Waiter waiter there’s a wolf in my stein.
Wolfenstein isn’t particularly innovative, it is almost exactly what you’d expect if you thought long and hard about a Wolfenstein game. It’s also almost perfect.
Set partially in WWII and then in 1960, Wolfenstein’s story is a beautiful mixture of old-world action sensibilities (We’re going to shoot a castle with a nuke but first we need to go to steal a submarine from the strongest base and go destroy a giant London that no-one has ever fought before) and more modern emotive themes like sacrifice, suffering and leaving people behind. This is reflective of the game as a whole, it’s blending what was so right about games in the 90s with what has made the last decade so good for first-person shooters. You have your ridiculously over the top action sequences juxtaposed with real choices that affect the game and intelligent characterisation. This is what Doom 3, Duke Nukem Forever, Serious Sam 3 and countless others were trying to achieve, the most excellent fusion of two very different generations, and they’ve got it spot-on. There are scenes that made our stomach churn and by the end we really cared about every single character, not what we expected from the way it’s advertised as a purely action experience. There’s some really cinematic use of camera angles and lighting and this is one of very few games where the villains are truly detestable. It’s hard to make a villain you can care about but Deathshead and his cronies are grade-a bad-guys and it makes forging a path to get rid of them all the more satisfying.
In terms of gameplay Wolfenstein offers up a surprising amount of choice. Yes much of the game is linear, taking you through routes in larger buildings where you simply need to mow down everything that comes your way, but the shooting is so refined in these sections it’s easily forgiven. Nearly every weapon can be dual-wielded and every weapon feels powerful and important, especially when you consider the alternate fires. The assault rifle gets a rocket-launcher addon later while the shotgun can fire projectiles that bounce around corners. If you’re so inclined you can even dual wield sniper rifles just because. The enemies react the way you’d expect them to under fire, crumpling under a hail of bullets or turning to bloody chunks when hit with something stronger. A tool you get to use throughout the game slowly evolves into your most deadly weapon, capable of turning even the slightly heavier grunts into a pink mist with a single shot. At no point do you feel underpowered in the action sequences but that’s not to say that they’re ever easy. The AI might not be revolutionary but during a late-game battle through a large room with numerous corridors branching off to the side we repeatedly found ourselves flanked and hemmed in from all side while we were trying to scramble for health. Health only comes in the form of pickups so you’ll often end up scavenging around mid-battle while Nazis pick away at your health. Checkpoints are fairly generous which is helpful as there a couple of immensely frustrating situations where we found ourselves out of ammo and faced by enemies quite a distance away. There’s not too many options for long-distance fighting but an intelligent use of cover and picking up all the armour you can find will get you through eventually.
The action scenes are only half of the fun though, yes clashing with giant cyborg dogs is thrilling but we enjoyed ourselves just as much skulking around in the shadows. The stealth in Wolfenstein is a completely unexpected treat, working brilliantly and often being more rewarding than going in guns blazing. In many areas there are commanders present (a hint appears on your HUD telling you how far away they are). If you manage to take them out without being spotted there’ll be no reinforcements, making some nightmarish warzones a complete walk in that park. To get to them you can use melee takedowns from behind, silenced pistols (dual-wieldable, naturally) and even throwing knives that fall in a satisfying arc, requiring a little skill to get just right. In these areas the maps tend to open up a lot with numerous ways around, from little tunnels in the ground to ladders and ziplines to stalk your prey from the rooftops. Later on the more armoured units force you to avoid them as they can’t be brought down in one shot, forcing a little diversity into your tactics.
While we said the game isn’t radically innovative, that’s not to say it doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve. Your main tool, a plasma cutter, allows you to slice through thin fences and chains. This might sound ho-hum, but the game gives you complete control over it, allow you to make whatever shape or size hole you want to climb through. This becomes interesting when it’s used as more than a single-shot gimmick, but a feature of nearly every level with hidden paths and sniper views made accessible if you just remember to use that tool. It’s an interesting addition and the way it grows to be incredibly powerful over the course of the game keeps it fresh and relevant throughout.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag as we saw with Rage ( the last time the Id 5 engine was trotted out). In general it looks spectacular, and ran well on the highest settings on our 7870HD, but there still are a few areas with bland textures and lots of objects don’t look so great up close. The metallic enemies also had an odd shine that made them stand out from the environment in a bad way and were often fairly distracting. The engine does cope with large vistas spectacularly well though, and action sequences are breathtaking. On next-gen consoles the game looks just as good as it will on most PCs and clearly a lot of time and effort has been spent in making it run right. The sound production deserves its own mention too as the use of music and the voice acting is truly superb, with a little cheesiness used at just the right times, but a sense of gravitas and importance to what you’re doing being present whenever it’s required.
The whole campaign takes around ten hours to complete on medium difficulty and there’s tonnes of collectables and extra difficulties for those so inclined to play through again, there’s even a whole divergent plotline based on a single choice but it makes little difference to the actual levels, it just changes the story. Sadly there’s no multiplayer, but with a campaign crafted this well it’s easily worth the asking price. With the story, graphics, gunplay, stealth and sound production Wolfenstein is up there with Bioshock, Half-life 2 and Goldeneye for us. It may be a somewhat limited package but it’s by far the best gameplay experience on next-gen at the moment and even for PC die-hards it’s been a long while since we’ve had an FPS of this quality. This is a beautifully polished game and a clear sign that Machine Games are now firmly an A-list developer. We can’t wait to see what they do next.