For the young and innocent, modern shooters are all about presence and multiplayer. Laughably short single player campaigns boxed off in a day and then it’s online to learn maps and bemoan noobs and campers. These games are “brilliant” and “awesome”.
Newsflash: They’re not. They’re actually shit. Admittedly they’re pretty impressive shit with whizzy sound effect and visuals that make a lie of the notion that you can’t polish a turd, but a polished turd is exactly what they are.
This was epitomised to me with Wolfenstein 3D being made free to play through browsers. My initial thought was that it might be nice to have another look at it, in essence to laugh at the stupid blocky sprite graphics, the lack of a real ceiling or floor, the absence of a staircase or any notion of more than a single vertical plane, and of course the simple corridor wandering that was cutting edge back in the day. But halfway through the first chapter my mood changed as I stood in a room with four doors leading off it. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in the room as I’d entered it earlier and then left immediately as I’d decided to return to the previous corridor and see where turning left would have lead me. It was at this point I realised that I had been pondering door choices and routes more to that point than I had in the entirety of any other shooter of the past ten years.
I’ve lamented any meaningful choice in modern shooters on many occasions. For all their illusion of a grand world in which you are supposedly the linchpin around which fate rotates you’re really more of a door hinge. Not even a saloon door which would give you the chance to mix things up a bit by swinging outwards as well as inwards, but a regular boring internal door which when prompted moves a bit to allow the story to pass through.
In Wolfenstein 3D you are the story. No cinematic intro, no in engine cutscenes, just a bit of text telling you you’re Captain William J “BJ” Blazcowicz who while on a reconnaissance mission were captured. You’ve overpowered the guard so are now armed with a knife and pistol, but you’re in the bowels of the prison and with barely any ammunition in the pistol you’ll need to make every shot count if you’re going to escape and get the Nazi plans to the allies before it’s too late. That’s all the setup you need and from that point it’s all about you and your experience traversing the corridors and finding the exits.
Wolfenstein became the original template for what we would call corridor shooters. For obvious technical reasons an expansive open world was a bit beyond the humble 1992 PC. As mentioned earlier, even ceilings and stairs were beyond the PC back then if you wanted any kind of playable frame rate. You do however have complete freedom to wander the levels, try doors and routes, and backtrack those routes around the current level to your hearts content. The number of guards on the level is finite and while they have their starting positions there’s nothing to say one won’t suddenly decide to go for a wander themselves, catching you unaware and gladly shooting you in the back. Sure it’s ungentlemanly and distinctly un-Queensbury rules not cricket top drawer old bean or a good show wot, but they are Nazis. More importantly the guards don’t emerge from the third room on the left repeatedly respawning ad nauseum until you get within a certain distance which then makes the seventh door on the right the new respawn point.
Weapons are limited to just four including the knife and pistol meaning there’s no RPG 2000 laser sighted AWAC uber missile, but by way of compensation the pistol can kill with one shot. I know it seems incredible today with our painstakingly produced to be so realistic as to put you at the heart of the battlefield shooters showing how the human body is perfectly capable of soaking up a full magazine of bullets from an M16 that Wolfenstein thought it could get away with this notion that a single bullet could kill. Makes you wonder if iD had ever seen a real gun.
Defeat all the guards and dogs and make it to the end of the chapter and face a Boss battle. We may snort at Boss battles these days but that’s because we don’t do them right any more. Boss battles should be the face off with big guns in a testosterone fueled compensating for something shoot out, which on winning sees the victor jump in the air like the girly cheerleader he secretly always wanted to be. Think Sam J Jones’s leap towards camera at the end of the the 1980 Flash Gordon movie.
Escape Castle Wolfenstein and there are two more missions to complete, the second of which ends with you face to face with the ultimate evil: MechaHitler. Taking the one testicle mocking to heart the leader of the Third Reich has got himself fixed and upgraded. He still couldn’t grow a proper moustache though. It’s preposterous and fun. Shooting Hitler can just never get old.
Having evolved into WASD and mouse controls, stepping back to keyboard cursor keys does take some getting used, but a couple of levels in I was whizzing around and circle strafing like it was 1996 and searching for secrets by smashing my head against the wall as if I was back working in the public sector. This wasn’t nostalgia anymore, this was me playing a game for the sheer joy of it.
Something’s gone wrong in the FPS arena when in freedom, longevity, and pure unadulterated fun to play terms the best selling franchise of the modern era can’t keep pace with its Great Great Grandad.