Gaming | Film | TV
Gaming | Film | TV

Wolfenstein Retrospective: The strange trajectory of a classic

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After New Order’s brilliant return of over-the-top action, we take a look at the ups and downs of a genre king

BJ Blazkowicz continues his adventures as one of the less aptly named characters in all of gaming with the new release of Wolfenstein: The New Order (seriously… BJ?). So it’s as good a time as any to take a look back at the series previous incarnations, some of which range from immortal classics to weird genre experiments.

And to start this, we need to go back. WAY back. All the way back to the year 1981, before first person shooters were even a thing.

Escape from Castle Wolfenstein & Beyond Castle Wolfenstein (1981 – 1984)

Castle-Wolfenstein

A lot of people don’t know about this entry in the series, and it’s hard to berate them for it considering how old and obscure it is compared to the rest. This is the very first Wolfenstein game ever created, and much alike its successor it was by all means a rarity even in its day.

Unlike the rest of the games in the series, Escape from Castle Wolfenstein isn’t centred on shooting everything on the screen as fast as possible, but rather playing smart. It is based primarily on stealth (Well, as much stealth as you can put on a Commodore 64 game). You walk around the corridors with only a pistol, tasked to escape the Prison Castle Wolfenstein, and you must use every bit of your wit to do so. Run or shoot, it’s your call, and it’s actually a very unique experience for its era.

This game, for its time, was pretty great. Playing it is pretty difficult nowadays due to it being so old, and it’s hard to say it’s worth it because…well, let’s face it, while these games are part of our gaming history they are also rather boring compared to what we have access to nowadays. It’s worth a shot if you want to get a glimpse of the series pedigree, but otherwise, just look up a few gameplay videos on YouTube.

Wolfenstein 3D & Spear of Destiny (1992)

Wolfenstein Spear of Destiny

The grandpappy of FPS is a game known by pretty much any person with a medium knowledge of videogames, and for good reason. If it wasn’t for Wolfenstein 3D, many of the concepts that shooters use nowadays wouldn’t even exist.  From simple yet effective weapon mechanics to secrets hidden in the nooks and crannies of every map, Wolfenstein 3D created the staples we know and still use to this day

Wolfenstein 3D is an action packed and very fast game for its time, focusing on quick reactions and getting as much lead downrange as possible. Like I mentioned, secrets and treasure are hidden all over the game, and finding all of them, let alone surviving the onslaught of Nazi gunfire, is a big challenge. You need to balance yourself between all-out combat and careful planning as your health and ammo diminish, and the paranoia of “Where’s the next trap?” will set in right away as you get closer to the castle’s exit.

Even to this day, Wolfenstein 3D’s gameplay holds out really well. It’s simplistic, sure, but it’s also fast-paced and incredibly satisfying. The levels are varied enough and hold enough challenges and secrets to keep you busy for a while, and there’s even a good story to the game (which is commendable, considering back in those days story wasn’t a big selling point for video games). Three main chapters – and one extra prequel chapter and two ‘lost epsidoes’ in the expansion Spear of Destiny – tell you the story of American POW BJ Blazkowiczas as he battles through a secret Nazi plot to create a mutant zombie army to rule over the world.

Another notable game is Rise of The Triad, which was intended as a sequel to Wolfenstein but ended up being a standalone game of its own. It even ended up creating its own following and has similarly experienced a resurgence in the past years. You can see Wolfenstein’s footprints all over Rise of The Triad, but the game manages to create its own identity and look, making it worth a try if you love Wolfenstein but want to try something new.

Wolfenstein 3D is dirt cheap to buy on Steam, easy to run, and there are even ports of it for Gameboy Advance and the popular open-source engine zDoom which lets you play it with customizable controls and smoother graphics (You can finally look around freely with the mouse!). Wolfenstein 3D is a game that every self-respecting FPS fan should try out, no excuses.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) 

It took 9 years before Wolfenstein would re-enter the world of gaming, and it was only logical that it would do so by taking advantage of one of the greatest tools that developer ID ever had in it’s hands; the QUAKE engine. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a callback to the FPS from back in the day for more modern gamers, using the old concepts while bringing them up to a new shine and a fresh coat of paint. Gone were the more silly aspects of Wolfenstein 3D (No Mecha-Hitler in this one, sadly.) and in came the more prominent ideas of the occult and the power of advanced technology in a World War 2 setting.

This is actually a reboot of the original game (retelling the story of Wolfenstein is a tradition of every installment by now), following part of the storyline while creating some new ideas, such as fighting off supernatural enemies much more often and dealing with technology that is way beyond what any of the powers of World War 2 could even imagine using. Your weaponry ranges from simple sub-machine guns to chain guns and Tesla-inspired cannons that electrocute everything in their path, making for a very wide range of equipment for you to blast Nazis away.

The problem, however, is that this gunplay just doesn’t feel right compared to the original. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very fun game, but it feels rough around the edges and the gunplay is a perfect example of this. Recoil feels off, the reloads are sometimes too fast or not well detailed, and it just feels mucky overall. Levels are still very interesting to go through, and the more serious tone of this installment along with a new, grittier art direction gives the entire experience a strange charm to it. Some might say it’s too easy (especially considering the final boss…never bring a sword to a gunfight, man) but it’s still gratifying, if only for the ability to use strange and exotic weapons on unsuspecting enemies.

Even though the game is currently available on Steam for purchase, running it on new computers can be a bit difficult, but thankfully ID released the source code for the engine in 2010, which in turn ended up with the community creating a thing called the ioEngine, making it easy for anyone to play and even customize every little part of this game. It’s a shame then, that the next release completely overshadowed Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

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