Wolfenstein doesn't start well but the powers you receive and the weapons you acquire along with the supernatural elements make the game fairly enjoyable but not without flaws.
Wolfenstein marks the return of hero B.J. Blazkowicz, once again fighting the Germans in WW2. This time however the situation takes on a more sci-fi feel with lots of supernatural elements compared to RTCW. Wolfenstein takes place in the town of Isenstadt and many missions branch off from the various locations of the town which is implemented in a similar way to Thief: Deadly Shadows.
The game centres around an artifact that allows you to enter a veil world to slow time, shield yourself from attacks and cause additional damage at your choosing. The combat at times can be very frantic and enjoyable which doesn’t occur during the first hour or so of the game. There is some backtracking early on but the game tries to minimize the repetition by altering the enemy types or the weapons at your disposal and moving you to a different town hub. Graphically it’s not going to astound everybody with some bland graphics but at least it runs very well. Wolfenstein features upgradable real-life and sci-fi weapons bought using gold items you find throughout the missions.
To be brutally honest Wolfenstein isn’t going to do much for most when the action happens out of the veil. The enemies are quite dumb, running in front of cover, not getting behind cover, ignoring the fact that I just smashed open a door, making the gameplay during the first hour poor. Even the speech from them is rather grating with passable German accents and often repeated quips that wear out quickly. Sometimes the AI does some smart things, like moving forward or storming a house they saw you enter. However most of the time they either die far too quickly or turn their backs in front of you. One underground level features high walkways and too often after death Nazis would conveniently find the nearest rail and do a dive over it, two Nazis doing this in synchronisation takes away its novelty.
The game initially revolves around central town locations, similar to the implementation of Thief: Deadly Shadows. Nazis repopulate these locations, sometimes in the exact same position. The world also resets – a car destroyed previously reappears shiny and new again when heading back through the level. In this way there is a bit of nuisance backtracking but the enemies get a bit harder as you go through the game to ensure you get a little challenge when heading through towns. This repeatable nature even occurs in the missions, once you reach the end of the mission – collecting the shard or a weapon you will often be told to escape. Many times you will hear the Nazi’s spawn in behind you the very second you take that end item and will have to wade through a few of them again. This part is usually more enjoyable because the weapon or shard you acquired now gives you much more power during your escape. The gameplay becomes quite enjoyable with better weapons and the ability to use the veil and its associated powers. The later levels behave more like a standard progressive FPS compared to the first open level nature.
Once you get the access to the Thule artifact early on you will be able to slip in and out of the “veil” anytime as long as you have enough energy. If the energy runs out your screen will be black and white for a short time which is a nice little deterrent but not crippling. The energy is gained from fairly obvious energy pool placements throughout the world. The veil will allow you to step through sealed doors, find hidden ladders and spot weaknesses in enemies – highlighted in bright red. The first power you receive is none other than slow motion and it quickly becomes a preferred method to get in close and dispose of the Nazi groups.
Upgrades will cause shockwaves from your location when you enable this slow motion. Shield is the next acquired power obtained in a Nazi underground base although it’s not as cool as slow motion and drains the energy quickly it can be useful when breaking from cover. The fourth power is basically a quad damage type role giving your bullets and grenades much more damage and allowing you to penetrate supernatural shields. This power became my most used due to the energy drain being low and being able to dispose of enemies quickly, it also has the bonus of being useful in short fire bursts. The veil is rarely used as a puzzle solving device in normal gameplay, occasional used to help you find treasures. It did feel a bit like Prey’s spirit mode early on but the tutorial “puzzles” for slow motion made up the majority of puzzles in the entire game. Most of the powers do work well, with the shield being my least used apart from a few of the later sections where energy supply was abundant. None of the powers would really be of much use without the weaponry to match.
The weapons are generally fairly good, with a good variety and application for different enemy types. Special weapons include the flamethrower which makes standard soldiers a breeze and particle cannon. All weapons are upgradable and there are a multitude of upgrades for each weapon, purchased at a town black-market. I’m not quite sure how many resistance solders were charging $500 for a silencer in the war but I can overlook that when you only need to find a few treasure items to buy it. It is nice to choose some enhancements for your weapons and if you really want to go back through levels and find all the shiny treasures in order to get more you can.
The standard upgrades are things like increasing damage, increasing clip size and reducing recoil. Some of the key upgrades aren’t too expensive and because the game is fairly easy you won’t need a lot of money over the gold you come across during your regular travels. I spent a lot of the game early on using an upgraded mp40 which dealt with most of the enemies easily even at range. The break-away missions will alternate what weapons the enemies are carrying, so while one mission will supply you with ample mp40 ammo in the next you will be relying on another weapon to get the job done, it’s a wise decision to head back to the black-market to restock ammo before attempting a mission since it’s relatively inexpensive to do so.
