Wolfenstein, Ravenís latest take on one of idís properties, follows B.J. Blazkowicz as he continues his adventures against the Third Reich from 2001ís Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Germanyís advance through Europe has been halted, and the Nazis, Heinrich Himmlerís SS in particular, are seeking to break through the Allied advance by unleashing the power of the Black Sun. Himmler isnít the only one interested in the unearthly power as it is also being sought out by the Golden Dawn, an occult sect allied to the resistance. As the resistance struggles to liberate the town of Isenstadt, Blazkowicz is forced to split his time between assisting the resistance and helping the Golden Dawn to unlock the power of the Black Sun.
Despite the glowing skeleton Nazi on the gameís cover, Wolfenstein is surprisingly tame when it comes to the paranormal. Out of Blazkowiczís arsenal of eight weapons, five of which are actual weapons used during World War II: the MP43 (assault rifle), MP40 (submachine gun), Kar 98 (bolt-action rifle), panzerschreck (grenade launcher), and flamethrower Ė pretty standard stuff. The more fanciful weapons include the tesla cannon, particle cannon, and the leichenfaust 44 cannon, the gameís most powerful weapon. The weapon split is indicative of the gameís treatment towards the real and surreal, with the majority of the game taking a more traditional approach while a small subset focuses on the occult. In time, you will receive four powers for a procured amulet, which allow you to see in the nether region known as the Veil, opening up hidden passages, as well as slow down time, increase your damage, and envelope yourself in a shield. As liberating as powers may seem to be, however, you will soon realize that they are actually quite confining, hamstrung by design.
For a game that combines mutants, Nazi witchdoctors, alternate dimensions, and energy-fueled weapons, Wolfenstein manages to often be staggeringly pedestrian. Taking place in Isenstadt, you will move about its ever-confusing alleys, streets, and drainage system to meet up with contacts of the New Dawn and resistance to receive missions, as well as the boldly labeled black market to purchase ammunition and upgrades; scooting from contact to contact, seizing intel and sacks of gold along the way, investigating eerie hospitals, rescuing resistance members, and tracking down information on your newly acquired amulet. Much of the game consists of acquiring the four powers of the amulet, and then a final push towards the end for liberation and the destruction of General Zettaís SS Paranormal Division. Multiple missions can be acquired at any given time, with any given top priority for completion; current objectives are set on your compass, and a pull-up map will aid in feeling your way through the labyrinthine layouts. For the vast majority of the game you are using one of the traditional weapons, running from and killing rank-and-file soldiers, with the more ghastly units and eccentric weapons being infrequently dotted about. Isenstadt itself, acting as a hub, isnít a bad idea, but like much of Wolfenstein, it is slowly ground down into something far more tedious as the game progresses.
Many ideas within Wolfenstein are sound, and largely decently implemented, but there is a lack of cohesion that permeates throughout. The game is often all over the place, with much of the feeling coming from the game world not making much sense: the veil itself, a key feature of the game, is an underutilized nether realm where a blue hue dominates and strange creatures float about, and it can really provide a unique experience, but what is it used for? Largely to walk through sections of walls that are specially marked. Why would the Germans build a complex with areas marked just so on walls that happen to allow access to a passage that circumvents their elaborate defenses? The veil will also reveal areas where the energy is seeping through the earth, allowing you to recharge, but then the Nazis have canisters lying all over the place that provide a similar function. So do you end up using the powers a lot, what with the ready access to recharges? No, because you donít really need to: the energy drains quickly, the paranormal enemies are comparatively rare, and the regular soldiers arenít too much of a problem. The soldiers can be a problem, but they can also literally stand two feet from a guy who gets his head shot off and not notice a thing; alternatively, they can see you from a block away and call for reinforcements. Regardless of how perceptive the army is or isnít, a few rounds from the MP40 does the job. But why would the Nazis have all of those canisters Ė explosive, at that - lying around? For that matter, why did I see up to three or four explosive barrels in a 10x10 room?
