Franchise Festival #28: Wolfenstein

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be digging through the war plans of Wolfenstein. This article involved quite a bit of research, as I lack any firsthand familiarity with the series, and a bibliography will be provided at the end. The most important source was Noah Caldwell-Gervais’ “A Thorough Look At Wolfenstein” video; I’d encourage everyone to watch it if they want to learn more about the franchise.

Background

MUSE Software was founded in 1978 by Ed Zaron. This small, Baltimore-based software developer would be the first of many studios that had a hand in the evolution of the Wolfenstein franchise. Because of its background in programming computer software, MUSE had access to the increasingly robust world of Apple PC architecture, freeing them from some of the limitations faced by developers on the home console market. More important still, Silas Warner was hired on at the company during its first year and quickly planned a thrilling new stealth title which would integrate mechanics not previously seen by the still-small but growing community of home video game enthusiasts.

31061-castle-wolfenstein-commodore-64-front-cover

Castle Wolfenstein (1981)

Silas Warner was working for MUSE Software when he was struck with a bolt of inspiration. Influenced by a viewing of 1961’s Guns of Navaronne film and an evening spent playing the 1980 top-down arcade shooter Berzerk at his local 7-Eleven convenience store, Warner set out to create a game with action and stealth elements set in real-world history. The historical aspects would be largely cosmetic – only so much authenticity was possible with the crude programming tools of the early 1980s – but Warner would use another piece of technology to immerse players still further in the grim era of World War II.

countdown
The unnamed player character is always at risk of discovery. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

In 1980, MUSE published an experimental Apple II computer program called The Voice. This software was rudimentary, but gave many users their first taste of speech recognition and output on electronic devices; it came with the ability to output spoken audio based on its own vocabulary or integrate words recorded by the owner. While the program proved limited in its intended application, it was actually a key foundation for one of Castle Wolfenstein’s most novel features – spoken dialogue. For the first time in a home video game, enemies could shout exclamations. Through distorted, semi-intelligible German, Nazi foes could bark commands at the player, upping tension and immersion considerably.

shootnazi
Take that, ya lousy Nazi. If they had two joysticks to hand, ambitious players could actually use one stick to move their avatar and one to aim a weapon. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

With regard to its plot, Castle Wolfenstein was rather less ambitious. The player, as an unnamed prisoner in the titular facility, must escape captivity and evade patrolling Nazi soldiers while collecting secret war plans from the castle’s topmost floor. Mechanics are more impressive, as Castle Wolfenstein pioneered stealth gameplay. Guards have both line of sight and a radius on which they can hear player actions, so the player must take care to avoid detection.

nokey
Collecting keys to open doors would become a preoccupation of the survival horror genre, but Wolfenstein paved the way. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The title is played from a top-down perspective, though the player character and enemies are depicted from the side as though they were side-scrolling sprites.  Walls can be damaged or destroyed through the use of grenades, though this carries the risk of attracting attention from nearby foes. Nazis can be engaged in battle, and can even be held up using a gun to deprive them of their items. Much of the foundation for later stealth games, especially the Metal Gear franchise, was laid in this small but ambitious Apple II computer game from 1981.

265491-beyond-castle-wolfenstein-pc-booter-front-cover

Beyond Castle Wolfenstein (1984)

The debut for the Wolfenstein series hardly set the world on fire, selling only about 20,000 units. It was ported to other platforms, though, and picked up a fanbase as its critical reputation grew. By 1983, MUSE was ready to release a sequel. As with most sequels of the era, it was fundamentally similar to its predecessor while expanding gameplay options.

beyondtitle
It’s impossible do anything but adore this title screen. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Beyond Castle Wolfenstein‘s plot and audio/visual design receive small yet effective updates. Sprites are more richly detailed, with accessories drawn onto the little figures, and guards utilize an expanded vocabulary. The player character remains anonymous, but the setting is now Hitler’s labyrinthine bunker. Objectives include navigating the dense set of rooms, avoiding detection by guards, and assassinating Hitler with a briefcase bomb (inspired by 1944’s failed July 20 Plot).

diary
Even Hitler’s diary makes a cameo, though attempting to ‘use’ it leads to the phrase “No time to read.” Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

