The phrase ‘gaming royalty’ might sound overly grandiose, but if this category of games does exist, then the Wolfenstein series certainly belongs in it.
The first Wolfenstein game was released in 1981, and there’s a new one – Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – scheduled for release later in 2017. That means the series has been running for a frankly ludicrous 36 years! In fact, it’s the second longest-running story-based game franchise in existence, with the Mario series being just a few months older.
All of the Wolfenstein games have been action-based, and they’ve all revolved around fictional plots involving the Nazis, with William “B.J.” Blazkowicz as the main character. There have, however, been several distinct eras in the history of the series.
With a new game just around the corner, this marks the perfect time to engage in a little history lesson, and look back over the best games from the Wolfenstein series.
This is where it all began, back in 1981. The original Castle Wolfenstein – created by the now-legendary Silas Warner – was a top-down 2D game, which actually had an emphasis on stealth over overt action. This was our first introduction to Blazkowicz, whose mission was to steal Nazi war plans and escape from the titular castle.
It might not be worth going back and playing now, but it sowed the seeds for a new era in video games.
Whilst it was actually the third game in the series, and didn’t involve the original creator Silas Warner, this is where the Wolfenstein franchise really took off. Stealth was thrown out of the window in favour of an all-guns-blazing approach, and – crucially – it made the move from top-down third-person to a first-person viewpoint.
In fact, Wolfenstein 3D basically invented the first-person shooter genre, which has gone on to dominate much of the gaming landscape. It was also co-programmed by John Carmack, who would go on to create classics like Doom and Quake. All told, Wolfenstein 3D is one of the most important, landscape-altering games ever created.
Despite the colossal success of Wolfenstein 3D, there was a sizeable nine year gap before another Wolfenstein game was released.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein – released in 2001, for consoles as well as the PC – was essentially a series reboot. It was generally well-received by critics, and proved commercially successful. Its single-player story was good enough – if not exactly a masterpiece – but multiplayer was where it really excelled (as would be the case with other contemporary FPS games, like Halo and Call of Duty). In fact, the multiplayer mode proved so successful that publishers Activision released a whole new multiplayer-only game – Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory – two years later.
Another large gap – eight years, this time, between full-scale releases – was followed by another series reboot. The simply-named ‘Wolfenstein’ was released in 2009, and despite lackluster commercial results, was a solid entry into the series, and a welcome new release for Wolfenstein fans.
The topsy-turvy plot saw Blazkowicz traveling to a German town, where the Nazis were excavating… some crystals, which would help them to… take over the world? It doesn’t really matter! One cool addition to this entry was the opportunity to use superhuman abilities at certain points of the game, including slowing down time.
Between its story and its crazy action, Wolfenstein was certainly over the top, but it was still a whole lot of fun, and didn’t deserve to slip through the cracks of gaming history in the way it did. Developers Raven Software would have the last laugh, however, going on to craft the celebrated and massively popular multiplayer for five Call of Duty titles (and counting).
Once again, there was a lengthy break between entries in the Wolfenstein series, with Wolfenstein: The New Order not being released until 2014. It’s fair to say, however, that it was more than worth the wait.
Though Blazkowicz was still the main character, this was a major reboot for the series, with Bethesda now taking over publishing duties. Its story represents a big break from tradition, being set in an intriguing alternate future in which the Nazis won World War Two. Despite the ensuing plot still being dramatic, it seemed somehow more grown-up than previous entries. The gameplay – fashioned by new developer MachineGames – felt absolutely wonderful, with the gun battles being some of the most satisfying and engaging in recent memory.
With Wolfenstein: The New Order having proved such a smash hit, both commercially and critically, it was inevitable that a sequel would quickly follow.
The New Colossus – again developed by MachineGames, and published by Bethesda – will pick up more or less where The New Order left off. There is, however, a fascinating change in location from Europe to the USA, which is also, of course, now occupied by the Nazis. Early gameplay videos have looked mouth-wateringly good, with the graphics being absolutely gorgeous, and the promise of a similarly expertly-handled plot. Bring on October 27th!
There are massive games franchises out there, like Grand Theft Auto, which have maintained an incredible consistency – in tone, developers, quality, and so on – for a staggering amount of time.
With the best will in the world, and however influential its early games might have been, Wolfenstein has not been one of those franchises. There has been a regular turnover of both publishers and developers, and the tone and quality of the entries has swung significantly.
That being said, we’d argue that the series has never been in a better place. The New Order was surely the best Wolfenstein entry to date, and there’s no reason to think that The New Colossus shouldn’t be even better.