I don't know if you've noticed but FPS's have gone all clever on us lately. Over the last couple of years we've been inundated with games claiming all kinds of shiny new features. We've had conscience pricking moral choices, all kinds of time control shenanigans, super duper building destruction, sticky or non sticky cover systems and even RPG elements all making appearances in a genre that used to simply be all about headshots and frag counts. That's not a criticism by any means, things move on and we don't want to stand in the way of progress after all. However, sometimes it'd be nice to play an FPS where you can disengage your brain a bit and shoot everything that moves, just like you used to.
Thankfully it seems those simple prayers have now been answered, step forward the new Wolfenstein. Raven's belated sequel to 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein cheerily sticks its middle finger up at almost all recent FPS developments in favour of a more traditional approach and, to be honest, proves all the more enjoyable because of it.
Plot wise this is pure B-movie gold, we've got Nazis dabbling in black magic, Nazis possessed by demonic forces, powerful artefacts that grant the holder special powers and an all American hero. Throw in German accents that appear to have come straight from the 'Allo 'Allo school of dramatic acting and you've got a WWII shooter that's never in any danger of being confused for Call of Duty or Medal of Honour.
Once again taking control of B.J. Blaskowicz the game kicks off with the discovery that the Nazis are trying to harness the power of a mystical force called the Black Sun to help turn the tide of the war. Allied command send Blaskowicz to Isenstadt to help local resistance groups investigate and ultimately scupper the supernatural plans of those pesky Nazis. So begins an all action adventure that takes in city streets, archaeological digs, airfields, country farms and in one memorable moment a spectacular zeppelin before it reaches its conclusion.
One concession to modern gaming ideals Raven have made is to present a small area of Isenstadt as an open world style hub, a place that you'll continually return to after missions to buy and upgrade equipment, talk to NPCs and pick up new missions. It's not a huge chunk of city by any means but it serves its purpose well and gives a welcome illusion of freedom in an otherwise firmly linier game. Interestingly this hub area isn't the safe haven you may be expecting it to be and you'll regularly come up against Nazi patrols as you dart around between safe houses and arms shops. This continual element of danger adds nicely to the sense that even here, on what is meant to be your own turf, you're very obviously part of a resistance movement that's firmly underground.
Gameplay itself is very much your traditional FPS fair, largely linear levels see you wading through wave after wave of enemies towards a goal of some sort before often fighting your way back out again. That's not to say it isn't fun, because it is, it's a lot of fun in fact. Being a one man tide of death against enemies that, while not completely stupid, aren't exactly engaging in a delicate game of cat and mouse is refreshingly enjoyable. Initially you'll get to dispatch these enemies with a selection of realistic WWII weapons including the likes of the MP40 SMG and the Flammenwerfer. All are well implemented with the all important 'feel' factor perfectly judged meaning even the most basic gun feels like it can always be of use. As the game goes on you'll gradually come across weapons pulled from an alternate reality called The Veil. Here Raven have let their imaginations run wild making these weapons instantly more fun. The Tesla gun, which gives off multi directional streams of deadly electricity and the heavy duty Leichenfaust 44 that completely vaporises enemies are two of the most entertaining to use. As you play you'll earn, and find, money which can be used to upgrade the abilities of your weapons, there's nothing wonderfully new here but it's nice to be able to increase damage none the less.
Wolfenstein is very obviously one of those FPS titles where the world revolves firmly around you and your actions. Enemies forever lie in wait around corners till you wander within range, set pieces are triggered by you walking over invisible hard coded trip-wires and any allies you may have on a battlefield will always require you to do the job for them no matter how long you hide in a corner. It's one of those things that you'll only notice when you play through a section more than once and in a weird way it's even comforting at times, especially when the going gets tough and you realise how nice it is to be able to rely on Mr Nazi36 appearing from behind the same door every time you walk into a room.