New obstacles and stealth options improve upon Castle Wolfenstein‘s revolutionary set of mechanics. Guards now occasionally appear and demand the player produce a pass for the facility – several options for passes are available,and displaying the incorrect one will result in an armed confrontation and guards setting off the facility’s alarm system. The player can also steal guard uniforms and then impersonate them. With regard to combat, a dagger is now used for silent attacks by the player character if he is able to approach patrolling enemies without detection.

passes
Note the presence of numbered passes on the screen’s left edge. Each floor corresponds to a pass which must be presented to suspicious guards. If the wrong past is chosen, a battle ensues. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Unlike its predecessor, Beyond Castle Wolfenstein was published at the same time on the Apple II and Commodore 64 hardware. It was not as well-received as Castle Wolfenstein, as it was only a marginal update. Little had changed in the video game landscape between 1981 and 1984, but a handful of titles with more ambitious visual design – Pitfall in particular – made the abstract environments of MUSE’s flagship property begin to feel antiquated. Sadly, the world would never find out how MUSE might have innovated in the face of criticism; the studio closed in 1987 and the Wolfenstein trademark lapsed. Though this would contribute to ongoing financial woes for Silas Warner, the loss of trademark ownership opened up the franchise for adoption by another group of promising young developers in the 1990s.

12672-wolfenstein-3d-dos-front-cover

Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

id Software was founded in 1991 by several programming visionaries, including John Romero and John Carmack. The former had cut his teeth on PC game design at several studios during the 1980s, while the latter was noteworthy for having finally succeeded at programming a scrolling screen when adapting an abandoned version of Super Mario Brothers 3 for MS-DOS hardware; previously, side-scrolling had only been possible on proprietary home consoles. Though this collaboration was turned down by Nintendo, Carmack leveraged the code towards a unique IP at id called Commander Keen.

mario3
John Carmack’s charmingly off-model Super Mario Brothers 3. It’s not much of a looker, but is an outstanding technical achievement on the MS-DOS hardware. Credit: usgamer

Having succeeded commercially during the always-risky first year, the team at id Software wanted to move away from the family-friendly Commander Keen franchise and towards a game aimed at adults. Carmack had recently developed a method of rendering that permitted high-speed navigation of an apparently 3D environment. This integrated elements of ray casting, a visual technique in which only areas visible by the player are actually present in the game engine at any given time, while also developing walls on a grid pattern to reduce the complexity of the 3D space. At the same time, no polygonal models are present – the first-person HUD and all NPCs are 2D sprites. The consequence of this pioneering game design was one of the most intense, fast-paced video games that players had ever encountered.

Simple_raycasting_with_fisheye_correction.gif
I tried to find something more exciting, but Wikipedia’s ray-casting GIF remains the most succinct.

Receiving the blessing of original Wolfenstein creator Silas Warner, id grafted the setting of MUSE’s 1981 stealth game onto John Carmack’s new engine. Ten years had gone by since the release of Castle Wolfenstein, and the IP had faded entirely from the public consciousness. The combination of blistering first-person action and consistently engaging visual design would ensure that Wolfenstein never again lost its place in the medium.

difficulty
Even the difficulty select screen is full of id Software’s unique sense of humor. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Mechanics are straightforward; in fact, they’re largely simpler than its 2D predecessors. The development team considered including more stealth elements from earlier series titles, including moving bodies, but this was cut primarily due to pacing. id Software knew it had a very specific selling point for Wolfenstein 3D: intense first-person combat against Nazis. Anything outside of this ran the risk of watering down the experience.

firstroom
The first room the player sees when starting the game. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Levels are comprised of 3D mazes inspired by the rooms of Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, but are significantly more detailed. Walls are textured, often with evocative wood paneling, and enemies now include ferocious German Shepherds and technologically enhanced bosses (including Hitler himself!). Items and light fixtures litter the environments, further enhancing the player’s sense of immersion in a 1940s Nazi castle. Secret areas are scattered about as well, accessed by approaching a wall and tapping a ‘use’ command.

