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Wolfenstein

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Platforms: PC/ Xbox360/PS3
Publisher: Activision
Price: £29.99/ £49.99

Not a full stein but just enough to wolf down

Wolfenstein. Three syllables set to send gamers from almost two decades back into paroxysms of lyrical waxing all over. One of the granddaddies of first person shooters is back, and with it those nefarious Nazis tampering with genetic modification and manhandling the supernatural fabric of things (when they’re not busy strutting around in rather tight uniforms with a penchant for kinky black leather trimmings). There has been a surfeit of WWII shooters over the years and since the huge success of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare things have been relatively quiet on the Second World War front. There was a time you couldn’t walk into your local high street gaming outlet without falling over WWII titles stacked like sandbags. To say that the chance to pick up an MP40 from some dead Nazi, or shoulder a Panzerfaust and give it some was an exciting prospect is an understatement. The last time I felt such anticipation was when Thief: Deadly Shadows was released, because the original of that and much of its second outing were gaming masterpieces for my money. The last Wolfenstein instalment, 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein, proved to be something of a classic too, chock-full of creepy atmosphere and standout battle moments.

 

In Raven Software’s Wolfenstein you find yourself (once again as Allied agent BJ Blazkowicz) creating havoc deep behind enemy lines with the Kreisau Circle resistance group. In the course of your mission of carnage you uncover a trail to a mysterious artefact known as the Black Sun, portal to a fissure between our world and one containing all manner of nasty things beyond. The scenario provides plenty of what you’d hope from a WWII FPS: wave upon wave of submachine gun fodder coming at you left, right and centre, working up a rhythm of dodgin’ ‘n’ blastin’ like some proto-gangsta rapper giving the finger to the Fatherland. (The actual soundtrack is a suitably rumbustious orchestral number.) This is all gloriously retro and the game has its moments when you’re fighting the oncoming master race in the city of Isenstadt, a sort of spa destination where Nazis go to partake of recreational eugenic slaughter. But what the game also contains – and it shares this dimension with Deus Ex: Invisible War and the aforementioned Thief: Deadly Shadows both based on classic originals – is what I call ‘consolitis’. Take a classic PC game and develop its latest instalment primarily for the console and an element of immersive sophistication always seems to suffer. Maybe it has something to do with all those multiple commands available on a keyboard reduced to a few thumb and finger twiddles on a gamepad; I don’t know. But in that transition from PC to console something vital seems to get lost, and besides the direct accessibility that comes with a gamepad experience there is not necessarily any balancing gain. In this case it’s atmosphere that loses out.

 

The gameplay involves moving through various sectors of the city which are linked by load-time transitions between each sector map to accomplish your missions. If, like me you have the mind-mapping navigational skills of a cliff top lemming, the map you carry along with your growing armoury proves vital. One of the advantages of such a layout should allow for free-roaming non-liner play. The influence of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and of Fallout 3 is clear here, although, effectively, because you are given so many console-style hints, tips and pointers and the handy map tells you where to go, the sense of free-roaming choice in RPG-style missions is largely undermined. When you do return to a given sector you are as likely to be attacked by the same AI spawn as when you first visited it.


Admittedly, I played the game on ‘Normal’ but it did seem far too easy. The AI enemies shout helpfully to alert you to their presence, and then, even more helpfully, frequently stand around inviting you to kill them. If you do get shot there are no health packs to heal you. Similar to Rainbow Six: Vegas, a frame of streaky blood encloses your vision until you croak it, unless you take cover in order to heal. There are no save options either, as save points are staged. This provides some annoying but challenging moments when you have to deal with what is effectively a Level Boss because dying requires you to replay the entire section. The Havok engine incorporates the physics of destructible environment – chunks of wall, boxes blown away – which can work both for and against you. It also allows The Model 24 German stick grenades to do some decent damage.

 

When you get out of the city (the trip to the farmhouse is a breath of fresh air in more ways than one) or storm the castle at night (and you do embrace that darkness after protracted daylight shenanigans), the fun is ratcheted up. The modding of weapons, which can be purchased from black market boltholes with the gold you collect on your gun-blasted travels, is also a major plus, most of all the recoil dampeners. The Kar98 becomes an awesome weapon when modded; you can shoot off a Nazi’s leg with a modded bore and ‘scope and watch him hop about one-legged for a bit, blood spurting, before he topples over. All good clean psychotic gaming fun. The enhanced powers you collect are entertaining too, like the protective Shield you can invoke around you in combat, or the Empower ability to maximize bashing. Energy drains quickly and puddles of energy and energy canisters need to be found for instant top ups. Throw the canisters at Axis soldiers and when they smash it causes temporary anti-gravity, allowing you to shoot the helpless fascists as they float in the air. Heh. Big boys, like the Tesla Gun and the Particle Cannon, you pull out when there are heftier brutes to deal with.

 

Does Wolfenstein prove to be the sum of its parts, then? Almost. Tellingly, although those leather-clad Nazi Uber-babes are back, they are less nimble and nifty than last time round, even allowing for their restrictively tight-looking garb. Did I still enjoy it after such a long wait? Yes. Am I likely to play it through again as I did RTCW, repeatedly? Probably not. Which brings me back to that atmosphere: despite all of the amusing tinkering on offer Wolfenstein lacks the immersive spine-tingling atmosphere of RTCW along with the gunplay – skeletons and zombie-type-thingies bursting out of walled vaults from behind you and rising out of the ground in misty catacombs, spooking you out. While that same tinkering gets in the way of the pure FPS experience of the legendary original. There are some things no amount of frantic thumb fiddling can ever make up for.

 

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