Saturday, 5 January 2013

PC Game Review: Wolfenstein 3D

Originally posted at Accursed Farms Forums on July 9th 2012.

Platform: PC (DOS)
Released: 1992
Genre. First Person Shooter
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Apogee, GT Interactive, id Software
Buy on Steam

Celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, Wolfenstein 3D often gets false praise for "inventing" the first person shooter genre. Though it did put in place some of the paradigms that still are used by today's FPS games (although with much better graphics), Wolfenstein 3D wasn't inventing the genre as much as it was merely popularizing it. You could argue that early University titles such as Maze War are really more suitable for that honour, or hell, even Wing Commander which was released a year or more before Wolfenstein 3D was released and had way superior graphics but required a monster of a computer at the time. The reason Wolfenstein 3D became popular was because it ran well on even low end computers, coupled with the fact the first episode could be spread legally for free, due to Apogee's shareware version. It was a combination that was a blast and together with id's previous and more kiddie-friendly game franchise Commander Keen, it really put the home computer not just on the same level as consoles, but brought it above consoles and beyond. Even Nintendo's SNES console had problems being up to the challenge of emulating the game as it was designed with PC's in mind. Wolfenstein 3D probably didn't sell any PC's though, but sell, it did. It's a success story with few equals in the business and has since become a classic, revered for its technical excellence as well as for the fact that it's just damn fun to play.

While Wolfenstein 3D is based on the DOS classic Castle Wolfenstein from the early 80's, it shares little in common with its grandfather and takes its own road, even inventing its own setting, story and protagonist. You play as the allied commando B.J. Blazkowicz, and your sole mission is to exterminate the Nazis, pretty much. You even get to take on Der Führer himself, though in a mechanical robot suit... It's as crazy as it sounds and deliciously pulp fiction, and it makes for a pretty good and suitable setting for a shooter. The story progresses after each mission as you get to read a bit more about what happens and it makes a nice written backdrop for the game's levels themselves.

For the time, Wolfenstein 3D was simply groundbreaking. While it didn't look as impressive as, let's say Wing Commander or Ultima Underworld, it was clearly a step forward in making first person shooter graphics available for the masses as it ran smoothly on even low end computers. The game uses a technique dubbed "raycasting" in which the camera sends out a "ray" and draws whatever wall or object it hits, based on map data stored in the files. It may sound like a primitive technique but it works surprisingly well and is very stable. On most computers you won't even notice it's happening. The technique requires no dedicated GPU and is very CPU friendly, making it perfect for the lower end computers of its time. Of course, this technique has limitations and all the levels are flat and feel very boxy, more similar to mazes than real life locations and it can feel claustrophobic at times. Of course, this is where a lot of Wolfenstein 3D's charm and style lies and gives it a very unique atmosphere and feeling that would never be replicated with a modern shooter.

The graphics also have a lot of subtle details, such as the fact you can see BJ's face and the more he's hurt, the worse he looks, something that seems lost on a lot of modern games. Some of the levels also have swastikas in them, but only visible on a map screen or one of the game tools, or if you are very good at thinking how the level would look like from above. While the sprites may be a bit low-res on PC, only 64x64, they were a higher resolution on the Macintosh, 3DO and Atari Jaguar ports, 128x128, in case you want to play more graphically superior versions. The SNES version suffers a bit graphically as the SNES was never designed to run games like Wolfenstein 3D, but it is regardless an impressive port that runs at a smooth framerate at least.

The sound department is definitely one of the areas where Wolfenstein 3D shines and hasn't aged badly at all. Supporting digitized sound on SoundBlaster cards, something new for its time, you'll hear the crackling clear noise of your weapons, the dogs barking, the guards shouting and the doors creaking, all with a bit of reverb added to it, adding a much needed sense of realism. There's even a slight spatial system implemented so that sounds far away will be at a much lower volume than sounds near you, and sounds can carry through rooms, meaning guards in another room will hear you if you accidentally fire your gun, which is impressively realistic.

