When it comes to first person shooter lineage, it's pretty tough to beat the Wolfenstein franchise, which kick-started the genre way back in the early 90s. Now one-man-army/superspy/all-American hero BJ Blazkowicz is back and ready to kick a bit more Nazi ass, but can Wolfenstein's cheesy B-movie shtick compete in a gamescape full of shooters like Modern Warfare and BioShock? Are you kidding? Does Hitler have a stupid mustache?
It may have Nazis and zeppelins and era-appropriate weaponry, but Wolfenstein thankfully makes no genuine attempt at maintaining any kind of gritty realism. (We have more than enough of those games already, thank you very much.) The Nazis that have occupied the city of Isenstadt are straight out of a cartoon, complete with accents as thick as the head on the beer in their steins and souls as black as an SS uniform. They're throwing an unusually high amount of resources into paranormal research, and it's up to our true-blue hero BJ to find out what they're up to. This is not nuanced, delicate storytelling, it's kitsch at its finest, giving you Good Guys, Bad Guys, a Big Mystery, and even a Damsel in Distress. Everything in life should be so simple and pure.
B-movie trappings aside, Wolfenstein is a well-crafted straight-up shooter, offering plenty of challenge for someone looking to drill enemy AI between the eyes. As many times as you clean out the streets of Isenstadt, the Nazis keep coming back for more, bringing more powerful soldiers with them as you progress through the game. The environments and weapons you find provide ample opportunity for all kinds of trigger-happy stylings. Whether you want to find cover and pick off the Germans with your sniper rifle or run straight at them, guns blazing, you'll find the opportunity to do so. The enemy AI isn't the most brilliant you'll ever find - more than once I walked straight up to a Nazi who regarded me blandly until I shot him in the face - but it does make good use of flanking maneuvers and high ground, so it's not a complete cakewalk.
Early on in the game, you'll retrieve the Thule Medallion, an artifact that gives you special powers, and this is where Wolfenstein graduates from "fun shooter" to "stupidly good time." At first, all you can do is enter the Veil, a hazy sort of midpoint between our world and that of the Black Sun, an alternate dimension. All kinds of secrets are revealed in the Veil: invisible doors and ladders, enemies' weak points, and hidden Tomes of Power, which unlock upgrades for your powers. As you progress, you'll find crystals that unlock new powers like Mire, which slows time, Shield, which when powered up can reflect bullets back at the bad guys, and Empower, which eventually lets you shoot through concrete. All this power comes at a price, of course; you only have a certain amount of juice to run your various abilities. Pools and fountains of Black Sun energy are littered across the city, so it's not terribly hard to fill back up, but topping up mid-fight can be a bit awkward, so use your abilities wisely.
Wolfenstein isn't just about running and gunning, though - you'll also want to do a bit of exploring as you decimate the Nazis. Gold and intelligence reports are hidden throughout each area; the reports unlock upgrades for your guns, the gold comes in handy when you shop at the Black Market. You receive money for completing missions, so you technically don't have to look for gold if you don't want to, but you'll enjoy the game far more if you take the time to upgrade your arsenal, so poke around in the rubble a bit.
What's great about Wolfenstein is that it doesn't lean too heavily on its paranormal powerups. If you want to play it as a straight-and-narrow shooter, using your powers only when forward progress requires it, you can. If you want to play as a supernatural badass bending the forces of the universe to his will and occasionally shooting people, you can do that, too. BJ's special abilities are neither an afterthought nor center stage, they're just another weapon to use as you see fit.
They're not even necessarily the most fun weapons you'll find. Nazis doing researching into alternate universes and mutating test subjects into horrifying monsters is pretty evil, sure, but it does have one happy side-effect: wicked cool weapons. The Tesla Gun, Particle Cannon and Leichenfaust 44 are guns whose sole purpose seems to be inducing the user into fits of infantile giggles. Seriously, it's virtually impossible to use one of them without cackling like a maniac. They're absurdly overpowered, the way experimental armaments should be, reducing your opponents to so many evil molecules settling in neat piles on the floor. They're also very short on ammo, so you won't be able to use them all the time, but you'll enjoy it every single time you pull their triggers, I promise you.
If I had to level a single complaint at Wolfenstein, it would be that you spend an inordinate amount of time shlepping from one side of Isenstadt to the other. This makes sense - as single-minded as the Nazis may be, even they aren't stupid enough to conduct all of their experiments in just one building - but it gets a bit tedious after a while. It gives you an opportunity to search for gold and intel, but when all you're trying to do is get to the Black Market, having to clear the same stretch of street for the umpteenth time can be wearing. Then again, I get annoyed at Metroid for the same thing, so your mileage may vary.
Bottom Line: Wolfenstein isn't groundbreaking. It's not going to change your life or make you rethink your feelings about the first person shooter genre. It is not the kind of game that will be spoken of in reverential hushed whispers. What it is is a ripping good time. As a shooter, it works. As a comic-book level adventure romp, it works. As a way to while away the last few days of summer, it works brilliantly.
Recommendation: If you want realism, go play something else. If you just want to have fun with a gun, slip into BJ's bomber jacket and limber up that trigger finger. There's Nazis that need killin'.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Susan Arendt is a little scared of the Wolfenstein enemy who's a cross between Nightcrawler and the clockwork Nazi from Hellboy.