Review: Wolfenstein (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Wolfenstein
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Raven/id Software
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 08/18/09


The Wolfenstein franchise has certainly had something of an odd evolutionary path, hasn’t it? Way back in the day, long before id Software had really conceived of making a first-person anything, we had Castle Wolfenstein, which was something of an overhead stealth game similar to a Metal Gear product. A few years later, the fine folks at id, apparently inspired by the stealth game to some extent, gave us Wolfenstein 3D, which was among id’s first FPS titles, and essentially took the same concept (escape from Castle Wolfenstein) and did it an entirely different way (shoot your way out), which ended up being a good bit more popular. From there we got the Spear of Destiny games, which melded a bit of the Doom franchise into Wolfenstein, featuring some magic and advanced technology along-side the typical hunting around in Germany blowing away bad guys gimmick. The Wolfenstein franchise took an extended hiatus at that point, only to pop up a few years ago with Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which once again featured the player in Nazi Germany, fighting against Hitler, but now with two hundred percent more magical enemies. Which brings us to Wolfenstein, which once again features the player in Nazi Germany, fighting against Hitler and his magical allies, but now with two hundred percent more magical abilities for the player.

I just keep thinking that Wolfenstein is eventually going to become a WWII version of Heretic, but hey, if the games are as entertaining as this one, that’s probably not entirely a bad thing.

So, Wolfenstein once again sees you take control of one-man-army BJ Blazkowicz as he infiltrates Nazi Germany in an attempt to uncover the plans of Hitler’s SS Paranormal division. It seems they’ve found some sort of crystals that allow the user to perform all sorts of unnatural paranormal acts by way of using something called The Veil, and the US government, obviously, is a bit concerned about this. BJ is sent into German territory, where everything goes south almost instantly, leaving him to use little more than the weapons on his person, his wits and whatever money he finds along the way to succeed. Instead of simply helping out a specific faction, however, BJ is assisting two groups this time around: the Kreisau Circle, who are the standard Resistance fighters, and the Golden Sun, a group of Russian scholars who know a good bit more about the paranormal activities going on than they let on. Unlike the prior game, Wolfenstein starts out with the strange paranormal activities from the get-go and makes them the main focal point of the story, and it’s better for it; instead of starting out playing it straight and then going “SURPRISE ZOMBIES”, Wolfenstein makes it obvious that you’re going to be dealing with the supernatural from the beginning, which gives it more time to really explain what’s going on and why Hitler has magic, for example. The story is by no means fantastic, but it ties the events of the game together well enough and is mostly entertaining, and all in all, it’s not bad.

Visually, Wolfenstein looks fantastic. Allies and enemies both feature nice, clean textures and are animated well, and the various backgrounds look appropriately humble or impressive as needed, which supports the immersion of the game well. There are all sorts of interesting special effects in the game as well, as you’ll see enemies flail about while under the effect of zero gravity, see them singe and burn when set alight, or see their jaw pop off when they’re shot in it (gruesome, but satisfying), and the light sourcing and effects themselves look quite impressive. The cutscenes are kind of unexciting in comparison, however; while the special pre-rendered scenes look fine, the cutscenes rendered with the game engine look unimpressive, as the characters are generally not that exciting to look at when not in a tense firefight. The scenes aren’t bad so much as they are underwhelming, as the game engine is simply more impressive in combat than not. The visuals in multiplayer also look less stellar than the single-player visuals do, which seems to have been done to keep lag to a minimum, and while this works well enough, it’s underwhelming to go from the single player game to the multiplayer game. Aurally, the music is primarily composed of various swelling orchestral pieces, as seems to be the standard for games set in WWII, and for what it is, it’s generally solid. The sound effects are stellar, and really pack a punch when you’re in a pitched firefight with opposing forces, both of normal and abnormal opposition. The voice acting is also pretty much outstanding throughout the game, as everyone emotes appropriately and showcases the appropriate emotions, and the various performances throughout the game are strong. It’s somewhat disappointing that the various Nazi soldiers speak primarily in English instead of in their native German, but then, this isn’t exactly a historical simulation, so it’s forgivable, if nothing else.

