When the multiplayer demo for Return to Castle Wolfenstein was released eight years ago, I couldn't get enough of its class-based, objective-focused multiplayer — and neither could a lot of other people. RtCW's sci-fi trappings, bizarre Nazi mysticism and addictive multiplayer kept us up into the wee hours of the night. With Wolfenstein, Raven and id have brought back our hero, B.J. Blaskowicz, to perforate another army of Nazi scum.
Wolfenstein isn't so much a typical WWII-themed shooter as it is a fantastical "what if?" adventure packed with gratuitous amounts of violent firepower. Following up on RtCW's theme that the Third Reich's infatuation with the occult led to some amazing super-weapons, Wolfenstein takes that notion even further with the mysterious powers of the Veil.
Blazkowicz returns in a new mission to investigate the Nazis' arcane obsession. A relic that Blazkowicz had recovered earlier may be related to the investigation, so the Office of Secret Actions sends him to find out what the goose-steppers may be up to and to stop it by any means necessary. In true, daring hero style, Blazkowicz obliges, knowing that he'll get to mow down more Third Reich thugs along the way.
History and fiction blend together to build a story that's packed with as much detail as its surroundings are. As usual, Raven's artists have filled the landscape of the fictional city of Isenstadt with props and period pieces. Swastikas hang above the doorways and beside the windowsills of a besieged city, Nazi propaganda posters are plastered on ruddy walls, the black-clad SS march through the streets, and bizarre occult power flows as Nazis conduct experiments within secret bases. Fans of the old Soldier of Fortune series will also feel at home with the buckets of Havok-enhanced dismemberments and wrecked furniture left behind in Blaskowicz's wake. It might not be as visually demanding as Crysis, but it manages to build a world that is distinctly Wolfenstein.
It's also where Germans speak accented English and caricatured villains wait around every corner, but in Wolfenstein's occult world of supernatural science and over-the-top gore, it works. Musician Bill Brown, no stranger to games or film, is back to present another gripping score by which to slaughter SS officers. A variety of highly charged pieces energize the fights, while a track inspired by John Williams' score for Indiana Jones lends just the right accent to mysterious scenes that feature Tesla coils and powers from beyond.
Unlike its predecessor, Wolfenstein breaks the linear single-player progression through the game with a hub-based design around Isenstadt's relatively open streets, so you'll have access to optional missions and an upgrade system via the black market. A journal points the way to the next story-related mission as well as any other opportunities that might arise from people you'll meet. The additional missions also give the streets of Isenstadt just enough of an open-world feel so that you can dodge bullets while searching for new opportunities; it's an interesting approach, and I wish that more had been done with this.
Players can travel between different areas of the city while pursuing their missions, and one of the reasons for exploration is the need for cash. Dead enemies will supply most of the ammo and stock Blazkowicz's arsenal with new toys, but the black market will upgrade weapons for a price, which is where the limited amount of gold comes in. In between missions, Blazkowicz can head into Isenstadt's streets to find gold and visit the black market.
Some mods are only unlocked after certain conditions are met, such as finishing a particular mission first, and there is only so much gold that can be found and earned so you're forced to think about which upgrades are worth the price. Intel can also be collected to reveal story tidbits for those who want to immerse themselves in Wolfenstein's fiction. Completed missions can be replayed by selecting them from the journal, in case you missed something the first time around or want to see what your upgraded tools can do to SS headquarters.
Wolfenstein also adds a greater emphasis to the occult with the Veil. It gives the player even more to play with, especially when enemies start sending in walking armor that's powered by the Veil. Over the course of the game, additional powers can be added to allow our hero to project a shield or enhance the damage of his weapons, so long as he has enough Veil energy to draw from. Even the black market has acquired a few special crystals that Blazkowicz can purchase to make his powers even deadlier.
Fortunately, the Veil leaks like a sieve all over the city of Isenstadt, and Blazkowicz can replenish his new gifts by simply walking to the air-distorting spills. Over time, the Nazis get wise to his power and start setting up devices to cancel out his ability to use the Veil, creating situations where the player may find himself having to rely on good, old-fashioned lead.