Aside from the digitized sounds you can also use the SoundBlaster or AdLib cards (or PC speaker if you don't have either) for additional sound effects, for pickups and other minor sounds. The MIDI music is also very good, composed by Bobby Prince who also composed the music for Commander Keen and Doom. One of the tunes even has a hidden message in morse code, which is quite clever. Although you'll need an AdLib card for that, on modern computers luckily all of this can be emulated with DOSBox so there is no need to worry about it unless you have an old computer from '91 to play it on.

Unlike its predecessors Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, which were largely stealth-based games, Wolfenstein 3D takes a much more action-oriented approach and does away with almost any resemblance of stealth. Instead the focus seems to be on going in guns blazing and killing every guard you can find, a typical trait of the FPS genre. It is however possible to sneak up on guards and take them out with a silent knife attack, although this is as close as it gets to the original 80's Wolfenstein. The main objective in each level seems to find the exit, although you will face obstacles aside from enemies, being locked doors and eventually end bosses.

You start out with a knife and a pistol but can upgrade to a machinegun and eventually a chaingun. The positive aspect about the chaingun is that it obliterates any threat you may face (with the exception of end bosses which will take quite a bit of skill to take down even with the chaingun), and the negative being that it, to quote the Quake manual, "eats ammo like popcorn". You'll be wise to switch to either the pistol or machinegun if you're running low on ammo as these weapons conserve ammo more efficiently. The levels are riddled with secret rooms, often containing treasures you can collect for extra points. Getting enough points scores you an extra life. It seems id were quite big on arcade games as Wolfenstein 3D does have a very arcady feel to it, since it gives you lives. You can still quicksave and quickload whenever you want though so it seems largely obsolete.

You can use either a keyboard, mouse, joystick or gamepad for controls so you have a lot of options regarding how you want to play the game, although for maximum control I suggest using a mouse. There are no strafe keys however, which feels a bit awkward as you have to hold down a strafe key to strafe. What is interesting is that while the SNES version is technically inferior, they added more weapons in that version and even gave you the ability to use L and R to strafe so in some aspects, the SNES version is an improvement over the original PC version, at least in terms of controls and variety. The PC version does have more levels though and is way more expandable as id has released the source code so people can make their own modifications of the game and their own levels.

Story: 8/10
Nothing big, this game doesn't have a whole lot of story, but what little there is is delightfully b-movie and exploitative. I can't give it a perfect score though since there isn't much to go on.
Graphics: 8/10
For 1992, this was an impressive game and it ran well on most computers for that time too. It's a solid engine that while showing its age, has aged fine. They do look a bit pixelated though and some of the ports featured much higher resolutions on the sprites.
Sound: 10/10
Absolutely perfect. The digitized sounds add a lot of atmosphere and realism to the game and the music is great!
Gameplay: 8/10
A true and tested formula that holds up today, though I still would've liked if the game had more stealth elements to it. At one point you could even drag bodies away which seems like it could be a cool concept. It gets a bit repetitive and boring after a while.

Overall score: 8/10
While Wolfenstein 3D in no way is as groundbreaking as people want it to be, and does get boring if you play it for extended periods as you can only blast through so many nazis before it gets old, it set the standard for FPS games to come, placing you in the shoes of a lone soldier facing an onslaught of enemies. It established the paradigms and trends that even modern shooters go by and has stood the test of time as it is still today very easy to pick up and play, though I suggest you also try out some of the many ports that have been made as they often improve on the core game.

- Alyxx


  1. One of the first games I ever laid eyes on. I was young at the time and therefor not allowed to play it myself (although I did so anyways. My sister actually showed it to me back in the day. on our old PC Wolfenstein 3d and Duke Nukem (old fashioned side scrolling Duke) were great fun to watch. only problem was the headache Wolfenstein gave me if I watched for more than 5 minutes at a time. Fun fact: the game Return to Castle Wolfenstein on (original) Xbox has Wolfenstein 3d in its entirety available for play after completing the main game. The Xbox-Live Arcade version is great as well (it feels like it was just put there as a marketing tool for the most recent Wolfenstein game however).

    1. Yeah, same here. Wolfenstein 3D was also a game I was never allowed to play but did it anyway. Sidescrolling Duke was probably my first video game memory and I need to do a review on the old Duke games some time!

      Too bad I don't own any XBox consoles but I play Wolf3D on DOSBox from time to time and I have the GBA port.