Nick's Gaming Blog

Review: Wolfenstein (2009 release)

"Back in my day, we used to fight Nazis shirt-less, with close quarters combat, all while shamelessely firing an excessive amount of live ammunition into the air."

Allow me to begin this review with an abstract image, if you’ll allow me.  Say that we took your grandfather (who’s a nice guy, mind you…but isn’t “hip” to the “cool” fashion of today) and dressed him up in some hipster graphic T-shirt (likely referencing an obscure 80′s sci-fi film, or a band that 2.91% of the US population is aware of) with a flannel overshirt, some jeans (I have no idea what brand is popular anymore), a pair of Converse sneakers (non-matching color scheme, of course) and classical over-sized Aviator sunglasses.  So…is grandpa cool now?  Or does this “extreme senior makeover” only accentuate how dated your dad’s dad is?  The answer, of course, is the latter.  Just like a new coat of paint cannot redeem an already dilapidated house, dressing up Gramps in today’s hipster garb will only fool a select few.  This, in turn, is the lesson Raven Software should have taken to heart before developing Wolfenstein.

Here’s a tip, people.  When a franchise hasn’t “hit shelves” in almost a decade, transitioning a series involves more than getting your hands on the newest game engine (remember that coat of paint we talked about…oh…a sentence or two back?).  Now, to be fair, Wolfenstein isn’t the first franchise to merely rest on its laurels after a successful transition to true 3D (Return to Castle Wolfenstein) but it is one of the more recent cases of such.  Just what does this entail?  Well, in essence, Wolfenstein recycles many of the mechanics, character designs, fetch quests, and other elements that’ll have you wondering if you purchased a remastered edition of Return to Castle Wolfenstein.  To be fair, I wouldn’t mind playing such a game…but that’s not what I bought, nor what one should pay $60 dollars for.  Due to the fact that these issues of “deja vu design” pop up in all aspects of the game, I’ll simply go about the review, business as usual, highlighting those elements as they become pertinent to discuss.

Allow me to introduce the stealth/cloaked Nazis, who have apparently taken it upon themselves to steal Psylocke's arm. They're also one of the few "new" enemies.

So…what’s Wolfenstein about?  Killing Nah-zees (please imagine Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds saying it) who happen to have a thing for building high-tech ouija boards.  Specifically, they’re mining for crystals that’ll allow them to tap into the energy force of this “other realm” called “Black Sun” and, like everything else the Nazis thought up (save for Volkswagen) it’s bad news for the rest of us, if they can pull it off.  Let’s recap: Nazis+Occult=Two standard enemy demographics one can comfortably gun down without moral reservation.  Maybe these campy antics were cute in past games (fighting an undead Nazi army as well as a mecha-Hitler in Wolfenstein 3D, a secret “super soldier” program in Return to Castle Wolfenstein) but I hoped that the Wolfenstein franchise would take a darker tone, instead of “Whater those Nazis up to this time?”  *followed by exaggerated eye roll and cue the laugh track*  Again, this is just where I would have liked to see the franchise go, and I realize some people still want “the cheese factor” with Wolfenstein.

Yup, the Nazis are up to their shenanigans, and would you care to guess just how the Allied powers are remedying the situation?  What’s that?  Perhaps just a bombing run of the entire facility in question?  A crack elite force squad of assassins?  A nuclear “solution?”  How about I “see” all of your logical ideas and “raise” you a single (as in “one,” not “available”) American spy named BJ Blazkowicz?  That’s right.  Raven Software couldn’t even bring themselves to change the protagonist of the franchise…let alone deviate from the downright expressionless, save for that “mouth agape, staring into nothingness” look he sports on the box of his last-gen effort.  In probably the only semi-logical move, Raven Software did decide that having him run amok in American military fatigues in a German-occupied city might be inadvisable.  So they designed BJ in a manner that will have him winning “The Fonz” look-alike contests, leather jacket and all, instead of murdering Nazis.  DOES ANYONE HERE UNDERSTAND HOW A SPY WORKS?  UGHH!  Even more disturbing is the fact that, as clearly evinced by the opening cutscene, BJ actually knows how disguises work, only to dismiss this “tried and true” espionage technique for the remainder of the title.

Henry Winkler did voice acting for BJ. Except...not really. One can wish.

