, with all these toys to play with, a new supernatural element added to the story, and glorious wanton destruction, why did Wolfenstein fail? One of the knocks against the game was its level design. Wolfenstein was the first in the series to be focused solely for the console market, and it shows. Using Isenstadt as a glorified open-world hub was a big miscalculation. The overall city is dull (even with the increased Nazi presence later on), cramped, and frustrating to navigate. There are moments where you’ll find yourself in a firefight and ducking behind cover, but when you compare that to what you were able to do in Return to Castle Wolfenstein, it feels like a step backwards. In the former, you could find yourself in a position to find a perch to take sniper shots at enemies a mile away. In Wolfenstein, you end up navigating a series of rooms that sometimes feel claustrophobic with the way you’re literally fenced-in.
Another big misstep was the multiplayer. Like many PC gamers, I adored Return to Castle Wolfenstein class-based multiplayer (and more so in the free-to-play Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory). In Wolfenstein, you had your typical deathmatch and objective-based play, but this time around, the classes were condensed to three: Engineer, Medic, and Soldier. No more Spy. No more Sniper. The fact that the upgrade progression was slowed down made things worse for those who lacked the skill to compete against veterans. It also didn’t help that id had to release a day-one patch to fix some of the issues for multiplayer.
But what probably hurt Wolfenstein the most was the timing of its release. Back in 2009, gamers were starting to tire of the standard first-person shooters. This was the time when you had games like F.E.A.R., BioShock, Resistance: Fall of Man, Far Cry 2 and Crysis all offering new takes on the genre. Comparatively, Wolfenstein, even with the addition of a new mechanic in the Thule Medallion and the dimension-hopping, still felt like it was the same old story once you scratched beneath the surface.
But, in a twist of irony, today’s scene has a hearkening back to FPS games that are more linear, with a great focus on action. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order is a perfect example of that. In that sense, Wolfenstein would be a perfect candidate to revisit. The game is still loads of fun in its singleplayer campaign (flaws and all), and frying Nazis with either your guns or your powers never gets old.
The problem (for PC gamers, at least) is trying to find a copy. id Software stopped selling the game digitally on Steam, the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live back when The New Order was released. GOG.com doesn’t even sell the game. Tracking down a physical PC copy in the wild is tough, but for console gamers, you shouldn’t have any problems finding one for the PS3 or Xbox 360. If you loved The New Order, you definitely need to give Wolfenstein a second (or first) look. id Software might not think much of the game, but it’s definitely worth it if you love wanton carnage in your first-person shooter.