|Game Name:||Wolfenstein 3D|
|Genre(s):||First Person Shooter|
|Release Date:||May, 1992|
Wolfenstein 3D is one of those games I feel like I don’t really need to write anything about. It simply feels so ingrained with gamer culture that it seems pointless to bring it up, and I can’t gut-feeling believe anyone hasn’t played it. Logic tells me otherwise, and in my attempt to be thorough, this is one of many reviews I find myself writing more for a future generation of game designers and game players come looking back to the roots of the industry. I will try not to sound like the cantankerous old man telling you how it was in the day, but luckily, the game is still pretty good even fifteen years later.
It is also an interesting part of my personal sordid legacy, as it represents the first game I played in school that I was not supposed to be playing. Oh sure, there were the “educational” games like Sim City and Number Munchers you’d sometimes get to play, as if navigating a maze of factors was some kind of fucking reward. I also had the misfortune of having teachers that quickly picked up on the non-educational fun we were having with Oregon Trail, and made it disappear. So games and school did not go hand in hand until Wolfenstein rolled around. After which, my delinquency found new heights in playing Duke Nukem 3D matches over the school LAN, bringing emulators on floppy disks to my places of employment, and, of course, writing game reviews whilst on the clock.
I was introduced to Wolf 3D by my photography teacher, who, like the best teachers of my education experience, knew his stuff and didn’t cram it down your throat. If you wanted to learn, he was there. If you didn’t, he didn’t give a shit. It was an inner-city school, where I learned to populate sentences with words like “shit”, and he was one of the more respected teachers for the reasons I previously mentioned. On this particular day, we were reading from a textbook – which meant I was learning how to make oragami ninja stars from a classmate. The teach was hunched over his work computer and announced to no one in particular – “Hey, check this out.” A few of us meandered over to his 386 and saw his on-screen persona blasting away at the Nazi mutants with guns in their chests. It was cool. Though later weeks, a few of us would take turns plowing through the game when we should have been… I dunno, developing or learning about F-stops, and we were all unanimously hooked. We’d never seen anything like it – not the blood or the subject matter, but a first-person game with graphics so clear and fast.
Neither had many other people, apparently, which colours the myth that Wolf 3D was the first first-person-shooter. It was not. I will not get into the history, because it’s not important here. But, Wolf 3D is responsible for showing people what FPSs could do, and upping the general interest in them. There was also, of course, Apogee’s brilliant strategy of releasing the first episode free – ensuring that just about everyone who wanted to play Wolf 3D had the opportunity. Combined with some mildly scandalous material (blood, gunplay, and Nazis) to grab industry attention, Wolf pretty much put the FPS on the map in the minds of most gamers.
It should probably be said that Wolfenstein 3D is the three-dimensional spiritual sequel to – get ready for this revelation – Castle Wolfenstien; a game from ten years before, which I will probably review at a later date. It involved escaping the maze-like levels of the castle of the title’s name, while avoiding or whacking the Nazi guards. Wolf 3D involves escaping the maze-like levels of the castle of the title’s name, while avoiding or whacking the Nazi guards.
The original did have some elements not present in this 3D version, like holding up guards and stealing their uniforms, but Wolf 3D runs fast and plays fast, and rightfully doesn’t bog down the action with any such stealth antics. About the only point that remains is the potential for limited supplies – health can be scarce and you can never hold more than 99 bullets – so some kind of strategy has to come out of your playing. If you rip through the levels mindlessly, you’ll simply run out of ammo, or run into an enemy and get quickly killed, as enemy bullet damage appears to be calculated based on distance. Get shot point-blank by the guard hiding by the door, and you’re suddenly losing half your health each time.
Graphically… well, okay, it’s dated. However, the texture-mapped walls (a big “new” improvement at the time) and the detailed characters are impressive, provided you don’t get too close. Wolf 3D also used sprite scaling to great effect, so characters and objects would shrink teeny-tiny as you were far away and get larger as you approached – through forced perspective it made it seem as if they were actually in the world. However, because of the computer capacity of the time, they crumbled into obvious pixels up close. I find this forgiveable, as the backgrounds aren’t high-resolution either, so it’s not world-busting or distracting. Wolf 3D also was among the first to introduce a system that calculated and drew only what the player could see, resulting in its famous game engine that ran like a demon on a Ducati.
About the only real complaint is that the engine only does 90-degree angles, so every level is essentially a maze. Some care has been taken to mask this with decorations, and many rooms have a thoughtfully-suggested purpose like office, dining area, or stone-walled dungeon (though those three are admittedly overused). Many of the textures are quite nice as well, giving an opulent oak-hewn look to some levels, or majestic (in comparision to the rest of the game or the dungeon you start in) hallways and ballrooms. Still, it’s a maze, accentuated by the lack of an in-game map. Repeated areas and textures make it even easier to get lost, and though the levels are small enough that this isn’t a serious issue (you won’t need a hand-drawn map ever), there will still be periods of wandering around and looking for where to go.
Some mild rukus was made about the Nazi textures; swastikas and posters of Hitler (with what appears to be his actual digitized face) are bandied about freely. There’s no mistaking the fact that the “castles” glorify the Nazis – you’re supposed to be in enemy territory after all – but if you have serious personal feelings about these symbols then I can understand how it would be hard to even walk around a virtual shrine to them. This is offset by a clear message that the Nazi party is not okay – clearly delivered by remorselessly gunning down every one of them you come across.
Sound was equally important in providing the sadist glee of the game. Your blue-eyed blonde-haired Aryan guards would shout various German phrases at you when they detected you, and would spout other, authentic, but totally misplaced, phrases when they died (“Mein lieben!”). Boss characters also get a specific German introduction and death line (the translations of which are well-covered online), which helps to both set up an “epic” battle and give a little individual personality to each one. These shouts were also helpful from a gameplay perspective, as the guards would beeline toward any of your gunshots, and helpfully announce when they were coming. You could tell what type approached by their distinctive alert phrase. If you fired and heard a roomful of “Schutzstaffel!”s around the corner, it was time to run because the machinegunners were closing in.
Wolfenstein 3D does a good job of taking what you expect and upping it a level. Nazi guards – check, but you also get a great variety of them, with simple but effective AI. Bosses – check, but they all have unique characteristics and a story behind them as well. Different levels – check, with each somewhat reflecting the new episode it is supposed to take place in. At the very least, texture themes will be reused across each level in an episode. Secrets – check, with countless moveable walls hiding hidden treasure that adds a specific bonus to your health. Tongue firmly in cheek – check. This is violence on a Frank Miller scale, not meant to be taken seriously by any means. The power armoured Mecha-Hitler as a final boss is the best example, or how you can even eat dog food for health. Dog food! I loves it!
But ultimately, Wolfenstein was a victim of its own success. It presented an adrenaline-fueled concept and a marker for technology all in one package, but left later games to pick it apart and scramble over each other for a more realistic-looking engine or more exciting gameplay gimmicks. Even iD outclassed themselves just a year later, and Doom would go on to be the real poster child for the genre. So, Wolfenstein will always be respected for being the original great-grandaddy, but will likely be left in a nursing home to be the recipient of a few scant and decreasing visits from friends and family. Which is a shame because even now, it still manages to be pretty fun to play.
Fun shooter romp. Still runs on just about anything.
Simple gameplay may turn off some.