secret
Here, Blazkowicz is exposing a passageway hidden behind a fake wall. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The plot remains slim, but is a step up from the sparer-still narratives of MUSE’s Wolfenstein entries. The player character now has a name – BJ Blazkowicz – and his face can be seen in the HUD. This depicts his state of health, becoming more bloodied as he sustains damage. It also serves to form a bridge between the player and his or her character; arguments persist over whether empathy between player and avatar is more successful if the avatar is more or less defined, but it is certain that foregrounding Blaskowicz’s identity put a more recognizable face on the franchise. All of the narrative elements were added by Tom Hall, a less prominent team member who was nonetheless a critical part of Wolfenstein 3D’s development.

nazishot
Players would be seeing a lot of this. As violent as it is, the Nazi sprite being hurled backwards by the player’s attack is so cartoonishly animated. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Mechanically, Wolfenstein 3D was utterly revolutionary. No previous game had affixed a gun to the bottom center of the screen and used it to blast away enemies directly ahead of the player’s first-person perspective. The genre was instantly defined by the fast pace of id’s new game,and would be further refined with Doom the following year. Wolfenstein 3D established an easily modifiable template, including multiple guns, the invisibility of player-deployed projectiles, and health packs to restore Blazkowicz’s stamina. As with the side-scrolling platformer and Pitfall! (1982), it’s remarkable how fully formed the FPS genre was when it was introduced by id Software in Wolfenstein 3D.

deathcam_w3
This right here is peak Wolfenstein. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Ports would rapidly follow, with some more successful than others. The version published on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System removed all blood and explicit Nazi references at the insistence of Nintendo, while also swapping rabid dog sprites for rats. Dedicated Nintendo fans would eventually receive one of the title’s most surprising ports: an uncensored but buggy version published on the Game Boy Advance in 2002. The game fared better on various PC platforms during the ’90s. Wolfenstein 3D’s entire publication model facilitated fan participation, as the first of three chapters was free; the remaining chapters needed to be purchased once players had a taste of the exhilarating new software.

snes
The SNES version’s toned-down end screen. No melted Hitler for these fans. Credit: SaikyoMog

Fans were obliging, and Wolfenstein 3D sold over 100,000 copies by the end of 1993. An expansion pack consisting of bizarre experimental levels, titled “The Nocturnal Missions,” was also quickly published as a follow-up trilogy. id Software had struck gold, and was prepared to capitalize on it with a sequel the following year.

Spear-of-destiny-dos-front-cover

Wolfenstein 3D: Spear of Destiny (1993)

Much like Beyond Castle Wolfenstein was effectively an expanded version of Castle Wolfenstein, Spear of Destiny is simply an expansion on the world of Wolfenstein 3D. The game engine is identical, level design principles remain unaltered, and even the player’s arsenal remains more or less unchanged. With little to set it apart from its predecessor, contemporaries saw it as more level pack than true sequel.

robonazi
As you can see, the chief design principle of Spear of Destiny is “more.” Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

As they had done with Wolfenstein 3D, id Software distributed the game via a shareware model. This had proven reasonably successful at the PC gaming magazine where John Romero worked before co-founding id, and the extraordinary sales of Wolfenstein 3D had demonstrated its viability on a large scale; it would go on to become a standard PC game distribution method throughout the next few years, helping Wolfenstein 3D’s FPS successor – Doom (1993) – along the way. The basic economic model is similar to the demos which would become a fixture of digital distribution even into the 2010s: players could receive the first set of levels for free, either through discs distributed by the publisher or copied and shared between friends, but would need to pay for the remainder of the content. This was first handled through mail order, but would eventually be possible through internet connections. Indeed, while it faded away in the world of video games, shareware remains a model for other software distribution even today.

endscreen
I don’t know if it’s intentional, but this narrative splash screen would be visually echoed eleven years later in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

With regard to the levels themselves, they are not significantly different from those in Wolfenstein 3D. Visual assets are reused while many enemies make reappearances, augmented by new mutant foes. The plot, while thin, does differ a bit from Wolfenstein 3D. The second FPS in the Wolfenstein franchise is actually a prequel – players step into the shoes of BJ Blazkowicz, who must retrieve the mystical Spear of Destiny from a Nazi bunker before they use it to develop a nuclear weapon and harness supernatural powers.

spearofdestiny
What you’ve got there is a Spear of Destiny. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Surprisingly, retrieving the spear leads immediately into the game’s most important deviation from Wolfenstein 3D. Upon grabbing the artifact, represented by a hovering and indistinct set of pixels, the player turns Blazkowicz around to discover that the level behind him has changed into a hellscape. It is still comprised of the same rigid, gridded level design, but the walls now pulse with flame and enemies include a host of alarming demonic entities. In the end, Blazkowicz defeats the Angel of Death, escapes to Earth and completes his mission, diminishing the Nazi war effort in the process.

