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Does killing Nazis ever get old? Actually, yes. Eventually. That is, unless they’re supernatural Nazis. Hence, we have Call of Duty: World at War’s zombie-fighting mode, as well as a little thing called Wolfenstein. Nazis are best consumed (via bullets) when they are presented as cartoonishly as possible, and what better way than to amp them up with Tesla-coil implants and crackling undeadifying energy? Gather ‘round young ‘uns, and let ol’ grampa GR tell you a story.
Before you kids got your filthy hands on the likes of Halo, or Killzone, or hell, even Counter-Strike, the mother of all first-person shooters, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, was all the rage. No, wait: make that Wolfenstein 3D. Wrong again? How about Castle Wolfenstein? Well, sort of. The game that started the series that begat a genre, way back in 1981, wasn’t an FPS at all. So instead let’s jump back (forward) to Wolfenstein 3D. The whole “3D” part was kind of a lie, at least by today’s standards. Everything was represented by 2D sprites, but HOLY CRAP FIRST PERSON VIEW.
Ever since that fateful release, gamers by the millions have been playing as cameras with guns taped to the bottom of them (up through the Doom era) or cameras with guns taped to the bottom-right of them (the anatomically correct current era). Every “looking through the eyes of someone with invisible legs” game out there owes a debt to the Wolfenstein franchise, and hoooo boy, is that a legacy to live up to.
If you’re judging it on the basis of how revolutionary it is compared to Wolfenstein 3D, the answer is no, not by a long shot. There aren’t any new ideas here. The gimmick of jumping between dimensions and using associated powers amounts to nothing more than differently named and different-looking ways to use slo-mo, shields, double-damage, and reveal secret doors. We’re guessing the Veil’s look is a result of someone on the dev team having a fetish for Native American jewelry.
However, not every game needs to set the shooter world upside down to be good. It just needs to be fun. And Wolfenstein surely is. The crumbly, creepy world of bombed-out Nazi Germany combined with Indiana Jones-style paranormal elements has been the series’ trademark, and Wolfenstein pulls it off while making it look easy. There’s a nice gradual curve to it, where the game lulls you in with “just another World War II shooter” opening levels, before letting the supernatural elements seep in.
The entire game takes place around a hub city known as Isenstadt, where of course the Nazis are up to their usual occult shenanigans. This time, they’re harvesting purty crystals in order to power super-mega somethings in order to conquer “Ze world!” (people say “ze” a lot in this game). It seems that beyond the earth dimension is a place known as the Black Sun, and between the two dimensions is the Veil. On Wolfenstein’s Earth, everything is gray and brown. In the Veil and the Black Sun, everything is turquoise. And glowy-wispy.
Eventually, our oh-so-very-80s-named hero BJ Blazcowicz will get a hold of a medallion that provides access to the Veil and its powers. Veil Sight, the first power, turns everything blue-green and speeds you up (for some reason). Aside from revealing secret doors and ladders, it also is home to the geists – floating, non-aggressive alien things that really boil down to invisible red barrels. And this is on top of the actual red barrels lying around the world.
Later on, you’ll get your standard slo-mo power, and then your shield power, and finally your uber-damage power. All of which, naturally, turn the world turquoise. These powers burn up the medallion’s meter quickly, but there are barely-visible spots sprinkled everywhere that recharge your power (and are more visible if you use Veil Sight. We actually ended up using the Veil powers hardly at all. Other than moments where the game flat-out requires you to use them, you can get by fine with your guns and grenades. If you’re the type of lazy gamer like us who won’t do something unless a game kills you if you don’t (or makes the power really, really fun), consider playing on Hard mode from the offset. Take note, though, that the game is decently challenging on Normal difficulty.
Possibly the biggest star of the show here is the assortment of actual guns – not the super-powers, not the free-roaming, and (maybe) not the paranormal enemies. For the WWII junkies, you’ve got your standard MP40, bolt action rifle, rocket launcher, and grenades. Curiously, no shotgun. No shotty in an FPS? What the?
