Where would popular culture be without Nazis?
In an era where ideologies are increasingly fractured there’s something indulgent and refreshing about revisiting the default antagonists of yesteryear. Those wily nogoodniks of the Third Reich are up to mischief again? No problem, lock and load.
Happily, that’s about as far as Wolfenstein cares to take the matter. This time out the nefarious schutzstaffel - ever too insidious for its own good - is tapping an occult dimension called the Black Sun and there’s only one man with enough brass tacks to put an end to their freedom-hating ways. Special agent BJ Blazkowicz is back again as the conduit to our bottomless appetite for scything down satanic Nazi henchmen. Conversation is for dandies and Europeans: BJ’s simple dialogue has all the satisfying predictability of an ‘80s action flick, only sparingly punctuating the long passages of body count accumulation for mom and apple pie.
And after wresting a talisman that allows access to the Black Sun dimension from the clutches of his evil foes, BJ is turning their own scheme against them.
So the singleplayer campaign is all about indulging simple pleasures. War-torn Isenstadt is the game’s central hub and is home to the Kreisau Circle and the Golden Dawn, resistance fighters and weedy scholars respectively, and both of whom are in dire need of your superior Yankee muscle. These two factions drive the plot, pointing BJ and his arsenal at various Nazi targets and letting go of the leash. All missions are accessed from launch points located around the city, whether it’s storming a building occupied by the SS or hitching a truck to a nearby farm.
The city streets are curiously empty of civilians and Nazis will shoot at you on sight - the game never really sells the idea that you’re carrying out covert operations. Isenstadt is largely open for exploration but unless you’re a methodical player who insists on uncovering all the optional collectables (intelligence, gold and tomes) you’ll find yourself walking the same cobbled streets, alleyways and passages to each mission launch point. The city setting feels like a missed opportunity for a kind of quasi-stealther experience in the vein of Assassin’s Creed.
But then Wolfenstein isn’t a stealther in spite of nods to the genre: You’ll find yourself creeping up on unsuspecting Nazis and stabbing them in the back, shooting Nazis from the shadows or the rooftops, and upgrading your weapons with silencers so that you can kill Nazis... quietly.
The missions themselves are your standard FPS campaign fare, seasoned with a healthy dose of atmospheric engagement. For the most part they take place indoors, meaning you’ll be ambling (literally) along passageways that bottleneck the ubiquitous Nazi soldiers into your field of fire. The AI on these fodder mobs leaves something to be desired. If they see you reload, they’ll note it and call for an advance but stay put. They’ll also call out if you throw a grenade but they won’t move. While we’re on grenades, their physics have more in common with a tennis ball than an explosive on a stick. The Nazis have mastered one skill that may leave you envious, however: the capacity to lean around corners. They may use it in a predictable manner, but it’s something that’s especially lacking in BJ’s skill set.
There are obvious gameplay comparisons with Call of Duty. BJ’s health replenishes when he’s not taking damage and inbound grenades are marked on the interface using the same radius system. Wolfenstein makes a few unnecessary thrusts at realism. Reloading will see the camera tilt to the left and ascending or descending ladders occurs in jolts and spurts. It’s a textbox example of an old mantra: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Was there ever a gamer that let out a frustrated sigh because a yet another title didn’t realistically recreate the experience of climbing a ladder?
The special or unique units are where the game really invests its efforts. These visually pleasing mobs are infused with occult powers, whether they’re suspense-inducing invisible assassins stalking you through a library or lieutenants who move with inhuman speed and buff regular troopers. But BJ has a few tricks of his own.
The aforementioned talisman affords BJ four special abilities courtesy of the Black Sun veil. Simply entering this alternate dimension will increase BJ’s otherwise loping speed, and highlight enemies and their respective weak spots. BJ can also slow time, empower his bullets and wrap himself in an impenetrable shield. All of these powers use a diminishing pool of Black Sun energy, but the game world is littered with recharge points and in time you’ll be able to exist within the veil almost exclusively.
The missions culminate in old-school boss fights, which are entertaining highlights in themselves. To bring them down typically requires a balance of veil powers and applied use of the environment. In addition to advancing the plot, BJ gets paid for his work at the end of each mission.
Isenstadt has a robust black market and you’ll spend your money at these conveniently located and well-signposted chain outlets. All items can be upgraded (even the talisman and supernatural weaponry pilfered from the corpses of your vanquished foes) by these industrious arms dealers in the conventional fashion, making improvements to accuracy, damage, recoil and reload times. There are no cap guns in Wolfenstein: even the humble mp40, properly upgraded, remains a last argument of kings throughout. But of course, it’s not nearly as satisfying as disintegrating the masses with a beam cannon.
The game is built on the id tech 4 engine, the same used for Quake 4 and Doom 3, meaning the graphics aren’t Best in Class, but they’re far from stilted. The Havok physics engine occasionally makes for a frustrating accumulation of detritus in the confined game environment. Once or twice you’ll have to throw a grenade just to clear the path.
There’s no save function. Instead, the game uses frequent checkpoints. Unfortunately, it’s hit and miss as to whether you’ll be reloaded to your most recent checkpoint after restarting the game. The system was clearly employed with consoles in mind.
Wolfenstein’s multiplayer was developed by Endrant Studios. Many of Endrant’s staff formerly worked for Splash Damage, the developer of the much-praised Enemy Territory mod for 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein. So with good reason, many have been highly anticipating the new title’s multiplayer component. This makes it all the more disappointing. There are three multiplayer modes on eight maps: Objective, Stopwatch and Team Deathmatch. The last is self-explanatory, Objective and Stopwatch are spins on the same concept. In Objective, the resistance must try to meet certain Objectives while the Axis intervenes. Stopwatch switches the teams over after completion - whoever completes the objectives fastest wins.
You can choose to play as one of three classes, each with its own veil power. Soldiers have a veil strike, medics have an area affect heal and engineers have a speed burst. The graphics are decidedly worse than the singleplayer game in spite of running on a modified version of the id tech 4 engine, and run speed is slow. The lean function, merely missed in the singleplayer campaign, is sorely absent here. The guns feel like hollow versions of their singleplayer counterparts. The server menu is disorganised, there’s no favourites options; the list goes on. The multiplayer could be redeemed by a patch (and indeed there was a release day 1.1 patch), but unfortunately Endrant studios announced staffing cut backs on the same day that Wolfenstein was released, so the likelihood of these issues being quickly resolved are somewhat lessened.
Wolfenstein is not revolutionary. But as the FPS genre takes itself ever more seriously, the game proves there’s still value in fantastical one-against-the-multitudes shoot-‘em-ups. All the same, after you’ve romped through the singleplayer campaign, you’re unlikely to jack up the difficulty and take a second dip - much less reinstall at a later date.