In the bright eyed PC gaming days of my youth, there were two things that would always bring a smile to my face: id’s Wolfenstein 3D and the fantastic games of Raven Software. Even as gaming matured and brought with it the more “serious” WWII shooters like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, Wolfenstein’s B-movie blitzkrieg of blazing chain guns, snarling SS troopers, and dash of tasteless sci-fi tomfoolery (Mecha Hitler!) always brought me back time and time again.
Raven Software was another constant, taking established FPS norms and adding just enough of a twist to make the resultant product mind blowing, be it setting a shooter in a fantasy world (Heretic), multiple character classes and RPG-style development (Hexen), or even digital dismemberment (Soldier of Fortune), Raven’s M. O. was simple but effective. So needless to say, the idea of these two constants of my 90’s youth coming together sounded like the best marriage of ideas since peanut butter and chocolate. The truth, I’m heartbroken to say, is not nearly as tasty.
You’re in the boots of William 'B.J.' Blazkowicz, a Polish-American cross between Steve McQueen and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he is sent after the remnants of the Third Reich (having painted the walls with Hitler back in Wolfenstein 3D) and their latest schemes. This time, however, the plot is more Raiders of the Lost Ark than Where Eagles Dare, with the Nazis trying to manipulate a force called The Veil to their own evil ends. B.J., in true Wolfenstein fashion, manages to snag the Thule Medallion; the occult artifact used to manipulate The Veil, and uses it to turn the tide against the Reich. There are many more elements involved, including an uneasy alliance with Crowley’s cronies in The Golden Dawn, but they feel strangely glossed over, as if you’re walking in on the second reel of a movie.
The aforementioned Thule Medallion/Veil element is the new game play wrinkle that Raven has added to the staid WWII franchise, giving B.J. access to an arsenal of supernatural powers. For example, B.J. can 'enter' the Veil, which allows him to travel through certain walls, spot enemies more easily, and exploit the Geist, strange floating fleas whose electrified explosions can hurt enemies in the real world. Another ability, Mire, sends you into a Max Payne/F.E.A.R. style “bullet time,” where you can easily dance around enemy fire as you liberally pepper them with your own for short periods of time. Shield can stop and redirect enemy bullets, and Empower increases your weapons’ abilities. All of these come at the cost of Veil power, which you can replenish at various rippling craters throughout the game world.
Another added bonus is the ability to use an in-game Black Market to upgrade your weapons. Acquiring gold during missions allows you to spend it on spicing up your arsenal, adding on enhancements like silencers, stripper clips to speed up reloading, and better rifling to improve accuracy. You can also upgrade your Veil abilities in the Black Market (so illicit arms dealers are occult experts as well?) by trading in Tomes of Power (a direct nod to Raven’s Heretic/Hexen series), also found scattered throughout the levels. This, while also a welcome addition, feels a little redundant due to the game’s bland arsenal. Certain guns will become upgraded as soon as possible, while others will languish in their unenhanced state for the duration of the game.
The main issue with Wolfenstein is that it ultimately doesn’t feel like Wolfenstein. While the games have often been sparingly peppered with supernatural and sci-fi elements, be it Hitler-headed sorcerers or cybernetic zombie Übermutants, this new game’s complete veering into the realm of mysticism and fantasy feels completely out of touch with the series’ progression. Even 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein, with its tale of warlord resurrection and cyborg troopers, felt strangely grounded in comparison to Wolfenstein’s interdimensional mechanics. Worse still, these fantastic elements just don’t mesh with the rest of the game, which feels about as safe as any Medal of Honor entry until these “new” elements were clumsily tacked on. Sadly, it feels like the dreams of my 13-year-old self are at direct odds with my 28-year-old reality.