Wolfenstein Reader Review
Does anyone remember Kill.Switch? A third-person shooter that received middling-to-good reviews back in 2003, it was notable for two things. One, It introduced the idea of firing from behind cover long before Gears of War made virtual wall-hugging into gamer’s most popular pastime. Two, it’s PC incarnation was notable solely for its £10 price tag. It was, and still is, a great idea. Charging a budget price for a workmanlike game seemed an ideal way to open it to an audience that would have otherwise ignored it. It was also a refreshing statement of honesty from the developers on the merits of their game, and a lesson that should have been applied to many games over the years. Wolfenstein is the latest among their number.
The easiest argument to make in favour of Wolfenstein’s budget status is its engine. The Doom 3 tech is almost 6 years old and it’s starting to look it. When an early assault on an experimental arms shipment results in the train station being blown to kingdom come, the on-screen destruction looks and feels embarrassingly underwhelming. Right out of the gate Wolfenstein comes across as a relic trying in vain to keep up with the competition, like a Punch and Judy stall owner desperately hoping no one notices the new IMAX down the road.
“Pah!” Some of you may be saying. “Graphics matter not. A game’s true worth is measured in its design. A true classic will outlast a hundred hardware upgrades!” Before you storm off and return to your EDGE magazines, let me say this – Wolfenstein is no classic. Its antiquated engine aside, there are still too many flaws for it to ever be remembered as such, if it will be remembered at all. But before we begin the autopsy, it should be noted that Wolfenstein is not a bad game. The combat manages to remain acceptably engaging through the duration of the game thanks in large part to the weaponry acquired by BJ Blaskowicz, the game’s personality-free protagonist. The standard machine guns and rifle have a hefty kick to them that sees them remaining useful for the duration of the game, and the experimental weapons - particularly the Particle Cannon and the Tesla Gun – induce a gleeful sadism when unleashed on the Third Reich. The game’s main hook, the super-power granting medallion, also proves entertaining. (Please don’t make me recall the game’s plot to explain the presence of the medallion. When John Romero equated the worth of story in videogames to its pornographic equivalent, it was with games like Wolfenstein in mind). None of the combat powers offered by it (slow-motion, shield, extra damage) are even slightly innovative but they can amuse. Charging headfirst into a group of audibly terrified Nazis, bullets bouncing off the shield, and sending them flying with jolts of electricity from the Tesla Gun certainly provoked a smile. A modest amount of environmental destruction also gives combat a suitably weighty feel, ensuring each battle satisfies a basic, primal need for causing carnage. It’s when examining the game’s capabilities outside fulfilling this basic remit the problems begin to appear.
Let’s start with the game’s hub system. Having seen the meteoric rise of sandbox games in the 8 years that separate this addition to the series from its predecessor, Wolfenstein’s developers apparently felt compelled to jump on the bandwagon. The result is Isenstadt, a bland, brown, fictional town. As that pithy description indicates, Isenstadt fails to stand on its own in the already overcrowded sandbox genre. It feels like a product of checkbox game design, an attempt to scavenge popular elements from more successful titles without understanding what made them work. It’s a dull, characterless world filled with dull, characterless NPCs whose names you won’t remember the minute the credits start rolling. Unfortunately Isenstadt is emblematic of the game as a whole, a series of ideas that doubtlessly sounded good on paper but suffer in their implementation.
This flaw is again apparent in the game’s introduction of RPG elements to the Wolfenstein formula. You can purchase upgrades to your weapons and powers through the black market, but the vast majority of your money comes from the gold supplies hidden through the game. This was presumably meant to reward exploration, but its main accomplishment is to derail the pacing of the game. This is especially evident in the missions where you have resistance members tagging alongside you. One early mission, a storming of a fortified church, never recovered the atmosphere lost when the squad stood outside the church entrance like deactivated robots while I apologised to them in my head. “Sorry lads, but I want to make sure I’ve found all the bags of hidden Nazi gold in this area before we continue with the liberation of you hometown. Thanks for waiting”.
Unfortunately, Wolfenstein suffers from a more serious problem than botched design – apathy. The medallion provides a fitting example of this. As well as the aforementioned boosts to your combat prowess it allows you to switch over to The Veil – a dimension that exists in parallel with the real world. Any hopes for a horrifyingly warped nightmare vision are quickly quashed. BJ’s trips to the other side reveal it to be identical to this one, just with a greenish tinge and levitating space fleas milling about. Silent Hill it is not. The Veil’s lack of visual impact is further compounded by unimaginative design. Rather than exploring the possibilities that exist in inventing their own dimension, the developers settle for using The Veil as a means to highlight secret passages and the occasional hidden object. It’s a frustratingly bland implementation of what should have been a game-making idea and it highlights the contradiction that undermines Wolfenstein at every step – grand ambitions executed in a lacklustre fashion.
This problem is at its most glaring in the levels themselves. The variety of the locales is impressive, ranging from catacombs to airships, but they’re devoid of truly memorable moments. I was surprised by precisely one instance in the game (the introduction of the Heavy trooper, which was met with audible swearing). The rest of the game’s 10 hour running time was spent in slack jawed detachment at the onscreen carnage. New enemies are added at frequent intervals throughout the game, but use of the medallion, particularly the bullet time function, ensures that each enemy remains broadly similar – slow down time, choose your weapon, unleash hell. While this can be fun, it again reveals the mundane design that threatens to undercut the entire game.
Thankfully the combat just about rescues the game from the brink, but it’s the only trick that isn’t botched in its execution. Given the standard of the competition, Wolfenstein never stood a chance at a conventional retail price. However, if it had followed Kill.Switch’s example and was given the budget price it deserved, it could be viewed as a guilty pleasure - something to indulge your baser instincts in while waiting for the next product from Valve. As is, Wolfentsein’s lacklustre realisation of its developer’s ambitions doom it to obscurity, only briefly remembered in the future when someone asks, “Does anybody remember Wolfenstein?” Even then, they’ll probably be talking about the other one.