Again; same spy (sporting the same look) and same sort of Indiana Jones resurrecting dark forces/black magic plot.  The point of retrod material has been firmly established, I trust?  Good, let’s move on.  Story-wise, it is almost as flimsy as abovementioned; you hear that Nazis are looking into a set of snazzy devices called Thule Medallions which you can modify with Nachtsonne (that “Night-Sun,” for those not versed in German) crystals.  Of course, these crystals are only to be found in one place (Isenstadt), someone’s already hard at work at finding them (Nazis) and someone has to be sent to investigate (You).  After an introductory level at a train station (which will be quite different from those who played it in the demo) you’ll find yourself in Isenstadt, which effectively functions as a hub for all your missions.  Apparently, Raven feared that a linear progression was “so last-gen” and, much like a petulent child that sees something they want without any understanding of what it will take to achieve it, demands “ME TOO” to the sandbox format.  Does the city of Isenstadt look good and force you to have to adapt to elements frequently found in urban shooters (clearing out buildings before simply walking down an open street, checking windows for snipers, etc)?  Absolutely.

The core problem is that Isenstadt is padding…and there’s no two ways around this.  If you find yourself in said previously-quaint German town, chances are there’s only one primary mission (from the Kreisau Circle) and one secondary mission (from a Russian group of paranormal scientists called the Red Dawn) to tackle at any given point, as well as dozens of hidden collectibles to discover.  One can have BJ run all over town, discovering which doors actually open, and which are purely cosmetic…but again, this only leads to discovering more collectibles.  Oh, and it also leads to dying a lot.  One might expect some sorties with those Swastika lovers, as they are attempting to occupy it and all…but not constantly respawning groups.  Once you clear out an area, you’ll be left undisturbed to…well…scour the area for collectibles.  Reload that area of Isenstadt (coming back from a mission, or perhaps popping in to look for collectibles) and the Nazis will be back.  Recently defeated any new types of enemies in primary missions?  Be prepared to see them goose-stepping around Isenstadt as well.  Granted, you’ll be handed quite the assortment of firearms (we’ll touch on the pros and cons of Wolfenstein’s lead-slingers in a bit) and powers which will obviously make you more suited to handle enemies of the cloaked and armored variety.

Nonetheless, the ease with which the inhabitants of the game’s latter levels will disembowel you results in a fundamental play-style shift from the hearalded Wolfenstein “run and gun” mentality to “tactical shooter.”  Equally neglected in this transition to more open-world arenas is that fact that Wolfenstein has always favored (and the some of the primary, as well as most of the secondary missions reflect this) closed-off interior linear environments with few “attacking from all sides” sorts of encounters.  Not only is it unfun to barely survive a mission, only to face a terrifying onslaught of enemies just waiting at the city gates of Isenstadt, but dying more in the hub world than actual missions (and, again, remember, there isn’t much to do in the hub world, just walk to the “door” to the next mission) hints at poor choice-making in the design process.  This respawning enemies at checkpoints thing works in games where it is not only logical, but there’s a solid risk/reward principle behind facing these enemies.  If you want to see it done right, Far Cry 2 is a masterful example.  On the other hand, when you’re successfully assisting in fending off an invasion, and yet more enemies and worse enemies are showing up….things don’t add up.

Brad Pitt wants 100 Nazi scalps from each of you. The sad truth? With regenerating enemies every time you enter an area of Isenstadt, you'll earn those 100 over and over again.

Hub hiccups aside, the “in-mission” itself is quite sound and relies on a solid weapon upgrade system that finally assigns some weighty value to collecting intelligence reports and gold/assorted valuable treasure.  For those who don’t remember, Return to Castle Wolfenstein would give you a “reward” if you found all of the secret items in a level…which turned out to be more ammo and heath at the start of the next level. Be still my beating heart.  This time, intelligence reports unlock upgrades for your weapons, and the gold gives you the cash with which to purchase said upgrades.  Thankfully, those with even a slight eye for shiny things will find more than enough gold in the missions (you also get paid for completing the missions themselves) to outfit themselves sufficiently enough to see the end of the game.  Utterly ignoring all gold in the hub world could pose some small problems though.  Let me say this though, get the “Tactical Scope” for the MP43 and it’s all over…for them, of course.

The game’s weapon selection is slimmed down from the franchise’s previous entry, and no longer attempts to give you Allied weapons for which you’ll never find ammo again; it’s just Nazi arms, and Nazi arms of the…more experimental sort.  In addition, each of the weapons, properly upgraded and utilized against the right foes (not to mention to suiting one’s own play style) can pose a sufficient threat to the Third Reich…there are no outright duds here.  However, I would say that one should not be tempted to throw all their cash into upgrades for the cooler looking weapons acquired late in the game…and that these guns shouldn’t have shown up so late in the first place.  The ammo for these…oddities…is hard to come by, and there’s little room for trial and error with them(both in terms of your health and your ammo cache).  Again, let me reemphasize, the MP43 would be Jesus’ firearm of choice (were he to need one).  Otherwise it is (again, when in the missions) unbridled run and gun action, which has even more of this feel than in the past, due to a switch from a “health pack” to “slowly regenerate when in cover” method for health.