The Nazis have been at it longer than Blazkowicz, as he'll later find out. Goggle-wearing freaks act as sorcerers, who can race around and shield their allies. Giant, walking suits wielding nuclear-powered death streams patrol the streets. Then there are the Despoiled: the walking dead who are lit up by the Veil like skeletal light bulbs. The only downside to the cannon fodder is that the enemy AI is a mixed bag. Enemies often charge straight into gunfire or stand out in the open to get shot so they're relatively easy to pick off, but they also have decent throwing arms for the occasional surprise grenade.
It took me about 12 hours to play through every mission of Raven's turn at Wolfenstein while working to snag intel and as much loose gold as possible, but it'll take you significantly less time if you just plow through the main campaign and do little else. As fun as it was, though, the title wasn't without its flaws. The straightforward action may come off as a little dated to players who have gotten used to leaning around corners and driving vehicles across huge, open maps. They won't find any of that in Wolfenstein's old-school approach to Nazi-bashing, but the gameplay preserves the charging, assault-oriented mayhem.
It's a little weird to see Xbox 360 tooltips in this PC game, alongside a few flickering textures, exaggerated head-bobbing, flags that have the consistency of armor plating and various clipping issues with dropped weapons. There are also no manual saves in the game, which is slightly odd for a PC title. Everything is done through checkpoints which, thankfully, have been spaced apart well enough so the player isn't forced to replay too much. The loading times are fast, so you won't lose too much time either. The boss fights bring in some nice variety, but the ending cinematic that wraps up this chapter of Blazkowicz's adventures is a little lacking after the explosive start. It's nice to know that there could be a sequel, though.
After finishing the solo adventure, I hoped that multiplayer would be just as good. I was surprised that eight years after RtCW, the new Wolfenstein did not offer a free beta multiplayer demo as its predecessor had. After starting it up and trying to play through it, I now know the reason: It's a disaster.
Wolfenstein's multiplayer comes with three game types: Objective, Stopwatch and Team Deathmatch, with players going in as either a part of the Resistance or the Axis. Objective mode pits the Axis and the Resistance against each other, with one side defending a set of objectives against the other team. Stopwatch mode times both teams in defend and attack rounds, and Team Deathmatch is exactly what it sounds like.
Players are asked to pick from one of three classes, depending on their style of play. Medics heal, soldiers fight with all sorts of weapons, and engineers can blow up stuff. Thrown into this mix is the Veil and cash earned in battle that can be used to upgrade weapons and powers from an in-game menu. On paper, even though they dropped the lieutenant and added in Counter-Strike-style shopping, it sounds like it could be fun.
From the lobby log-in requirement to the Xbox 360 tooltips that hid essential PC commands to the annoying ejection back to the menu screen instead of the server list and a stunted 12-player limit, multiplayer comes off as a confusingly lagged mess on a PC that can run Crysis' multiplayer across vast, open maps with vehicles and 32 players without an issue. To all of those who I tried to resurrect as a medic, I'm sorry that I just stood over your dying body like an idiot, but I couldn't find the corresponding key to the yellow "Y" button on my keyboard.
That it should be the mirror opposite of the icy smooth performance seen in the single-player portion is telling enough, but add to this the fact that Endrant, the company responsible for this part of the game, has laid off many of the people who could do something about it — on launch day, no less — casts some doubt on what will happen next. id Software seems to be on the case, but given the state that multiplayer is in right now, anyone wishing to play this and relive the excitement of the Beach from RtCW or experience an updated version of Enemy Territory will be in for a load of disappointment.
I love Wolfenstein, if only for the brilliant single-player segment, which swishes together 1940s pulp-action sci-fi and straightforward gunplay with atmospheric adventure. Gunning down Nazi scum among ancient ruins and atop a flying fortress was a tremendous thrill ride, but many will also be looking for the multiplayer portion to live up to the legacy of RtCW, and that experience falls far from the mark. For those who want to take part in a gripping adventure filled with bullets, fantastical Nazi super-science, the occult and an arsenal of super-weapons, Wolfenstein's wild and weird take on history delivers.
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