Action-filled cult classic first-person shooter set in a fictional World War II setting.
In a failed attempt to steal some important top-secret Nazi documents, William Blazkowicz was imprisoned and locked away in the dungeons of the Nazi castle fortress called Wolfenstein. There he faced twelve long days of brutal torture and inhumane interrogation.
With the day of execution creeping closer, William lured one of the prison guards into his cell with a false promise to finally reveal some information. As the thick-necked Nazi opened the prison cell, William knocked him to the floor and quickly grabbed the knife hanging from his belt. With that knife, William then slit the throat of the guard and frantically grabbed the gun from the guard’s holster. This desperate act has sealed William’s fate – he must get out of castle Wolfenstein or die trying.
Wolfenstein 3D is the first-person shooter game that pretty much has defined its genre for ten years. It was released in 1992 and it quickly became a cult classic. It’s core design has since been reused, copied and refined many times over through game design history.
In Wolfenstein 3D you play as the Allies’ bad-ass soldier William Blazkowicz, and all you do is kill Nazi soldiers in various missions. Wolfenstein 3D is played from a first-person view and the game does allow you to freely move about and explore as you see fit. This means that you can take advantage of basic tactics such as exploiting choke points and preserving ammunition and food items.
The controls in the game go to some lengths in helping you play the game properly. You can use a standard PC control pad, a mouse or the keyboard – or a combination of the three – which ever you find the easiest to play with. You can’t customize keys freely however. Each control device have a few alternative control schemes that you can choose from the main menu, but that is all you get. The default controls aren’t bad though, and they’re easy to learn.
William isn’t the most nimble person around as he tends to move much like a tank. When an enemy surprises you from behind, you’ll find that it’s hard to turn around quickly enough – instead you might be better of running straight forward to get out of harms way before turning and taking care of the threat.
There are also numerous fire fights that take place in narrow corridors in which you have nowhere to run. Needless to say, these situations are always deadly but if you’re cautious you might be able to sneak behind a corner to avoid being shot immediately.
The game has 60 levels spread across six episodes, and each level contains countless enemies, bonus items, secret areas and a goal that you must find in order to proceed in the game. Even though the story behind each episode is unique it isn’t very present in the game itself. Reading the story will give more meaning to the game but it’s obviously highly optional – it all comes down to mindless Nazi slaughter after all. With that said, it should be noted that episodes four, five and six take place before episodes one, two and three, acting as a prologue to the main adventure. If you don’t care about playing the episodes in order however, you are free to play them in any order you want. You aren’t allowed to bring weapons over from one episode to another anyway.
The level design is mostly very labyrinthine as it presents multiple ways to explore almost all the time. You’ll wander hundreds of hallways and corridors back and forth whilst exploring hundreds of mostly empty rooms – and there is no map to help you navigate.
It’s easy to get lost because the environments don’t have that much variation, and there are multiple dead ends, bonus rooms and secret passages. It’s impossible to locate secret passages just by vision, so you’re encouraged to inspect every wall you ever see, which is time-consuming but of course entirely optional. Either way, much of the played time will be spent backtracking and searching for keys and doors that can be opened with those keys. Therefore, the game is really a mental challenge as well as it challenges your reflexes and shooting skills.
Through the game you will be fighting Nazi guards, SS soldiers, military officers, killer dogs, horrible mutants and mad scientists. The enemy AI is clever enough to open doors once they are aware of your presence. Otherwise they’re just standing still waiting for you to show up. Their fighting tactics are rather simple too – they attack until either you or they die.
The game can be played on four different difficulty levels, and this affects both the amount of enemies and how much damage they can cause. The difficulty level actually scales the game quite well from being very easy to being a challenge – even for veteran gamers.
The game starts you off with three lives. William can take some punishment before going down though, as indicated by an on-screen health-counter. You can replenish health by collecting food items that can be found scattered around each level. When you die, your progress is reset back to the beginning of the level in which you died on. The game supports saving progress and loading at any time, so you can simply save and load your way through the entire game if you want.
The game has a high score table where you’ll be able to enter your name when you either die or complete an episode of the game. You’ll notice that along with your score you’re given a four letter code, which originally was intended to act as a security code that could identify the legitimacy of your score. Obviously this was intended to be used in a score competition but it was never used for anything as it was allegedly too easy to exploit.
Other than food items you can pick up treasure items to rake in some bonus points, and of course extra ammunition and additional weapons. There are four different weapons in Wolfenstein 3D – the Knife, the Pistol, the Machine Gun and the Chaingun. The Machine Gun and Chaingun are pretty rare and often hidden away in secret rooms, which certainly feels a little harsh. You’re basically forced to play through multiple levels and fight hundreds of guards with just the knife, the measly pistol and a few bullets. Bullets are hard to come by most of the time, especially if you are trigger happy and happen to find the rapid-firing weapons, so you must try to save your bullets at all times.
The knife is a very weak weapon as an enemy can take multiple hits from it before going down. The closer an enemy is, the more damage its weapon will cause – so when you’re up close to an enemy you’ll die from just a few hits. So, if you run out of bullets you’re basically screwed until you can collect some more.
The enemies are often placed in a way so that they will come from two directions at the same time. This means that you must keep watching your back at all times, which certainly is appropriate for the context, but it’s also very tiring in the long run.
There are also numerous situations where enemies seem to be able to see and shoot through walls and doors, which certainly can be considered to be a flaw in the game.
It’s also notable that the limited AI of the enemies can be exploited to some extent by luring them into choke points and letting them come to you.
The graphics in Wolfenstein 3D are rather crude, but it manages to get the basics down pretty good – especially when considered that it was released in 1992. There are a few different wall textures that are reused multiple times. The enemies and the decorative items are very pixelated and blocky even. Despite this, the graphics have an undying charm, and with a little bit of imagination the game can really come alive in your mind.
The color scheme is iconic for a PC game from this time – the 256 color palette tends to render the environments in bright colors, and it’s obvious that the game does not try to depict the real world.
Throughout the game you will see numerous Swastikas, Nazi symbols and even portraits of Adolf Hitler hanging on the walls. Here it becomes obvious how powerful these symbols really are, because they really set the mood in a disturbing way.
The guards’ yell “Halt!” has become something everyone who has played this game remembers for a long time. It is a simple sound effect but in the context it becomes something more – a command of death. In fact, all the sound effects in this game are simple but also memorable.
The music in the game bears heavy resemblance to Nazi battle hymns and World War II German fight songs. Even though it is rendered with midi instruments, it really sets the mood and creates an eerie atmosphere that sticks through the whole game. Some songs are slower and almost have an ambient style whilst others are faster and cheery (in that dark, bitter Nazi fight song way).
Wolfenstein 3D is a classic game that every gamer should play at least once in their life. The straight forward no-bullshit gameplay can certainly be appreciated by anyone looking for a quick and rewarding action fix.
The game is simple and fun and as such it really doesn’t offer much variety – you’ll be repeating the same kind of fire fights through all the 60 levels, save for perhaps the boss fights which are extra challenging. But even so, the atmosphere in the game is unique and the challenge it presents on the hardest difficulty level is worth every gamers respect.