Bytes & Flops 5.17.12: Wolfenstein
As amazing and legendary as Doom was back in the day, the roots of the first-person shooter genre can be traced back to Wolfenstein 3D, a schlocky but otherwise groundbreaking first-person shooter released for DOS back in 1992 (oh and happy belated 20th birthday, Wolfenstein 3D!). The enemy placement, controls, mechanics are pretty much still the basis for the genre today, as surprising as that may seem. You’d think that the series would see a great deal of spin-offs, sequels and knock-offs, but surprisingly enough, the Wolfenstein brand laid dormant for a while (if you don’t count the Enemy Territory free-to-play, multiplayer only spin-off) until Return to Castle Wolfenstein in the early 2000s. While that game had a following, especially on consoles (it was just about the first blockbuster online FPS on the original Xbox, since Halo 2 had yet to see release), it never quite made the splash that the original game had.
And so, fast-track to August 2009 when Wolfenstein for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC saw release as a joint production between id Software (the original Wolfenstein 3D folks) and Raven (the people who brought you the X-Men Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance series as well as Quake 4 on Xbox 360). This is most likely the first time in years that you’ve heard about this game, considering Activision more or less threw this game under the bus, letting the title to fend for itself in the wild of video game retail shelves.
You’d think by just calling the game Wolfenstein that the game would be considered a reboot of the series, but it’s actually a loose sequel to the aforementioned Return to Castle Wolfenstein, revisiting Agent BJ Blazkowicz’s exploits in the fictional, Nazi-run town of Isenstadt. The narrative runs into some strange areas involving the occult & science-fiction elements are thrown into the mix in a relatively tongue-in-cheek fashion, but this is the kind of stuff that makes the game standout from all the other WWII FPS titles out there, because the basic mechanics are more or less what you’d expect.
Wolfenstein is a meat-and-potatoes first-person shooter. You will get access to multiple semi-auto (and automatic) rifles, machine guns and other weapons from the WWII era, and you will often use ironsights to snipe at enemies from a distance. Sound familiar? How about the recharging health? Or the linear mission paths & enemy A.I? What about the absurd violence, cinematic set-pieces and rousing battle music? Yup, I’ve just about described every World War II first-person shooter in existence. Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battlefield, you name it. Wolfenstein doesn’t mess with the formula all that much, but the shooting is satisfying, the game looks nice, and there are bits of inspiration in-between levels that are worth looking into.
The game has a façade of open-world trappings, at least in-between levels. You’re thrown into the town which you can explore, buy upgrades or ammo for your weapons, find hidden intel messages, or even just chat with your fellow Nazi-hating teammates, but it’s not so much an open world as it is an open-hub, akin to the in-between mission area in Halo 3: ODST but with a bit more to explore. Neat idea, but otherwise it’s just fancy window-dressing for the real action in the game.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the insane part about Wolfenstein- you’re awarded supernatural powers early on in the game, as well as the ability to enter another dimension known as “The Veil”. In “The Veil”, up is down, left is right, etc. Well, not exactly, but the world is shrouded in a blue-white sheen populated by horrendous looking monsters & insane Nazi skeletons and you’re given the power to stop/slow down time, climb obstacles that otherwise are non-existent in the real world, and even the ability to defeat otherwise unstoppable enemies. Straight-up, these powers (as well as the futuristic body/face melting weapons you’ll encounter later in the game) make Wolfenstein worth playing. I can give or take the standard but otherwise solid first-person shooter mechanics (and the fun but sparsely populated and uninspired multiplayer modes) and fun, pulpy, Inglourious Basterds meets Captain America story, but the odd powers just add a new twist to the genre and make the game much more interesting as a result. The world looks great, the powers are extremely satisfying to use, and you’re given opportunities to use your powers in very creative ways.
One note about Wolfenstein- the PC version (or at least the Steam version) is pretty trash, an obvious console port job. The mouse controls feel off on standard settings, there’s no access to Steam Works (and the shift+tab function doesn’t work in game) and the field-of-view issue is terrible. I never, ever got motion sickness from a video game before until playing Wolfenstein on the PC. Luckily, there’s a workaround that will fix it, but other than the shinier graphics, there is no reason to pick up the PC version of the game as opposed to a console version. It’s an example of a PC game that plays significantly worse when it should be head-and-shoulders above what the 360 and PS3 can accomplish.
And this game failed because?
Wolfenstein had some…dare I say, interesting promotion before the game’s release in August of 2009. Raven Software designer Manveer Heir announced on his personal Twitter account that he’d single-handedly pay for every single copy of Wolfenstein sold to his followers if the game was able to beat Madden NFL 10 on the NPD charts for the month of August. (Interestingly enough, the game’s sales in comparison to Madden was also the subject of a now-legendary bet over at Giant Bomb. The video culmination of that bet is embedded below). Now Madden is a notorious big seller in August, but the brand and popular genre behind Wolfenstein was strong enough to make this seem like a real contest. However, it seems that the public didn’t take to the game at all, with Wolfenstein selling a middling 100,000 copies from its release through August, with a measly 17,000 sold for the PC version. Activision didn’t quite care enough to promote the hell out of the game, but seeing as they were still riding the highs of the blockbuster Call of Duty: World at War and were already looking forward to Modern Warfare 2’s release in Fall of 2009, I can’t say that I blame them. Not to mention, the smash hit Batman Arkham Asylum released in August 09, making the marketplace that much more competitive.
Wolfenstein isn’t a game-changer by any means, but it has some very interesting ideas tied around its solid first-person shooter gameplay. It’s worth a look even if you find yourself sick of the setting, though don’t expect it to blow away any and all expectations you might have for the genre.
Play it or Skip it?- Play it!