Wolfenstein: a pioneering franchise (mostly)

Wolfenstein 3D, as reimagined in an easter egg that can be found the latest game

Wolfenstein 3D, as reimagined in an Easter egg that can be found in Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)

I recently bit the bullet and picked up Wolfenstein: The New Order (MachineGames May 2014). I wasn’t going to bother, but a good friend recommended it and I managed to pick it up for half price (damn you Steam and your bloody sales!). Not exactly ground breaking or even remotely original in terms of gameplay (did we really need yet another WWII/Nazi shooter?), but I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable and well made it is; certainly a significant improvement over 2009’s woefully mediocre Wolfenstein (Raven Software/Endrant Studios).

Anyway, that got me thinking about the Wolfenstein series in general and how it actually has a strong legacy for innovation, something which may be hard to believe after the last two games.

castle wolfenstein title screen

Title screen from Castle Wolfenstein published in 1981 for the Apple II

Older than you might think
It may come as a surprise to some, but Wolfenstein 3D was not the first game of the franchise. The series actually dates back to 1981 and began with Castle Wolfenstein, a top-down stealth-game pioneer developed by Muse Software for the Apple II and later ported to the Commodore 64. Set during WWII and controlling a nameless protagonist, the aim of the game was to escape the eponymous German castle, but with limited ammo and resources the emphasis of the game was on avoiding detection by the guards.

In the original Wolfenstein game the emphasis was on stealth

Castle Wolfenstein – where all the guards wear swastika-adorned ponchos

This was followed up in 1984 by Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. The premise was similar, but the setting changed to a bunker underneath Berlin and this time you were tasked with finding a bomb and using it to kill Hitler. These games were well ahead of their time, utilising digitised speech (albeit of very low quality – halt!) and introducing innovative mechanics such as the ability to take uniforms from dead guards and drag their bodies out of sight – the kind of concepts we now take for granted in modern stealth classics such as the Thief, Hitman and Splinter Cell games. You could even force guards to surrender, allowing them to be frisked for supplies and passes/keys.

If you fancy ago, both of these games can be played through your web browser at http://www.virtualapple.org – in fact that’s how I made these screenshots.

Halt! Another Nazi sprite bites the dust

Halt! Another Nazi sprite bites the dust in Wolfenstein 3D

The humble beginnings of the 3D era
In 1991 id Software acquired the rights to the Wolfenstein name after Muse Software had allowed the trademark registration to lapse, and rebooted the series as a first-person shooter (FPS) with Wolfenstein 3D, released as shareware for MS-DOS in 1992.

For the time, the game engine technology was highly innovative and despite the gameplay being simple and repetitive by today’s standards (shoot your way through numerous maze-like maps and fight a boss at the end of each episode), W3D was an addictive and fast-paced shooter and very well received. It also introduced us to legendary one-man army and Nazi-killing machine William Joseph “BJ” Blazkowicz, the main protagonist of all subsequent Wolfenstein games. W3D was quickly followed up by Wolfenstein 3D: Spear of Destiny, also released in 1992.

The boss fight at the end of episode 3 of Wolfenstein 3D pits you against a mechanised Hitler

The boss fight at the end of episode 3 pits you against a very angry Hitler in a mech suit (continuity and historical accuracy has never been a strong point of the series)

Although not the first FPS ever to be made, Wolfenstein 3D captured the imagination of a generation of gamers and its success was the springboard for genre-defining games like Doom (id Software 1993), Quake (id Software 1996), Duke Nukem 3D (3D Realms 1996) and Half-life (Valve 1998), and as such is widely regarded as having kick started the FPS genre.

Halt! The early environments in RtCW were heavily influenced by 1968 film Where Eagles Dare

The castle-based environments in RtCW were inspired by 1968 action film Where Eagles Dare

Multiplayer influence
Wolfenstein has also had a significant influence on the multiplayer genre. In 2001 the series was again rebooted with Return to Castle Wolfenstein (RtCW) – easily my favourite game of the franchise. The single player campaign, which was developed by Gray Matter Interactive, introduced varied and narrative-based gameplay to the series (clearly taking a cue from seminal FPS Half-life) along with realistic environments and atmospheric music. It was also gleefully crammed with geeky humour and cartoonish gore, and paid loving homage to classic films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Where Eagles Dare.

The RtCW multiplayer was extremely popular in its time and there are still servers running today

But where RtCW really shined was the online multiplayer mode, which was developed separately by Nerve Software. It was incredibly addictive and the first online FPS I ever played extensively (back in the days when I still had a 56k modem and crappy dial up internet). Team Fortress Classic (Valve 1999) and Counter-Strike (Valve 2000) aside, the objective-based and team-orientated (Allies vs Axis) gameplay was a welcome change from most other multiplayer games of that era, which tended to revolve around simple deathmatch scenarios, something that was becoming a bit stale.

The matches typically involve one side attacking and the other defending, with the attacker needing to destroy a set of objectives to win the round. Most importantly, the game encouraged teamwork through the use of timed spawn waves (so players respawn together in groups after dying) and complementing soldier classes (still a fresh concept back then) – i.e. soldier (firepower), medic (healing & reviving), lieutenant (ammo & air strikes) and engineer (objective completion & explosives).

The RtCW multiplayer was extremely popular in its time and can still be played online today – see here for a handy guide on how to generate a server list.

Enemy Territory

Enemy Territory introduced a player progression system that allows extra abilities to be unlocked

The multiplayer aspect of RtCW was expanded upon in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (Splash Damage 2003), which was originally intended as a commercial expansion pack to RtCW but ended up being released for free as a multiplayer-only standalone. Enemy Territory implemented a rank and experience point system that allows enhanced abilities to be unlocked for the different soldier classes (e.g. increased ammunition capacity, improved reviving, etc). It also expanded the class system with the ingenuous addition of the covert ops soldier, a class that relies on stealth, sabotage and deception, such as being able to steal a uniform from a dead enemy and masquerade as that player. They also introduced tactical weapons such as land mines and mortars, and on some maps a controllable tank.

Like its predecessor RtCW, Enemy Territory was one of the most popular online games of its day. As a result Splash Damage released Enemy Territory: Quake Wars in 2007, a commercial sequel that combined the gameplay of Enemy Territory within the setting of the Quake universe – a kind of sci-fi version of Battlefield (yes I know DICE did that with Battlefield 2142 in 2006).

Enemy Territory still enjoys a small but significant player base today and there is a wealth of community-produced mods and maps available online; the base game can be downloaded for free from here.

Future prospects
It’s hard to imagine that there won’t be another Wolfenstein game at some point in the future – the big publishers love to flog a franchise to death. For Wolfenstein: The New Order, MachineGames made the brave decision of setting the game in a 1960s alternate universe where the Allies lost the war, but despite being a enjoyable game with a strong narrative it’s still a fairly formulaic shooter – it certainly brings nothing new to genre. Personally, if they were to make a new game, I would want to see a completely fresh take on the series. But I won’t hold my breath.

Perhaps wishful thinking, but I would love to see a remake of the excellent Enemy Territory. With the increasing arcadification of the Battlefield series in order to compete with Call of Duty, I think a well thought-out multiplayer based around infantry and vehicle combat with a strong emphasis on teamwork, tactics, strategy, skill and realism could bring on board a lot of the disillusioned veteran Battlefield players who are leaving the series in droves.

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