We like shotguns. A lot. Maybe it’s a good thing we’ve never fired one in real life. Still, we didn’t miss the ol’ head vaporizer here, because the super guns in Wolfenstein are downright evil in their ability to satisfy our darker urges. Sure, the Particle Cannon is just a re-skinned Chaingun, but the way it disintegrates Nazi assholes with a wonderful sizzling sound makes it brand new again.
There’s also the Tesla gun, which is about as skill-less as a gun can get, considering it will hit everything in a 90–degree arc in front of you. But the developers knew they had a gem on their hands and said “F-it, it’s going in!” Perhaps it’s the game’s version of a shotgun, or maybe a flamethrower (no, wait – there’s already a flamethrower also). Either way, running into a room full of ten Nazis and unleashing what amounts to a full-on lightning storm, with hissing arcs of electricity jumping along the floor, walls, and screaming faces, is a joy not to be missed. Ah, man, that thing is a hoot.
The aforementioned flamethrower gives you the horrifying screeches of pain you’d expect, and that’s all that needs to be said about that. Then there’s the Leichenfaust 44, which is essentially an energy rocket launcher, except it adds the humorous effect of deactivating gravity in its blast radius. The hardier enemies aren't killed by the first shot, leaving them floating helplessly, giving you a nice target for the follow-up shot. As their body evaporates, individual bones are left floating away into nothingness. As one can see, there is considerable satisfaction in the feedback of the weapons, which is further enhanced by exceptionally tactile rumble effects.
So Wolfenstein's single-player is overall a fun experience. The progression to increasingly outlandish weapons, enemies, and surroundings works to hold interest. The guns are spectacular, even in their mechanical simplicity. The graphics aren't impressive, but they get the job done well enough. For the 8-10 hour campaign, we were caught up in the story and the world it takes place in. For many shooter fans, though, multiplayer is crucial, if not the main draw.
Wolfenstein's multiplayer didn't impress us. Game types are the typical deathmatch and objective-based play, and if you played Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the class system will be familiar – it's nearly identical - this time with classes condensed to three: Engineer, Medic, and Soldier. The weapons are also fairly limited for obvious balance reasons, but the selection makes multiplayer mostly no different from any other WWII shooter.
The now-standard system of earning upgrades as you compete will make the dedicated and hardcore players happy, although it makes the barrier to entry higher than it needs to be, since newbies will be playing opponents that are not only more experienced, but also wielding better weaponry. It also seems to be a fairly slow progression, as the upgrades are expensive from a beginner's viewpoint.
We only got a few hours to play multiplayer, and we also sucked, getting our ass handed to us. It was hard to tell how much of the ass-handing came from superior skill and how much came from equipment. Once the majority of the population has upgrades, skill will be the only factor, but regardless, it's not friendly to newbies. We used to play a lot of multiplayer in Return to Castle Wolfenstein, so it's possible that with time the latest iteration would grow on us, but frankly we don't feel compelled at all to play it more. We won't be surprised if the multiplayer community becomes full and happy, however.
Call of Duty: World at War?
Not quite. WaW is prettier and has considerably more polish all-around. It also nails raw excitement with its scripted events in a way that Wolfenstein can't match. However, Wolfenstein brings its supernatural component, making it more than just another WWII shooter. For those that like more imagination and less realism, Wolfy may be the better choice.
Hmmm, nope, misses the mark here, too. Both feature WWII-ish settings infringed upon by fantastical elements. Resistance features more interesting weaponry in their tactical applications, although Wolfy wins out in sheer fun-feedback. Resistance also brings much more imaginative scenery in its Chimera-tech areas.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein?
Perhaps it's unfair to compare new Wolfy to such an old game, but come on, it's the sequel. New Wolfy has way better weapons, and the free-roaming hub world will feel more advanced to some, but might not matter to others. The multiplayer is basically the same, but it felt fresher back in Return's heyday. So is Wolfy a worthy successor? For pure fun, definitely.
Spot-on Wolfenstein atmosphere combines with gleefully vicious weaponry to serve up a tasty smoothie of good old-fashioned Nazi-frying. It lacks in the new idea department, but it has fun aplenty.
Aug 18, 2009