Review: Electronic Arts Wolfenstein RPG
When id Software released Wolfenstein 3-D years ago, the game hinted at a dark, amusing sense of humor that could only occupy a little screen time in a game that was mostly about running around at high speeds and shooting Nazis. Updated for the iPhone OS by id and Electronic Arts from a previously-released mobile phone game, Wolfenstein RPG ($5) gives the developers an opportunity to crack plenty of jokes at the Nazis' expense, using a cut-down version of the action game's interface and turn-based gameplay as a launching point for a substantially different sort of experience. In so doing, it lives up to both of the words in its name, though fans of id's action titles should go in knowing that this RPG is far more deliberately-paced, and only a fair use of the iPhone and iPod touch hardware.
Once again, you play as B.J. Blazkowicz, a competent rather than overpowered soldier who fights his way through a heavily fortified Castle Wolfenstein with fists, boots, pistols, and then a succession of more than a dozen additional new weapons. You’re given an on-screen four-direction joypad to move him through extremely boxy corridors built with 90- and 45-degree angles, and alternate between shooting, punching, kicking, and interacting with objects by tapping on the center of the screen. Depending on whatever’s in front of you, the game decides whether to attack or to interact; you just need to choose the weapon by tapping on a box next to B.J.‘s head.
Where the game succeeds for RPG fans and may fall short for action fans is the “everything else” component of the gameplay: the elements above are Wolfenstein 3-D-like, but what happens next is not. Unlike 3-D, where you could race through hallways or creep slowly pixel by pixel through mazes, everything in RPG is a turn-based step: one step forward, one step back, one turn to the right, one turn to the left, one bullet being fired, one kick, and so on. Confront a room with four Nazi soldiers and it’s not your button-pressing prowess that determines the flow of bullets, but rather how many turns it takes to tap your way to success, and how much damage you’re able to do per turn. Find better weapons, or get experience points to upgrade your stats, and the lifebar that appears above an enemy gets depleted faster; otherwise, you may be exchanging bullets over several turns, watching as your own life meter ticks down digit by digit. The developers have paced the game well enough that this process doesn’t become boring, but fans of the original game may well find themselves wishing for the old controls and a rapid-fire machine gun.
Two things compensate for the more deliberate action: good writing, and much-improved graphics. Wolfenstein RPG’s castle contains nine levels that have been filled with sight gags and written jokes that more thoroughly flesh out some of the contempt id showed for the Nazis in Wolfenstein 3-D, portraying the soldiers as diabolical and more than occasionally moronic. Emaciated prisoners stand next to clipboards that reveal the experiments that were performed on them, cluing you in as to how to mix your own chemicals into stat-boosting syringes later in the game. Whereas 3-D littered its levels with looted treasures and food, RPG also populates tables and bookshelves with books such as the German equivalent of Leadership for Dummies, including an officer’s inscription that one of his soldiers really needs to read it. Elements such as this are basically throwaways in an action game, but in RPG, story matters, and though it’s fairly obvious what the big story is going to be, id makes the details amusing.
It has also radically improved upon the artwork found in Wolfenstein 3-D Classic for the iPhone, using considerably more detailed textures for the 32 enemy characters, the backdrops, and your own weaponry: though the engine doesn’t really get pushed to perform at fast speeds, and the simple hallway-based design is hardly up to the visual standards of id’s earlier Doom Resurrection, the graphics are good enough by RPG standards, including ceiling and floor tiles while dispensing with the heavy pixelization of the iPhone port. A next-generation game it mightn’t be, but it’s not hard on the eyes, either, save for polygonal tearing that we noticed with some frequency when playing the game on the iPhone 3GS. In-game music is sparing, but does appear occasionally, and sound effects are generally simple—the typical array of gun, growling, and ugh noises as things are shooting or being shot. Dialogue appears as text, rather than being spoken.
If there are any issues with Wolfenstein RPG, they’re mostly common to the genre: players need to flip back and forth from the main screen to inventory screens to select various types of items, save for weapons, and between the D-pad style control and imprecise “swipe to sidestep” gestures, the controls feel less than ideally responsive at times. Additionally, the number of different dialogue screens with various types of statistics-changing bonuses and syringes can be somewhat overwhelming at first; a 30% increase in attack power across 20 turns means what, exactly, when you’re walking through an empty corridor? How does Focus help, and why is a 5% decrease in Focus from reading a romance novel on a bookshelf a bad thing? You learn answers and shortcuts as you play, but there are moments early on when there seems to be way more to read than to do. Thankfully, this feeling disappears almost as quickly as it comes, and when Wolfenstein RPG begins to really vary its enemies in the Catacombs, the title’s strategic depth begins to become more clear.
Overall, Wolfenstein RPG offers a fun combination of semi-comical World War II-inspired shooting and exploring action—a mix that will appeal to those fans of the Wolfenstein series who don’t mind a 75% decrease in adrenaline-pumping action and music in exchange for a 200% improvement in graphics and 1000% increase in amusement factor. It’s far from the best game that EA or id has ever released, but it’s a cool little $5 adventure title that offers enough content to justify its price.