spookyghost
Slaying a ghost post-spear removal. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

A further set of levels were developed by FormGen and published by id Software in 1994. These two ‘lost chapters’ are some of the stranger episodes in the Wolfenstein catalog, and I will fail to describe them as well as Noah Caldwell-Gervais does in his series retrospective: “These level sets, called accessory packs, don’t make any sense to me from either a business or game design perspective… The abstraction in the design is out of control. One level is a nine-cube game of Tic-Tac-Toe when viewed from above, with the quote ‘the only winning move is not to play’ written in blocks outside of the level boundaries.” For some reason, the color palette also relies on downright irresponsible amounts of the color blue.

BLUE
I’m not fooling. It’s a LOT of blue. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

It seems that, like MUSE before them, id had reached the end of the creativity line on its use of the Wolfenstein IP. Doom was released in 1993, between Spear of Destiny and the aforementioned lost chapters, utterly upending Wolfenstein 3D’s status as the leader of the fledgling FPS genre. It would take seven years and the addition of a new developer to attempt another series revival.

20177-return-to-castle-wolfenstein-game-of-the-year-windows-front-cover

Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001)

id Software remained a PC gaming juggernaut throughout the 1990s, even as it largely abandoned Wolfenstein. Doom brought the company an extraordinary amount of name recognition and funding, while the company’s Quake franchise popularized fully 3D first-person shooter rendering and online multiplayer. One of the studio’s most important contributions to the medium during the latter half of this decade was its development and licensing of various 3D game engines, first under the Quake Engine naming convention and then the less property-specific id Tech line. These would compete and eventually lose the battle for market supremacy with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, but would prove to be highly influential on the look and feel of first-person games in the early 2000s.

corridorshooter
In spite of its new coat of paint (thanks to id Tech 3), Return to Castle Wolfenstein is recognizably related to its forebears. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

One such game is Return to Castle Wolfenstein, released on PC in 2001. id Software would play a role in its creation – licensing the id Tech 3 engine and acting as executive producer – though the game’s actual development would be spearheaded by Gray Matter Interactive. This studio was best known in the late 1990s for Redneck Rampage (1997), their contribution to the burgeoning landscape of first-person shooters. The Los Angeles-based developer had also contributed a level pack to id Software’s own Quake II Arena in 1998.

cutscene
An opening cutscene evokes both the films and horrors of the early 20th Century while reminding players that the Wolfenstein franchise was not stuck in the early ’90s. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s single-player campaign shares more in common with contemporary FPS titles like Half-Life (1998) than it does with its namesake. Narrative plays a much stronger role than it did in earlier Wolfenstein games, even opening with an unplayable cinematic sequence. From that point, gameplay sections are divided by interstitial plot portions, improving the sense of worldbuilding and raising the stakes, but reducing the frequency of player input. BJ Blazkowicz is still the protagonist, though he is shaded in a bit more than he had been as a silent gunman in his earlier appearances. In spite of the theoretically heavy subject matter, which includes Nazi experimentation, Gray Matter Interactive manages to convey a campy horror tone rather than a gloomy atmosphere.

burning_nazi_zombies
Nazi zombies aren’t going to burn themselves, after all. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The visual design was also a far cry from id’s 1990s series entries. The entire game is rendered in 3D, with environments and NPCs composed of textured polygons. Those NPCs, in fact, include a dramatically expanded enemy roster. Nazi soldiers still make up the bulk of the player’s targets in the early going, but the emphasis rapidly shifts to supernatural foes, including zombies, witches and more. This reflects the game’s focus on halting Hitler’s plans to raise an army of the Undead, and builds on the hell portion of 1993’s Spear of Destiny. In the course of the adventure, Blazkowicz travels around Europe and encounters the series debut of Deathshead, a Nazi researcher who would go on to make reappearances in later Wolfenstein titles.

huh
The Nazi sorceresses are more problematic, to say the least. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