So, if you’ve ever played an FPS before, hey, you can play Wolfenstein. The left stick moves, the right stick aims, and you have a jump button, a crouch button, a melee strike and a reload button mapped to the front of the controller by default. You can use the left trigger to aim, the right trigger to fire your weapon, the left bumper to toss grenades, and the right bumper to flip between weapons you have on your person as needed. The various weaponry matches up mostly with your standard WWII gear, so you’ll find your typical machine guns, bolt-action rifles, and other such toys, though you’ll also find some more unconventional weapons, such as guns that fire Veil energy and a Tesla cannon that, as you’d expect, fires electricity. The damage system follows the Halo formula, so you’ll slowly regenerate health when not taking damage, as you’ve come to expect. While the game isn’t exactly similar to older id Software FPS titles, it’s pretty easy to understand and work with, and anyone who’s a fan of the genre should be running around fragging with little trouble in just a few minutes.

Wolfenstein adds a few new gimmicks to the mix, of course, to keep things from feeling too boring. The most interesting of the lot is the ability to use The Veil. Early on in the game, BJ turns up a Thule Medallion that allows him to use The Veil, which has something to do with The Black Sun, a dimension that exists along-side our own. In short: you get nifty magical abilities. When you first get the medallion, you’re able to simply shift between the real world and The Veil, which improves your movement speed, highlights enemies with a light blue light, makes hidden doors and ladders visible, and makes ghostly enemies appear, which you can shoot to send lightning bolts flying into your foes, but after a few missions, you’ll gain abilities that allow you to slow time, increase your damage and protect you from damage. Each ability drains from your Veil meter, and the more powerful abilities drain more than simply enabling the Veil does, but you’ll be able to recharge the meter by finding pools of energy or containers with energy in them to draw from. If you hunt around each stage a bit, you’ll also turn up books that, after collecting so many, can upgrade the recharge rate of your Veil energy and allow you to store more at one time, which can be incredibly helpful later in the game.

The game also allows you to upgrade your weaponry whenever you can access a Black Market vendor with whatever funds you’ve accumulated from missions. As you collect files and gold in missions, you earn cash which can be used to buy upgrades for your weapons and Veil magic. Upgrades can be as simple as a silencer or a larger drum clip, or as complex as a big bore, and when you’re done with an upgrade you can sell it back to the vendor for half its asking price. You’ll also be able to upgrade your Veil abilities in various ways, to reduce their cost to the bar or allow them to deal area of effect damage, for example, which is pretty interesting, if a little weird. I mean, they explain how the Black Market is able to do this, but it’s still strange that they’re totally okay with doing this for you instead of, say, stealing your amulet and selling it for a ton of money. You can also buy ammunition for your weapons at the Black Market, which is useful, as several weapons you can find don’t readily have ammo drops lying around, which makes restocking between missions crucial if one values life. You needn’t worry about what weapons you can and can’t carry around on missions, fortunately, as BJ, much like most id Software main characters, can simply carry around whatever weapons he acquires with no problems to speak of, which, while unrealistic, is fantastic. I’m sorry, I’m just getting tired of the whole “you can carry two guns, period” mechanic in FPS titles, so it’s nice to see a game that thumbs its nose at realism and lets you carry anything you can find.