But what would a Wolfenstein game be without reliance on cultic objects of significance to thwart foes?  Answer: It wouldn’t be a Wolfenstein game.  Remember that medallion and those crystals we talked about earlier?  Well, instead of donating it to the Smithsonian or selling the design to Claire’s accessories, it happens to boast some fairly powerful…err…powers.  Unfortunately, none of them are very original: one can shoot through shields/barriers and temporarily ups the power of your weapons, another slows down time (though it’s hardly necessary, save for relevant puzzles) the third has you setting up your own shield, and the fourth is a multi-purpose tool that outlines enemies and collectibles, as well as enemy weak points, and allows you to move slightly faster than normal.  To be honest, the barrier-shattering and collectible-highlighting ones are the only two you’ll probably use.  Considering that it speeds up your walk into a semi-brisk gait, acts as a de-facto “night-vision” mode for spotting enemies, and points out ammo and collectibles quite readily, the fourth one is the only one you’ll really use.  In order to “activate” any of the other powers, the fourth one must also be on, meaning that until you’ve made enough appropriate upgrades to your cultic “bling,” you’ll run out of Medallion energy a little too quickly, especially in earlier levels where recharge points are sparse.  But, you’ll find yourself using Veil (the power I’ve been showering praise all over) so much that, much like “Detective Mode” in Batman: Arkham Asylum, you’ll have forgotten that Germany should not, in fact, be bathed in an unnatural glowingly green light.

Yes, that Nazi is on fire..."spectral" fire, perhaps? Does he look familiar? Well, that's because he WAS IN THE LAST GAME TOO!

Graphically the game is more about artistic creativity than technical competency.  While character and enemy design is stale, and for the most part recycled from the last game, with a thin coat of graphical polish, the environments shine.  You’ll go to a good variety of locales from a farm in the countryside, to the caves where the Nazis are mining for crystals, to the resplendent Nazi Officer’s Quarters, and all are colorful and offer a great amount of detail, both in the quality of textures, as well as the props/objects one can knock about.  The weapons are well-detailed, and the special effects (both weapon and medallion-related) even more so.  But you wanna know where the game shines?  The gore, amazingly enough.  Incinerating people, bayonetting Nazis in the face, headshotting SS soldiers so their helmet flies off drenched in blood…I’d better stop before I get carried away.  Look, when you combine the fact that Nazis are unequivocally evil with the gore-fest this game offers…it…it just feels right.

If I’m ever in doubt about the sadism I am inflicting, I imagine that all of the Nazis love concentration camps, and that if Concentration Camps had a Facebook Fan page, all of the Nazis would “friend” it with great fervor.  That usually works.  Still, the recycling of enemies (including the glowing skeleton fellow on the front) and BJ himself (not to mention a certain returning villain) is downright lazy.  Voice acting is downright serviceable; nothing to bemoan, nothing to write home about.  Perhaps it’s the most logical decision, but still, having English-speaking, German-accented individuals (especially when the accent is stereotypical) does little for the mood of the game.  The horror of not knowing exactly what your enemies are telling one another (or the joy that results from realizing that taking German in high school was a good idea after all) is a powerful feeling.

In the end, Wolfenstein is a game that has carefully resurrected the roots of what made the series so damn fun in the first place: frantic, linear, shooting gallery style action.  Yes, some of what used to make the franchise campy, now makes it legitimately lame, and relying on an 80′s understanding of “cool” and last-gen’s art style isn’t very impressive, but once you get into the “run and gun” missions, all is forgiven.  Yet…all is not forgotten.  Raven has successfully produced a game in the vein of the Indiana Jones films…yet it is unlikely that Wolfenstein will remain in the minds of players long after they finish the title.  If you can get it at thirty or twenty dollars, the title is a good “filler” for stronger titles.  Otherwise, I’d wait until the price goes down…or the stronger title in question comes about.

1 Comment

    You were definitely on your game (pun intended) when you wrote this: “If I’m ever in doubt about the sadism I am inflicting, I imagine that all of the Nazis love concentration camps, and that if Concentration Camps had a Facebook Fan page, all of the Nazis would “friend” it with great fervor. That usually works.” I loved reading this review. :)

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