Of course the real ace in Wolfenstein's hand in the use of The Veil, the parallel dimension I mentioned earlier. Once you've unlocked the ability to access it, something which happens near the beginning of the game you'll be pleased to know, you can drop in and out of it at will with the touch of a button. Once you're in the shimmering alternate dimension you'll find you're not only able to move faster but enemies glow making them far easier to spot. There are also strange floating creatures called Geists bobbing around who explode with a blast of energy that can shock and kill any nearby enemies.
You'll earn three special Veil powers as the game goes on, the ability to slow down time, produce a bullet-proof shield and add extra strength to your own weapons. These powers can also be upgraded and enhanced meaning that by the end of the game you'll be able to turn enemies into piles of ash and deflect bullets back at their senders. Your time in The Veil is limited by the amount of Veil power you're currently packing which in practice is a lot less of a pain than it could have been thanks to the plentiful recharge points littered around the levels.
It's a good job you're given access to these super powers early on as one thing Wolfenstein isn't is easy. You're blessed with the ever popular regenerating health which in theory means all battles should be winnable if you're patient enough. However, with enemy AI on the more simplistic end of the scale Wolfenstein often resorts to making things difficult by throwing ever growing numbers of enemies at you, something that makes getting the time and space to heal more of a challenge. The Veil powers do help though, the slow motion one especially can get you out of many a tricky spot, but there are still times when you can feel you're embroiled in a war of attrition rather than skill.
For all the brainless fun the game provides it's a shame to see some rather basic problems cropping up along the way too. I've mentioned already that the AI in general isn't the smartest but it's still disappointing to see enemies so unaware of the goings on around them. Shoot their close friend or throw a grenade at them and they rarely react as you'd expect, in fact unless they're actively shooting at you or being shot themselves they don't do a huge amount of anything much. The world of Wolfenstein is also home to the most irritating doors in all of gaming history (save perhaps the original Resident Evil), not only do you often open them up to find enemies hidden on the other side ready to pump you full of lead but they also have a nasty habit of closing of their own accord in your face a second of two after you've opened them. A real pain when you're trying to kill the aforementioned sneaky enemies.
The game engine that powers the whole thing is tidy enough and the world it pushes onto your retinas is well designed with plenty of incidental details to make it feel lived in. Character models however are a different kettle of Nazi fish, friends and enemies alike often appear more than a little simplistic in the with low poly counts all to obvious in the middle of the action. One thing they do do well however is die, their bodies reacting to your attacks in a pleasingly over the top way.
If there was one lasting legacy from Return to Castle Wolfenstein it was the fantastic multiplayer modes. While the world of online shooters has moved on ten-fold in the years since then, this new Wolfenstein is still able to hold its head up high. There are three basic modes, Team Deathmatch, Objective and Stopwatch. Team Deathmatch obviously speaks for itself which leaves Objective and Stopwatch to provide the more noteworthy fair. In these modes players are split into two teams taking on the role of either the resistance or the Nazis with the Nazis trying stop the resistance from performing certain objectives. The twist in Stopwatch is that players take turns on each team to see who can get the fastest objective completion times.
In all three modes there are three different classes players can chose to play as, soldier, medic and engineer, while and each class has its own Veil power to add to their arsenal too. Strangely these differ from the ones you'll be used to from the main campaign, soldiers get an explosive Veil strike, medics have the ability to heal anyone within range while engineers get a very handy dose of super speed.
Whichever mode you play the action is as slick and enjoyable as you'd expect. Once again there's little here that's not been done before, often with more polish if we're being fair, but get a few friends online and it's hard not to have a blast.
In conclusion this new Wolfenstein isn't going to win a single award for originality, Nazis, even super-powered ones, are hardly underused gaming bad guys after all. Instead its back to basics approach will provide a welcome shot in the arm for anyone yearning for a good old fashioned shooter. High def graphics aside this could almost be five or even ten years old in terms of game design but it matters not a jot because its also genuinely fun to play. I sort of wish I could score it higher than I have, it's been one of the more enjoyable games I've played lately, but push the score up much further and I'd be saying it's better than certain other, more inventive titles out there and that wouldn't really be fair. Rest assured though, if you're after an FPS that's more interested in putting a smile on your face than making you think then there's not much better on the shelves at the moment.
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