Of course, weíre talking about a game, and a pretty far-out one at that. However, with so much of the game focusing on a vanilla World War II campaign, I often found myself wanting to switch Wolfenstein off and just pop in Call of Duty 2. Isenstadt could have really set the game apart from the rest, enriched the experience by deepening your ties with the village by chatting up and protecting allies and the locals while avoiding patrols, but instead its serves little more than a way to prolong the campaign - hoofing it over several distracts in a town that is half labyrinth. Firefights regularly break out between the resistance and the occupiers, which is really cool at first, but as the game continues on, the missions get harder and the less ammo you return with, tired and ready for a break, but instead youíre stuck in the middle of a firefight that quickly escalates into a heavy engagement. The missions often send you all over the place as well, with you racing from one side of the map to the other, only to load up a new district and have to go to the other side of that map as well. The town does provide you with the gameís major bright spot: the black market.
I canít say whether the weapon upgrades are necessary, but I would suggest diving into kitting out all of your gear. I took full advantage of upgrades whenever possible and was always happy I did so, slowly turning myself into a walking monster-mutant-zombie-Nazi killing machine. Scattered throughout the levels are sacks of gold Ė a nod to the original Wolftenstein 3D Ė that can be used to purchase weapon and power upgrades. The Kar98 soon had a silencer and the MP43 a scope, but with more upgrades than there is cash, there are all kinds of combinations waiting to be put together. By the end, my Kar98, MP40, and MP44 were decked out and had higher accuracy, larger magazines, less recoil, and caused greater damage. The energy-based weapons were also enhanced, as well as my veil powers Ė thumbs up for the ability to have bullets ricochet off of the shield. About the only weapons I neglected were the flamethrower and rocket launcher, simply because the ammo for the other regular weapons were so plentiful and the stronger, energy weapons were reserved for boss fights. The gunplay is one of the highlights of Wolfenstein, though having to rely on the random AI does mean itís not always satisfying: although itís strange that while your enemies can roll, dodge, blind fire and cover fire, youíre only maneuver is strafing. The over-the-top death animations also brings a bit of flair to firefights, though some of the enemies Ė looking at you, random busty Nazi female gymnast in leather Ė bring things down a notch in entirely new ways.
Itís fortunate that the weapons are so enjoyable to use, because there is a strong emphasis on combat. I canít say I was sorry for the game to end, though, because I never found it all that engaging. The flashes of ĎOh! Thatís great!í were very rare, and I mostly thought of how a lot of interesting ideas were wasted on mediocre level design and rudimentary implementation. While a few might be enough for some games, this is a Wolfenstein title, and Raven is an accomplished developer, so my expectations werenít unjustified. Return to Castle Wolfenstein suffered similar problems to its successor, but it also had a large saving grace: multiplayer. Designed by Nerve Software and later released for free separately, the multiplayer in Return to Castle Wolfenstein was addictive, well balanced, and fast paced, but unfortunately Wolfenstein has no such safety net.
Multiplayer is very limited, and a far cry from the engaging system developed by Nerve. There are only three multiplayer modes (stopwatch, deathmatch, and team deathmatch) and three roles (engineer, medic, and soldier). The handful of maps arenít terribly interesting, either. About the only thing multiplayer has going for it is the hook that you earn cash by taking down opponents and playing your role effectively, which allows you to purchase weapon and class-specific veil power upgrades. Each class has a limit to the weapons they can use, and each has a secondary power: engineers to toss out ammo, medics to toss out health packs, and soldiers lay satchel charges. The respawn time is so fast that I had a really difficult time reviving people as a medic, unless they opted to stay put, and the limit of 12 players per game hampers just how supportive the classes can be. The veil powers, ranging from creating healing auras to tossing special explosives, add some spice but not too much. I not only encountered frequent lag, but I also found myself losing stored cash after lengthy bouts due to being dropped out of games after losing the connection to the host. Also, while the campaign looks decent, the graphics take a hit in multiplayer, with drab textures, models, and animation. Multiplayer is just not terribly impressive, and World War II nuts will be back to Call of Duty and shrugging off the lack of veil powers in a few weeks.
The most striking aspect of Wolfenstein is just how underwhelming it is. Itís not necessarily a bad game, one only has to check out Hour of Victory for a bad WWII first-person shooter, but while even ignoring its storied lineage itís still just an above-average first-person shooter Ė and just, at that. The characters and plot land with a thud and are completely uninteresting; the mechanics are conventional to a fault; and much of the paranormal aspect being squandered and the game often playing like a lesser Call of Duty 2. Wolfenstein, as much as I would like to say otherwise, is not worth the asking price.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)