Isenstadt, 1943. The Nazi SS Division has rolled into town, and – for reasons never made entirely clear (presumably this is top level classification stuff, or maybe they just liked the regional cheeses) – set up its big secret occult war machine. There’s no game plan without a backup plan, after all, and if the Nazis aren’t going to win the war with vulgar extermination policies and unfashionable moustaches, they’re going to do it with monsters. Obviously, the locals aren’t too thrilled about the entire foundation of the town being dug up and replaced with a gargantuan Nazi monster factory, so they’ve started their own little resistance clubs where they sit around eating bierkäse and moaning about how much better everything was before the Third Reich got here. Or something. They certainly weren’t actually doing anything useful, or you wouldn’t have to show up and do everything for them.
Enter you, Special Agent BJ Blazkowicz, hero protagonist, recently (relatively) returned from Castle Wolfenstein where you beat an undead Saxon prince back to regular death, and single-handedly precluded the apocalyptic fantasies of one Oberführer Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse. Who may or not not have turned up again, only this time with a slightly less stupid name.
Elsewhere, however, it’s mostly just more of the shooting-Nazis-and-blowing-stuff-up sort of thing all the other Wolfenstein games were doing, although this one does make some pretence of being open world. It’s kinda not really, although the town of Isenstadt is ostensibly “open” to wander around in – it’s also thickly populated by German patrols who respawn themselves at an inconveniently improbable rate, and whose only apparent purpose – given that the game has no XP system or any real incentive for killing bad guys – is to resupply you with the ammo it takes to kill them in the first place. Sure, it’s probably more realistic that an occupied town is going to remain policed by the occupying force, but in a game with a handheld particle cannon that completely dissolves anything on its business end and invisible Nazi assassins, was realism ever really relevant anyway? Instead, having to constantly kill people to get anywhere quickly becomes exceedingly tedious.
And speaking of questionable game design, there’s the Veil powers. Right near the start of the game, you get yourself a sort of magic stone thing that you shove magic crystal things into and get magic power things. You start off with Veil Sight, a magic power that lets you move a bit faster and see magic holes in ordinary walls. I know what you’re thinking – why didn’t the developers just speed up the standard movement, and put the holes straight into the ordinary walls? The point, as I discovered, is to force players to spend most of the game in a parallel dimension that’s mostly sickly shades of blue and green and grotty, low resolution textures. Later on you get other magic powers that feel just as cheap – not least of all because using them uses up some kind of magical energy of which you have only a finite supply. While the Veil Sight consumes this at a reasonable rate, the other powers mow through it so fast they’re rendered almost entirely useless in any encounter with more than a half dozen combatants. Which is most of them. And by the time you’ve maxed out the upgrades on one or two of your guns, you don’t really need the Veil powers anyway. Besides, stabbing people in the face with the KAR98 bayonet upgrade is the best thing in the game.
Ultimately, the single player campaign just never really manages to be anything special – no inconsiderable feat, given its marvellously absurd premise. Chemically bioengineered Nazi supersoldiers had so much raw, throbbing potential, and yet it’s all so relentlessly monotonous and instantly forgettable. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not particularly good either.
The multiplayer, of course, is its own game, and it’s where Wolfenstein threatens to be something more than its rather underwhelming single player effort. Serving up class-based fragging in deathmatch and objective-oriented modes, the game is suddenly transformed from a completely unremarkable FPS slog into a high intensity, dynamic, and authentically interesting experience. What a shame then, that apparently nobody in South Africa (XBL) is playing it and I’m stuck chucking bullets into the spaces laggy internationals vacated 1200ms ago. Still, the very fact that I persisted is testament to the multiplayer game’s enormous sense of fun.
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