It's becoming a theme in this economy; “revitalizing existing IP”. What that means in layman's terms is, “Rather than taking a big financial risk on a new idea, let's dust off an old one and see if it'll still make money.” I mean how else can you explain all those the Star Wars: Battlefronts? Anyway, you can't blame a company for keeping a tight hold on the purse strings during a recession, and who's to say an incredible game can't be made from an old concept? Publisher Activision is banking on that idea with the release this month of Wolfenstein, a revamped sequel to 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
In Return, players took on the role of American agent B.J. Blaskowicz, shooting his way through World War II and foiling dastardly Nazi plots left and right. In Wolfenstein, players must once again put on the Blaskowicz bomber jacket to stop the Nazis who are once again investigating a paranormal means to winning the war. Blaskowicz's mission is to stop General Zetta, the head of the SS Paranormal Division, before he finds a way to turn a supernatural energy source into the world's first weapon of mass destruction.
You start in the fictional German village of Isenstadt where you meet up with Carolyn Becker, hot chick and intrepid leader of the Kreisau Circle resistance movement. Soon enough, she's sending you around the city to rescue kidnapped resistance fighters, destroy Nazi holdings or gather intel and from here on the game will feel very familiar to anyone who's played well, any shooter at all. You'll have the usual machine gun, rifle and grenades at your disposal, with the usual hotkeys for reload, weapon swap and zoom. You'll pick up the usual ammo that's lying around in the open or take it from dead enemies, and you'll upgrade your weapons at the local Black Market. Luckily, all this "usual" is shaken up a bit when the game takes a turn for the paranormal earlier on than expected, becoming even more paranormal in fact, than Wolfenstein has ever been.
The paranormal in this game is embodied in the Thule Medallion, an artifact from an ancient civilization that uses crystals to bestow superhuman "Veil" powers on the bearer. Finding it during one of your early missions, you discover it gives you access to the Veil, a sort of parallel plane. When you enter this plane, you can see both what's going on in the real world as well as things invisible to the human eye like weird, floating, bug-like creatures. The Thule Medallion becomes more powerful as you find more crystals for it, giving you four different powers: Veil Sight, Mire, Veil Shield and Empower.
Veil Sight functions like infra-red; it allows you to see enemies in low light and spot hidden doorways, ladders and the locations of “power tomes” which allow you to buy Veil power upgrades. Mire slows time to a crawl so you can fight off superfast enemies and solve puzzles; Veil Shield prevents bullets from hitting you and Empower allows you to shoot through enemy shields. All of these powers require Veil energy, which can be siphoned from the energy puddles scattered all over the environment or refilled from the Nazis' handy supply of Veil energy containers.
This new mechanic seemed a little gimmicky to me at first, but there was no denying the cool factor early on in the game when I accidentally shot one of the energy containers, sending me, the enemy, and all the surrounding debris drifting in slow-mo into the air. I found I could still shoot while floating, and quickly I realized—I'd discovered a whole new way to grease me some Nazis! Sad to say, this is where the game's attempt at innovation ends. From then on the theme becomes, “solid but safe”. All the levels are well-designed but not particularly unique. You'll shoot your way through Isenstadt village, a farm, a hospital, a cannery; all places that will no doubt seem extremely familiar. In fact, I started to experience a definite sense of deja vous after about an hour or two. “Hrm...the AI sometimes takes cover but mostly flings itself at me one by one as I wait behind a door.” Been there. “Enemies are a blend of Nazi grunts, guys with flamethrowers and latex-clad acrobatic women with energy whips who go all Cirque du Soleil on me.” Done that. “Bosses are giant insects, crazed Nazi officers and armored uber soldiers.” Bought the T-shirt.
Something that magnifies the game's apparent lack of imagination is the half-hearted attempt to design the game as “open world”. Except for one or two side missions, the whole game is linear, down to being given objectives forcing you to repeatedly run back to safe houses post-mission just so people can say things like, "Good job" or "You jerk!" Another issue is with the factions in the game; the Nazis, the occult The Golden Dawn and the Kreisau Circle resistance feel mostly cosmetic. There's never any sense of either cooperation or tension among the groups nor any reason for you to have to choose among them. In a weird way, it makes sense that the design decisions were mostly cosmetic since surface changes appear to be the core of the revamp. You might say that rather than finding a fountain of youth, our old girl Wolfenstein went and got herself a face lift.
The graphics are undoubtedly improved. The lighting effects, textures and character models are largely a step above what's been seen before. The environments especially are quite stunning, although considering you're likely to spend most of your time in green-night-vision Veil Sight mode, you won't really get to see them at their best. The cutscenes are well done too, interesting and dynamic, and add a lot to the storytelling. The VO and music also do a good job of supporting the storytelling but I gotta say, with his voice, the Blaskowicz model should've been made to look just like George Clooney.
The single player campaign will take you about eight hours but for many players, it's beside the point. For them, Wolfenstein is all about the multi-player. The disappointing truth is, Wolfenstein just doesn't do right by the multi-player mode. Developed by the ill-fated Endrant Studios (many of the team were fired the day the game was released), Wolfenstein's multiplayer offers a lackluster Team Deathmatch, Objective and Stopwatch mode, all three very typical of what players have seen before, while lacking the graphic polish of the single player game. The matches I played online were very low energy, ranging from the mildly interesting to the “Hrm...I wonder if anything's on TV?”
With the new Wolfie, Activision is doing its damnedest to breathe new life into the Wolfenstein franchise. So far though, its heartbeat's still fairly weak. While there's definitely fun to be had in the new game, everything—the story, the environments, the level design, the enemies—feels recycled. Ultimately, even though the new Wolfie is polished, professionally done and has some interesting new elements, it fails to deliver any surprises.