One of Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s most significant innovations, at least as far as the franchise is concerned, was the integration of multiplayer features. Neither Wolfenstein 3D nor Spear of Destiny had included a multiplayer component; early adopters of the FPS genre needed to wait for Doom to pioneer the deathmatch format in 1993, and then Quake, Unreal, and Counterstrike to hone it to frenetic perfection in the late 1990s. By 2001, most players had come to expect some multiplayer component even in first-person shooters primarily oriented around a single-player campaign.

stealth
Stealth made its return to the series for the first time since Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Happily, developer Nerve Software was up to the challenge of adapting this historically single-player series. They introduced a class-based online multiplayer system in which each player chooses between lieutenant, soldier, medic, or engineer and cooperates with teammates to accomplish specific objectives. Modes include one in which the Axis and Allies players change sides between each match, alternating weapons unique to each faction, and one in which teammates work together to capture a series of flags. These aren’t entirely unique concepts – the former is reminiscent of Team Fortress (1999) – but would go on to prove influential in their execution. Later online shooters, particularly 2002’s World War II-focused Battlefield 1942, would draw inspiration from Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s surprisingly engaging multiplayer mode.

456854-wolfenstein-xbox-360-front-cover

Wolfenstein (2009)

After a campy Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the property took a rather surprising direction. id Software still controlled the rights to the brand, but opted again to contract a developer to do the actual programming. Raven Software had gained a small amount of prominence in the 1990s for its development of the Heretic/Hexen series; these id-published first-person shooters were highly influenced by the visual design and supernatural elements of Doom, integrating the ability to cast spells in addition to using weapons. Raven Software was acquired by publisher Activision in 1997 and moved on to its Soldier of Fortune (2000-2007) series, which would be known primarily for its graphic depictions of gun violence.

bloom
Nothing screams “late 2000s video game” quite like bloom lighting, eh? Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

These two franchises would have an outsized influence on Raven’s approach to Wolfenstein. Eschewing the series’ historically over the top style, the 2009 entry instead relies on a grim tone characteristic of Raven’s earlier games. Magical powers are introduced for the first time – tied in the game world to the Nazis’ discovery of an alternative dimension called the Black Sun – and are used by the player in a manner similar to those in Hexen (1995). Use of the Havok physics engine, which had become widespread after its debut in Half-Life 2 (2004), permits these powers to result in the spectacular destruction of surrounding enemies. At the same time, the grisly way that enemy models react to bullets is inspired by Raven’s work on the first two Soldier of Fortune titles.

theveil
Battling soldiers in the Veil. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The narrative of Wolfenstein underlines the increased prominence of Blazkowicz’s supernatural abilities. Nazis have discovered an alternative dimension and are mining crystals from beneath the German city of Isenstadt to harness this realm’s bizarre powers in an effort to overcome the Allied war effort. Blazkowicz is sent in by the Allies to undermine the operation; in the process, he gains access to an interesting realm known as the Veil and can access that space to encounter an otherworldly reinterpretation of Isenstadt. Successful navigation of the city is only possible by sometimes entering this alternate dimension, which rearranges or distorts obstacles in the standard space.

throwback
An otherwise modern game, the slow-paced search functionality is pulled straight from 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Isenstadt acts not only as the game’s narrative setting, but also as the connective hub which links all other levels. Unlike earlier series entries, 2009’s Wolfenstein actually features a non-linear overworld that slowly becomes more navigable as Blazkowicz acquires new skills. This opens up access to new areas, which in turn offer more new abilities. At the same time, the enemies in Isenstadt grow more numerous and dangerous.

bj_speaks_cutscene
Some of the cutscenes feel like they could be pulled from any mid-2000s World War II shooter. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Unfortunately, Raven’s take on the Wolfenstein saga was not popular with fans. The main story was too dour, the multiplayer mode was a step down from Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and World War II shooters had over-saturated the market in the early 2000s. If this game had come out in 2001, it would likely have been successful; market trends were against it, though, and it failed to distinguish itself from competitor franchises like Call of Duty and F.E.A.R.

anotherzombie!
Times would change, but Nazi zombies bloom eternal. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

In the end, the project was a major failure for Raven Software. The studio laid off numerous employees and would go on to shift its priorities from developing ambitious in-house projects to functioning as support for Activision’s Call of Duty series. The game itself would eventually be de-listed from digital marketplaces and become inaccessible outside of used hard copies produced for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Wolfenstein‘s identity had been lost somewhere along the way, and it would take a thorough reinvention to get BJ Blazkowicz back on his feet in the 2010s.