The single player game will take you approximately eight to twelve hours to complete, depending on whether you take on side missions and search for hidden objects like gold and intelligence documents. You can also go back and run through any missions you’ve completed to search for additional spoils you might have missed. Wolfenstein also offers online multiplayer, and while it’s not quite as in-depth as the single player component, it still has its own interesting mechanics. You’re given a choice of three game types to play: Team DM is your standard “us versus them” Deathmatch mode, Objective asks one team to guard a location while the other team assaults it, and Stopwatch works like Objective, only it switches the attackers and defenders at set intervals. You can choose from one of three classes when playing online, each with its own positives. Medics are healers by trade, and can revive players, heal allies and drop medpacks, Engineers can build and destroy things and drop ammo packs, and Soldiers are the default combat class, and can brandish heavy weapons with ease. Whatever class you choose, as you play in matches you’ll earn cash for doing various things, which can in turn be put towards additional upgrades, such as flak jackets, weapon improvements, and special Veil powers, dependant upon your character class. There are also a ton of online achievements to unlock, meaning that you’ll have plenty of reason to come back to the game if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Wolfenstein’s biggest problem is that it feels, to a significant extent, like it is staring in defiance at the idea of innovating, instead choosing to pick and choose mechanics from other games and assembling them into a whole new game, and while that’s by no means a bad idea in terms of making a functional product, the game just feels entirely too familiar for its own good. The magical powers you’re given are reminiscent of those in games like Prey and Bioshock, the weapon upgrading mechanic has been done in several games before, and the sandbox-style central hub from which missions can be selected has been seen in FarCry 2, aside from the millions of third-person games that also do this. The multiplayer feels like a filed-down version of Team Fortress, as well, only not as well-developed or defined. Beyond the lack of originality, there’s also not enough to the game to really make it worth the investment compared to similar games. There’s no online co-op mode of any sort, and no matter how many maps there are, there are only three online play modes to choose from, which is fairly bare-bones. No solo Deathmatch? No Capture the Flag? Only three character classes? That feels kind of weak when compared to most of the FPS titles released on the 360 in the past few years, which have either offered more original and inventive single-player games, more robust multiplayer modes, or both.

Also, though I didn’t experience any notable bugs while playing online, I’m told that many players are experiencing bugs that, for example, reset their online rank to 1, or remove bought enhancements AND the cash used to buy them, and other fun things, which essentially ruins playing in multiplayer in the first place. Oh, and speaking of enhancements, while it’s nice that you can enhance your characters in various different ways, jumping into a random Deathmatch with a bunch of jacked-out players when you’re just starting out feels a whole lot like smacking face-first into a wall as soon as pretty much everyone starts slaughtering the hell out of you in seconds, and, uh, that doesn’t really encourage new players to want to come back. I’m not saying that the enhancements aren’t neat, but I AM saying that maybe there should be some sort of way to not have there be a barrier on entry that’s obvious from the get-go.

Wolfenstein is really kind of a glorious amalgamation of old and modern FPS mechanics that mostly does what it set out to do, but doesn’t really reinvent the wheel in any way at all, and while it’s a good amount of fun while it lasts, it doesn’t make a convincing argument for keeping it in your system. The story is solid enough, the presentation is mostly solid, and the gameplay is easy to learn and understand. The game offers plenty of neat things to do, thanks to some useful magic abilities and the ability to collect goodies to earn cash that can be put towards upgrading gear, and the multiplayer component is solid enough to be worth playing around with a bit. However, the game does absolutely nothing you haven’t seen before in other games if you’re a fan of the genre, the multiplayer component is quite limited, and some technical and mechanical issues with online play can make it more frustrating than fun even if you DO like it. Wolfenstein is worth checking out if you like the franchise, and it’s a fine FPS game in most respects, so long as you don’t expect anything new or exciting from it.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:
Wolfenstein is essentially a melding of old and modern FPS mechanics that comes together into a game that’s stylish and enjoyable, but not especially original or interesting in the long term. The story is solid enough to carry the game along, the presentation is solid, and the gameplay is simple enough to understand while being enjoyable enough to keep you going for a while. The game offers many interesting mechanics to make it feel like more than just another shooter, and thanks to some interesting magical abilities, the ability to upgrade your weapons and a solid multiplayer mode, it’s mostly worth checking out for fans. However, the game feels like other FPS titles and doesn’t do very much to distinguish itself as its own game, the multiplayer is fairly limited in scope, and some odd technical issues make the multiplayer hard to recommend even if you like shooting people online. Wolfenstein is certainly fun and well worth checking out if you’re an FPS fan, but you’ve most likely seen most everything it has to offer, and it might not be able to hold your interest beyond the single player campaign.

2 Comments
  1. Mark B.

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