Wolfenstein is a time capsule left by a bygone culture. Crack open the lid and the waft of stale air isn’t that of the Third Reich’s Germany, however, but the firstperson shooter scene circa 2001. It’s surprising just how much dust has collected in so relatively short a period.
It was a simpler time. Back then enemies were real enemies: eugenicist megalomaniacs who worshipped the occult, boiled things in green glowing vats and knew just enough English to say things like “Vot’s ze matter, American? Run out of bullets?” over and over again, until you fired your answer into their Aryan brains. Heroes were real heroes, too: anvil-jawed hunks with all the character of a freshly packed sandbag. So it is with Wolfenstein 2009. Some things never change, and it’s clear that one of those things is Raven Software, the veteran developer of countless also-ran firstperson shooters, whose follow-up to Gray Matter’s Return To Castle Wolfenstein begins as a slavish retread of things that were already deemed quaint in 2001’s corridor-based Nazi-blaster. Within a matter of minutes, you’ve cut down some bad guys manning a gun emplacement and turned it upon their obligingly suicidal reinforcements. So we make ourselves a cup of tea and prepare for eight to ten hours of lining up sights on men’s heads in corridors.
But then, with introductions curtly made, the player steps out of the corridor and into the modest sprawl of a hub-world. OK, so the war-ravaged city of Isenstadt is a hubworld made of corridors, but, still, could this be something resembling a fresh bit of thinking? Unfortunately, the one way in which Wolfenstein has attempted to shuffle forward proves a misstep. Raven gets a three-finger ripple for working out that open worlds are in vogue, but seems dismayingly unaware of why they might be fun. The hub doesn’t begin to convince as a living city – so its openness fails to be of aesthetic benefit – and there aren’t enough missions to justify the freedom of choice between them. Most are compulsory anyway and each whisks the player off to a linear sequence of levels. Ultimately, Isenstadt amounts to a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing between familiar environs that see you fight the same battles again and again against respawning, but incrementally tougher, enemies.
Raven may not be the most innovative of developers, but 16 years of experience with the FPS has left it with a strong appreciation of firearms and how best to deploy them for the purpose of entertainment. The game’s not-inconsiderable number of flaws diminish in the face of of vaporising a roomful of gibbering Nazis with the Ghostbusters-inspired particle cannon. The arsenal is evenly balanced, and though it makes sure that the giddy excess of its later weaponry is restricted through limited ammunition, you are never so stingily controlled that you can’t explore your own predilections – whether that is close-quarters barbecue courtesy of the ever-comic flamethrower or popping brainpans from afar with the rifle.
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