NewOrder_cover

Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)

Though ownership of the intellectual property had remained with id Software since 1992, Wolfenstein games had been developed by three different studios between 1992 and 2009; if you include multiplayer components and spinoffs, that number is higher still. Happily, MachineGames would become the steady developer needed to steer the venerable IP through its fourth decade.

nazisONTHEMOON
Egads, they’ve even got Nazis on the moon! Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

ZeniMax had been founded in 1999, acquiring numerous studios and properties over the following decade. By 2010, that parent company owned Bethesda, id Software, and the Fallout intellectual property. By the end of 2010, ZeniMax would add the Swedish newcomer MachineGames to its stable of developers. MachineGames had itself been founded in 2009 by a group of Starbreeze Studios’ alumni – these founding members had previously worked on The Darkness (2007) and the lauded Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher’s Bay (2004). According to interviews, the studio’s leadership sought out the opportunity to work on Wolfenstein as soon as it shared a publisher with id Software; many of its members were fans of the 1990s releases and had plans to reinvigorate the franchise.

cutscene
The cinematic ambition of the game is present from the word ‘go’. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

These plans would take time, but would also be extraordinarily successful. Wolfenstein: The New Colossus premiered on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC in 2014 to widespread critical acclaim. After a decade in the wilderness, Wolfenstein had found its voice again.

asylum
A scene from Blazkowicz’s maddening locked-in state. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The narrative centers on a much more fleshed out, vocal BJ Blazkowicz. Sent into a coma during a failed raid on Nazis during an alternate history’s 1946 (the Allies having failed to vanquish the Axis powers in 1945), Blazkowicz awakens at a Polish asylum in 1960. Fourteen intervening years had seen the Nazis destroy New York City with an atom bomb, win World War II, and remake the world in their sinister image. No longer backed by the United States government, Blazkowicz must instead work with his new lover Anya and a resistance group, the Kreisau Circle, to keep Hitler’s increasingly mechanized empire from exploiting mystical Hebrew technology.

technofuture
Retro techno-futurism is very much the aesthetic of The New Order. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

This is accomplished through a fascinating hybrid of intense action gameplay and cinematic narrative sequences. Shooters had moved towards two major trends in the late 2000s and early 2010s: cover-based navigation and online multiplayer. The former is present in The New Order, but is relatively minimalistic: buttons permit the player to have Blazkowicz lean around walls to observe or fire at unsuspecting foes. The latter trend is abandoned entirely by MachineGames’ bold take on the modern first-person shooter. No multiplayer mode is included alongside The New Order’s lengthy single-player campaign.

minigame
One of the game’s more amusing features consists of dream sequences where Blazkowicz experiences Wolfenstein 3D levels with his modern firepower. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

That focus on narrative and player vs. environment level design was a gamble, but it paid off handsomely. The New Order was roundly considered to be the best FPS in 2014, and indeed one of the best games from that year overall. The setting was unique, the gameplay was tight, and the narrative served a beloved character and franchise well while managing to develop them more than earlier entries had done. The tone, which could have been either too dour or too light – given the disturbing subject matter – instead managed to delicately thread the needle between over-the-top camp and solemnity. Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds was cited by the development team as a key influence.

oldblood
After a new entry focused on the future, The Old Blood steadfastly emphasizes the past. Credit: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Fueled by the success of The New Order, MachineGames released a standalone expansion in 2015. Wolfenstein: The Old Blood reused the engine and assets that functioned as The New Order‘s foundation, but it served as more of a reverential throwback to the series’ history than its forward-looking predecessor. Where The New Order had emphasized a counterfactual 1960s Nazi techno-futurism, The Old Blood emphasizes instead the supernatural elements which had been most prominent in Spear of Destiny and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The game’s narrative is set in 1946, immediately prior to The New Order’s prologue mission, and eventually leads Blazkowicz through a cave system teeming with zombies. The story would be criticized as falling short of the high standard set by The New Order, but it was otherwise praised for the excellence of its mechanics, art design and level layouts.

