Let me give you all a history lesson on what really happened during WWII. You see, the Nazis were constantly researching occult powers and dark mysticism to create supersoldiers who would decimate the Allied force and pave the way to world domination. Thankfully, we were all saved by the heroics of B.J. Blazkowicz, the ruggedly handsome American secret agent who foiled the Third Reich again and again. At any rate, that's the history that the Wolfenstein franchise would like you to believe, and with a game this entertaining, I'm inclined to edit a few textbooks.
This particular adventure places Blazkowicz in the fictional German city of Isenstadt. It seems that the latest Nazi scheme involves tapping the supernatural powers of another dimension, known as the Black Sun, and using the energy gleaned to give the Axis army the extra edge needed to finally win this blasted war. It isn't long before Blazkowicz finds himself in possession of an artifact known as the Thule Medallion, which lets him access the plane between dimensions known as the Veil. The medallion also grants its owner numerous powers, and armed with his own bit of sorcery, B.J. blasts his way through the German hordes to claim victory once more.
While the premise of this latest edition of the Wolfenstein franchise is a bit flimsy, the gameplay is anything but. When you start off, the game will feel just like any other WWII shooter, featuring period weapons and the same old boring objectives; but after only the first mission, things begin to take a turn, and before long you're sabotaging giant underground Nazi bases or storming castles to rescue captured allies. This is one of the few shooters out there that understands pacing, consistently ramping up the action and intrigue until you reach a satisfying conclusion. While many games fall flat around the midpoint and just kind of hover in place until the end, Wolfenstein works hard to keep things fresh and exciting all the way up to the final credits.
The first changeup the game throws is in the way you accept and carry out missions. Instead of the traditional FPS model, where you are shuttled from mission to mission by cut scenes, Wolfenstein allows for a more open-ended model wherein the city of Isenstadt is a level in and of itself. Between actual stages, you can wander around the city and find new missions, upgrade your weapons, hunt for secret treasure or merely harass the respawning Nazi patrols. While many action, adventure and RPG games have embraced this idea of a hub world, it is still a relative unknown in FPS circles. It's nicely implemented here, though there are a couple of downsides. First off, as you progress through the story, so do the enemies who appear in the city; while you start off with standard-issue grunts who go down with a few shots, you'll later have to tackle the game's tougher foes, including heavy troopers with nasty weapons and jetpack foes with rocket launchers. The danger here is that you may very easily start the next level low on ammo due to all the fighting you had to do just to get to the door that starts the mission proper.
The other problem with the hub is that while you can avoid most enemy patrols by sticking to the rooftops or sewers, the game's rather banal map does little to help you locate these areas and even less to assist in navigation. As you flee an enemy patrol, you may stumble upon a sewer entrance but without any meaningful guidance system, it's easy to get terribly lost while you're down there. Thus, most players will likely stick to the surface streets and simply suffer through the frustration of constant combat rather than seeking out the more stealthy routes.
For as open-ended as the hub world may be, the levels themselves are anything but. The actual missions play out in corridors and multi-level rooms just like they did when the very first Wolfenstein game introduced us to the genre all those years ago. There is only one path through each level, and you can bet that most of the time you spend on that path will be used to blast wave after wave of Nazi troops with increasingly bigger and better guns. Purists will say this is simply Wolfenstein being Wolfenstein, doing what it's always done and staying true to its roots. Others will claim it's lazy, allowing a game to rest on its laurels when the rest of the genre has vastly upped the ante with concepts like snap-to cover and co-op play. I'll leave the ultimate decision up to your individual tastes, but know going in that this is as old-school a shooter as there is.
Its traditional structure is what makes Wolfenstein's Veil powers stand out. Starting off, players are given only one power: an ability called Veil Sight, which allows them to shift into the plane between dimensions and move a little faster and sniff out hidden passages and treasures. Later powers include the ability to slow down things in the traditional bullet-time sense, a shield that catches and reflects projectiles and a berserk mode that makes all your shots much more deadly and gives you the power to shoot through shields and cover. Even better, each of your powers can be upgraded a number of times and can ultimately become powerful enough to vaporize some enemies the second they're implemented. Ultimately, all the Veil powers feel exceptionally useful (a rarity in games, where some power-ups almost always feel like afterthoughts) and play a substantial role in taking down the bigger and tougher foes later in the game.
The other wrinkle that helps Wolfenstein stand out from the pack is the collection of large and lethal weapons B.J. picks up throughout the course of his adventure. While you start off with the standard German submachine guns and rifles, it's not long before players begin stumbling across the more "unorthodox" weapons, which pack the most punch. I'll only spoil things a little by mentioning the first special weapon you come across, the Particle Cannon. This little beauty fires off a constant stream of something that can vaporize nearly any enemy it touches. What's great is that this weapon (along with all the others) can be upgraded just like the Veil powers, making it even more destructive. Best of all, that's one of the weaker special weapons you'll find, so I'll let you just imagine what kind of gun tops the one that turns baddies to dust on contact.
In addition to a very solid single-player offering, Wolfenstein also packs in a multiplayer experience, though it's hard to get excited about it. Players choose from one of three classes (Soldier, Engineer or Medic) and then set about one of eight maps in the game's paltry three multiplayer modes. Team Deathmatch is the standard kill-or-be-killed affair, so there's nothing new to report there. Objective sets one team to capture a specific item or complete a certain action while the other team tries to defend it, and Stopwatch takes the objective mode and adds a timer. While there are a few extras thrown in, like persistent ranks and cash that players can use to buy upgrades, there's really very little here to keep you coming back for more. For most players, the multiplayer will be a one-stop distraction before they head back to other, more robust titles.
Wolfenstein really doesn't do much to move the FPS genre forward, but it does manage to nail the fundamentals and offer a highly entertaining experience. The only real weaknesses are a weak multiplayer mode and a hub world that gets pretty tedious to navigate as the game wears on. In all other aspects — pacing, gameplay mechanics and general fun — the game manages to hit plenty of high notes. While it's been nearly a decade since we laced up Blazkowicz's Nazi-hunting boots, this is a fitting return to service. As long as you go in knowing exactly what to expect, this game is highly enjoyable.
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