Wolfenstein isn’t really a pretty game, in a way it actually gives the Doom 3 engine a slightly bad name in the first few levels. Quake 4 was developed by the same team that made Wolfenstein and Q4 is a better, crisper looking game in my opinion. This is due to a few reasons, the first being that the Doom 3 engine just feels much more at home in a sci-fi, metallic environment and secondly because although graphics have come a ways since Quake 4, Wolfenstein hasn’t made that transition. It’s a shame that the non-veil, standard visuals are average, the lighting is mixed, and some of the levels are pretty lacklustre. Even the player models, friend and foe are looking pretty ugly at time.
The only improvement to the engine would be the fact that it saves without any noticeable pause and the ragdoll / death animations seem improved, otherwise it’s fairly forgettable. In the veil the game looks better, more effects and more sci-fi like graphics for the Doom 3 engine to churn out. The levels actually continue to look better as the game progresses too, whether this is because they suit the engine more or because more time was spent on them is unknown. More impressive levels include the castle and the airbase which look a lot crisper than the earlier ones. Thankfully the game also runs fairly well, on the PC you will be able to increase the resolution which can help offset the rather bland graphics seen early on.
One of the insulting things the game does to you early on is treating you like an idiot. Telling you exactly what to do, leading you to a clearly marked door a few steps away and occasionally speaking game language rather than world language just so you don’t get lost. On the normal difficulty, even without the aim assistance the game is very easy. Raising the difficulty felt much more balanced, then I couldn’t just run into a group of a dozen Nazi soldiers and come away without a scratch, but groups of 3 or 4 were still quite easy. Truthfully this is how the game should be played, it’s not about getting behind cover and choosing your shots and slowly progressing. It’s about getting up close and causing havoc on several Nazis at once – feeling powerful.
One of the weapons is evidence of this, the Tesla gun will automatically send out coils toward enemies and all you need to do is hold the trigger when you are close to enemies. You are free to move out from cover and rarely suffer near death, with the exception of a few stray grenades. In one section enemies continued to respawn from hidden locations unless I moved forward to complete an objective but I didn’t actually see any Nazis spawn in front of me. One of the later enemies could freely go invisible and would taunt me as I moved about, on the harder difficulty he was quite deadly which also made it a much better experience. The guns are quite responsive, meaning if I shoot accurately the Nazis will go down quickly. Upgrades further improving the weapon feel and make some weapons very dangerous.
The multiplayer didn’t turn out very well though mostly because it just doesn’t feel finished. There are a few game modes including deathmatch and objective (plant the bomb) and there are three classes and players can take use money they earn to buy upgrades for weapons. The netcode isn’t the best, you clash physically with your own team which causes lots of problems in small openings. Sometimes the server will have problems causing all kinds of warping issues for you and others. As a medic your job is to heal, drop health packs and revive downed teammates. Soldiers get in and amongst the action with flamethrowers, panzer rockets and veil artillery that seems useless. You will have access to the veil vision too allowing you to engage a healing mode as medic.
The gameplay just feels off, from the very start it’s not smooth at all and the presentation such as player animation is pretty bad, in many cases laughably so. Grenades and the flamethrower handle very differently in multiplayer so you’ll likely blow yourself up quickly and there is very little other explanation of the mechanics. The multiplayer also suffers from its share of problems technically; it crashed for me when changing levels and logged me out a few times on server connection. The multiplayer was created by a separate team who was let go the day of release so the future prospects of Wolfenstein online are grim. If you are only concerned about the multiplayer then look elsewhere.
Wolfenstein single player has this Indiana Jones feeling, and it’s hard to shake it when the good music and setting happen to coincide in some places. At times the game can be quite fun, when you have a few Nazis spread through corridors and you just cruise through them all with powers and killer weapons in particular. The first few missions of the game aren’t that appealing with some backtracking through the city which doesn’t feel part of the Wolfenstein series, later linear levels seemed far more focused. The menu interface isn’t the best either, requiring you to spin a rotating menu before clicking on a desired item. Wolfenstein won’t be remembered as a great shooter of 2009, but it picks up considerably during the second half as the powers and pace increases so it’s not all bad news. There are a few boss battles that are fairly well done, requiring some dodging and use of powers. The final boss battle is far too laborious to be enjoyable leaving a slightly bitter final taste. Although it has many components taken from other successful games, many of them aren’t as well done as they could have been and nothing seems to be pushing the genre forward in any appreciable way.