There are few games that have as long and venerated a lineage as Wolfenstein. For many gamers, it rates as one of their first experiences of the visceral world of the first person shooter. That sense of nostalgia is not something to take lightly - first games are not unlike someone of a previous generation knowing where they were when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
Nostalgia is a harsh mistress, however. Can Raven's latest idTech4-powered iteration provide solid action, while still pleasing the old-school fans hankering for a new PC classic?
Wolfenstein and PC gaming goes hand in hand like bread and butter, but this time, Wolfenstein's coming out across all the major gaming platforms. And it shows, in all the wrong ways.
If you're a gamer and upgrader worth your salt the first thing you'll do in any game is dig into the graphics options to make sure your new game is going to look as shiny as your practically nuclear-powered rig can make it. And that's going to be your first big disappointment in Wolfenstein, as there's barely any options to tweak!
You can bump graphics detail up and down between three settings in about seven variables, and the only one that really speaks to the PC's power is Anisotropic Filtering - we don't even get to play around with anti-aliasing! This would be okay if the game had some native hi-res texture packs to make up for it, but we're playing with the same files that the console-crowd will be tooling around in.
The graphics aren't the only part of the game that suffers from the port. The main interface is very much designed with a thumb-stick in mind, rather than the more elegant mouse (sorry, console fans, it's just true); it takes about three times more clicks than you'd expect to even get into a game, and when you are in-game, don't even think about quick-saving. Checkpoints and auto-saves are the order of the day, but there do seem to be a lot of them, and we've not found it too onerous relying on them. Before each big set-piece there's always a save, and the discrete nature of a lot of the encounters allows you adequate time to recover from each firefight.
Killing Nazis for fun and profit
All of that whining aside, there's a lot to like about Wolfenstein's single-player. It kicks off with a stunning CGI intro, and then drops you more or less straight into the action. You play long-time protagonist BJ Blazkowicz as he attempts to fathom the dark dealings of the SS as they in turn seek out the secrets of the mysterious power known as the Black Sun.
The plot is pretty much Raiders of the Lost Ark on crack, and with even more exploding bodies! In a lot of ways, it's pretty much bang on what you want from a Wolfenstein, though this time the focus on occult action is even heavier.
Even BJ's getting in on some occult loving thanks to the acquisition early in the game of a Thule Medallion, an artefact of a bygone age that lets him see behind the Veil and into a shadowy otherworld. This is the prime mechanic of the game, and you'll swap into Veil vision to see secret doors, enemy weakpoints, and use powers like slowing the flow of time to take advantage of slow-mo enemies.
It's a pretty neat effect, too. In the Veil, your focus on the world is sharper, and you see everything in ghostly shades of blue, while strange creatures and dark winds flow through this otherworld. Using the Veil runs down your Veil energy, as do the various powers, but there are many Veil fountains throughout each level, so running out of energy is more of a hangnail than a fatal error.
But all that fun boils simply down to one thing - killing Germans - and for all the added colour of the Veil, Wolfenstein's gameplay still seems a little one dimensional.
Part of this is the level design, which tries to make you feel like you're in a big world, but is in fact really quite linear. There's lots of ammo, more than enough veil energy to harvest, and since a lot of the action takes place in cramped areas, explosives can be very powerful.
There's the usual variety of real-world weaponry, and things get even easier when you start picking up some of the super-science weapons that the Shock Troopers carry. To be honest, most of our deaths were from our own grenades, which seem to have an annoying knack of finding things to bounce off then land back at our feet.
It all adds up to a singleplayer experience that is fun enough, but only just. Surely multiplayer will be our savior?!
War is a team effort
In some ways Wolfenstein's multiplayer is a serious step backwards. Its graphics are, well, lacklustre at best (it's the same engine, but tweaked for performance rather than quality), and why anyone, let alone a dev like Raven, would bring out a game with 12 player cap in this day and age is beyond me. On the other hand, there are some hints of innovation, or at least paying attention to what a good online game should be, that it'll likely draw you back more than the adequate singleplayer campaign.
Multiplayer revolves around class-based gameplay (Soldier, Medic and Engineer), in three modes (Team Deathmatch, Stopwatch and Objective). There's fun to be had, but you can't help but feel that few more players, or some better animations or textures, would really lift the experience. The ability to buy yourself persistent upgrades between matches is good, but not quite enough to pull Wolfenstein over the line online.
Raven seems to agree, too, as a zero-day patch updated a lot of early issues; the dev studio that made the multiplayer component was laid off at much the same time, too. Yipes.
But, we can't really blame them. Wolfenstein has promised so much, and just not quite delivered. It's fun, but it could have been so much more.