Wolf2_cover

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus (2017)

With The New Colossus, MachineGames iterated on the successful narrative-heavy formula of The New Order. Gameplay overall remains unchanged, with one significant exception: stealth mechanics.

difficulty
Oh sure, MachineGames mocks. You’re probably going to want to play on this mode though. Credit: Errant Signal

The AI of The New Order had been praised, as enemy soldiers functioned as a squad and needed to be attacked tactically in order for the player to advance. The developers doubled down on this for the sequel, aping elements of the original Apple II Wolfenstein games in the process. Guards could now discover dead bodies, easily set off alarms and overall make navigation much more challenging. The player was expected to be more aware of his or her actions and proceed more carefully through stages.

dc
If you’ve ever wondered what Washington DC would look like under Nazi occupation, this is the game for you. Credit: Errant Signal

For better or for worse, this moves The New Colossus away from the realm of power fantasy and towards the sense that Blazkowicz is battling overwhelming odds. Victory is hard-won, and the player is likely to get hung up on level sections where advancement is stymied by smart foes and a very limited life bar. That life bar, in fact, is actually smaller than it was in The New Order, further reducing the player’s margin for error.

teardup
Blazkowicz has seen better days. Credit: Errant Signal

MachineGames tied the emphasis on stealth and reduced health to the narrative, of course. Blazkowicz was presumed dead at the conclusion of The New Order, having been mortally wounded while finally slaying nemesis Deathshead (who you may recall having been introduced first in 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein). In the opening moments of The New Colossus, however, the Kreisau Circle and a now-pregnant Anya retrieve Blazkowicz and begin the process of nursing him back to a middling level of health aboard a U-boat. Through a series of rather shocking events, Blazkowicz is fitted with a mechanical exoskeleton and, eventually, a powerful new body. During the game’s early chapters, his health is lower as a result of injuries sustained in the preceding adventure, while the later chapters restore him to peak physical form

statueofliberty
This is what remains of the Statue of Liberty. They blew it up! Credit: Errant Signal

The primary goal of Blazkowicz and the Kreisau Circle in The New Colossus is the escape from Europe to America and the establishment of a base of operations from which they might finally destroy the Nazi regime. During the course of this, they are tasked with uniting the disparate factions of simmering resistance still remaining after twenty years of Nazi occupation in North America. Unfortunately, the incisive commentary of the preceding game falls a bit short once Blazkowicz arrives in the United States; references to American white supremacy, slavery, and the Black Panther movement are made but remain comparatively unexamined by a narrative more interested in exploring Blazkowicz’s personal background.

smalltownnazis
The game’s brief tour through small-town Americana is one of its dark highlights, reminding the player that racism was a core part of the nation’s history long before the Nazis arrived. Credit: Errant Signal

Analyses by YouTube luminaries Super Bunnyhop and Errant Signal suggest that this commentary remains underwhelming for two reasons: (1) the European studio is understandably  more familiar with the underlying complexities of European culture, and (2) the game was largely made in 2015, when white supremacy had not returned to the mainstream of American discourse. With the latter becoming an inescapable issue over the past three years, The New Colossus’ late 2017 release date and Bethesda’s openly confrontational marketing campaign couldn’t help but make the game feel like it shied away from a more effective intersection with current events.

mother-ring
Young Blazkowicz’s experiences with his mother make the subtext almost explicit. Credit: Errant Signal

MachineGames was clearly more interested in exploring the character of BJ Blazkowicz, and they were more successful at this aspect of the plot. The protagonist had already come a long way from the humorously over-the-top macho icon of the early ’90s, but The New Colossus places his youth and formative experiences under the microscope for the first time. Growing up with a cruel, racist Caucasian father and a kind Polish-Jewish mother conveys the two battling elements of Blazkowicz’s personality – his propensity for directing violent rage towards the Arian war machine and his life’s work of liberating the oppressed. The game draws explicit parallels between Blazkowicz’s mother and Anya, while equating his father’s self-serving machismo to Nazi culture. There’s a lot to unpack with regard to BJ Blazkowicz’s personal journey, and I’d again direct readers towards the excellent coverage by Super Bunnyhop and Errant Signal for more information.

catmonkey
A tender moment with Anya is interrupted by a monkey with the head of a cat. Typical. Credit: Errant Signal

In spite of its handful of gameplay and narrative shortcomings, The New Colossus was another major success for MachineGames. With the second title in their proposed trilogy complete, the studio had put its stamp on the series and arguably become the first real steward of the property since id’s acquisition of Wolfenstein in 1992.

party!
MachineGames knows how to dial up the intensity, but they know how to stick the landing on charming character moments as well.

