Does Wolfenstein still matter?

With a new Wolfenstein game just over the horizon, we look back at a franchise that's consistently reflected gaming trends over the years

Wolfenstein 3D didn’t need to have an interesting plot. When you are inventing the first person shooter genre, realistically the only things that matter are the mechanics and your ability to get players used to looking through the eyes of their character without getting motion sickness.

The pedants might jump up and down and remind us that Wolfenstein was technically not the first to do this, with games like Maze War dabbling in this as far back as the 70s, but regardless it was the first major title to pull it off. As a result, this meant that the threadbare plot of being stuck in a Nazi prison-castle and having to escape didn’t need anything more complicated than that. Additionally, the Nazi is the easiest villain to include in any form of media as nobody needs to think too hard about why you’re shooting large hordes of them. If nobody is going to call out Indiana Jones for swastika-sporters, they’re not going to question you.

Wolfenstein 3D broke ground in the mechanics, but it left the visual flare and style to its successors. The grey and brown fare of the prison escape game was never going to become as iconic as the neon-sci-fi heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons inspired Doom that followed, but again, Wolfenstein didn’t have to be interesting. Wolfenstein didn’t even have to try.

What makes it interesting is that it did try and has continued to over the last 20 years.

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‘A’ For Effort

Later this month, the Wolfenstein series receives another installment in the form of Wolfenstein: The New Order which tries its hand at some alternate history and what-iffery with the Nazis having won the second World War and subsequently steam-rollered their way across the globe, claimed several famous landmarks, developed a range of riot-control mecha suits and sieg-heiled on the moon.

Whilst pondering what the world would be like if the Allies had failed isn’t exactly the most imaginative and jaw dropping alternate history question posed and the game appears to be framed around series lead William B.J Blazkowicz suffering from an amnesia plot device, Wolfenstein gets points for trying. In fact, it gets double points for the fact that it’s been trying periodically over the last two decades even though there’s a feeling that in some earlier guises, not quite enough people care about it.

Looking through the back catalogue of the Wolfenstein series’ entries is almost like a litmus test of the gaming industry; a way of identifying trends and fashions by looking at what Wolfenstein has been deciding to do each time it rears its head. It has been able to successfully reinvent itself at two further points before now.

Retooling And Rebooting

Nearly ten years after the release of Wolfenstein 3D and well past the point of the unfair term ‘Doom clone’ being retired in favour of the more modern ‘first-person-shooter’, Return To Castle Wolfenstein leapt onto the scene, sporting the game engine dejour id Tech 3, or the Quake 3 Arena engine. The game has its fans and although mostly forgettable was perfectly competent. The series managed to sneak back into relevance by releasing a shooter that blended in seamlessly with all the other shooters using id Tech 3 at the time, which to be honest was most of them. In fact, if you find yourself with particularly fond memories of Return To Castle Wolfenstein, then further inspection of those memories might reveal that you are actually thinking about Jedi Knight 2, Soldier Of Fortune or even the original Call Of Duty.

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Towards the end of the decade, Wolfenstein decided to pull the reboot trick that became popular a few years back by dropping any subtitles, colons and numerical identifiers in what many are convinced is a conspiracy to confuse future Wikipedia editors. Wolfenstein: Wolfenstein recognised that it was time for a fresh coat of paint and acknowledged that the first-person-shooter couldn’t just be a shooter any more but had to have other features, or what crueller commentators might describe as gimmicks, in order to be taken seriously. Much like Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein: Wolfenstein won’t be making many people’s ‘favorite game of all time’ list but was by no means bad, it just blended in. Extra special powers included in a first person shooter have definitely become popular since Bioshock or arguably a bit before and Wolfenstein decided this was how it was going to fit in with the cool kids.

It’s too early to judge the latest game, The New Order, as it is not out yet. But the trailers make it look relatively set-piece heavy and give it a similar bombastic tone as the latter Call Of Duty games post-Modern Warfare 2. A lot of outlets have got their hopes up about it. The game likely won’t be reinventing the first-person-shooter genre, but it’s another reason to care about the series.

Why Wolfenstein Matters

This is not a Doom or a Quake. This is not one of Id’s flagship properties or something like Rage that was talked up for years before release. Even the way Id farms out development to other studios implies that they don’t particularly care about it either and there will be many people who state it only ever sells because of the power of the nostalgia dollar and general brand recognition. However, Wolfenstein consistently gives us what we want.

Gamers often say they want new things. They want exciting and interesting genres that show them experiences and wonders and big brave ideas that they’ve never seen before. Look closely at these comments however and it is clear this isn’t usually true. Even the gamers that really say they want this will most likely be contributing to the profitability of the yearly sequels of any major triple-A title. The most vocal proponents of an indie culture of constant fresh ideas are going to fall back to the comfort zone every now and then and pick up the latest Assassin’s Creed or Battlefield after all.

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Wolfenstein is almost uncanny in the way it has reinvented itself. The series has become reactive and responsive to what the gaming population seems to want. With each revisit to the series’ world, we’re not breaking out of Castle Wolfenstein again and again, but we get a reinvention of a series we have spent time with and we get to play with mechanics and themes that it is proven that the majority of us are interested in playing around with.

Maybe this is tells us something about the danger of listening too heavily to large focus groups or following the numbers too much and maybe this is a warning that the customer rarely has any real idea about what they want, even when they appear to be paying money for it on a regular basis. But remember that Wolfenstein never had to do any of this. This series could have slipped away into the night happy to be a footnote in the history of gaming, or a preface to the much larger chapter about Doom.

Wolfenstein 3D had one job – to train people how to play a first person shooter so that when Doom came along, less minds would be blown away by that and would instead be enthralled by the strong visual style, the dark oppressive atmosphere and the high-octane run-and-gun gameplay. Maybe at some point it also taught them to collect key cards, that most rock-and-roll of gaming mechanics. Once it had done that, it never had to be heard of again. It certainly didn’t have to go through the pain of rebirth to dance and jig for a mostly apathetic audience that by the numbers apparently craved the exact form of entertainment it was providing.

Wolfenstein never needed to be interesting, but this is a series that demands respect for trying, and providing lots of entertainment along the way. Maybe Wolfenstein: The New Order will be a breakout hit and catapult the franchise into the true mainstream, but even if it doesn’t, we should be happy that it is coming all the same.

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