Interestingly, the newest game in the series is noteworthy for another reason as well – it was initially released on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, all of which could handily support its underlying id Tech 6 engine; in 2018, however, it was ported to the Nintendo Switch by studio Panic Button. This was a breathtaking conversion, as the game remained functionally intact in transition downward through an entire generation of processor and graphical hardware. Panic Button had successfully adapted a demanding AAA console/PC title to a portable device. Concessions were made, including the reduction of the framerate and resolution, but the adaptability of id Tech 6 and the programming acumen of Panic Button have inspired others to speculate on how portable games might be brought more in line with titles historically reliant on more powerful technology.

Super_Noah's_ARK_3D_Super_Nintendo

Spinoffs

With a history of over thirty years and a genuinely iconic status within the medium, it is unsurprising that the Wolfenstein franchise has more than a few spinoffs.

sheep
Those sheep’ll get ya. Credit: LGR

The first is likely the strangest. Christian software company Wisdom Tree licensed the Wolfenstein game engine developed by John Carmack in the early 1990s, and sought to use it in pursuit of a tie-in to the Hellraiser film series. This was eventually scrapped, as Hellraiser clashed spectacularly with the studio’s image, but they still wanted to make use of the game engine. Wisdom Tree grafted a Bible story onto it, along with new sprites, and released Super 3D Noah’s Ark on the SNES in 1994. In the title, the player takes on the role of Noah as he uses slingshots to incapacitate angry animals aboard his vessel; Wikipedia confirms the presence of boss enemies, including Ernie the Elephant and Carl the Camel. Though this game was not approved by Nintendo, Wisdom Tree used some programming wizardry to bypass security checks and get it playable on the SNES hardware. Super 3D Noah’s Ark was re-released in 2014, twenty years after its initial publication, on the Steam digital distribution platform.

enemyterritory
This should look familiar to folks who have played Team Fortress or Day of Defeat. Credit: Joel S

The second spinoff is more fascinating in the story surrounding it than the game itself. Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory was being developed by Splash Damage at the request of Activision after the release of Return to Castle Wolfenstein in 2001. The studio was unable to craft a satisfying single-player campaign, however, and the project fell apart. Luckily, the online multiplayer portion of the game was salvaged and its source code was published by Splash Damage for free in 2004. The gameplay itself is an expanded version of the multiplayer in Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

statdamage
Wolfenstein RPG – somewhere between DOOM and Etrian Odyssey. Credit: Portratronika

After this, another peculiar spinoff served to fill in the lengthy gap between Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) and Wolfenstein (2009). Wolfenstein RPG was released by id Software in 2008 on mobile devices, and is based primarily on the original Wolfenstein 3D. The first-person visuals are an upgraded version of those in the 1992 classic with all explicit Nazi references half-heartedly removed. The gameplay, on the other hand, owes more to dungeon crawlers of the 1980s – the Wizardry series in particular – than the first-person shooter genre. Movement occurs on a grid, where each step that BJ Blazkowicz takes constitutes a turn. When enemies are encountered, turns can also be expended to engage in melee or ranged combat. Experience points can be gained by interacting with the environment, powering up Blazkowicz and giving him the ability to take on increasingly powerful/ridiculous foes.

punchhitler
Punching the Hitler painting has a pretty funny result. Credit: Portratronika

The classic RPG gameplay loop is as effective as ever, but the game was particularly lauded by critics for its sense of humor. Though Wolfenstein RPG remains a unique reinterpretation of id’s pioneering 1992 game, it has been discontinued on digital distribution platforms and is no longer accessible without the use of emulation.


What do you think about Wolfenstein? Which is your favorite entry? Are you into Nazi-slaying shenanigans or do you blame the series for the rise of your least favorite genre, the first-person shooter? What do you anticipate for the future of the series? Let’s discuss below!

Next week, this column will be covering everyone’s favorite pink blob: Kirby. Join the conversation at 9:00 AM EST on Friday,  September 14.

Finally, here are some Wolfenstein sources of note: