It seems that as long as there are videogames, there will be military-themed videogames. The most obvious explanation for the genre's continuing popularity is that gamers seem to love action, and the most obvious place to look for action is during a war. But which war? The Great War and the Korean War are fairly inaccessible, as evidenced by the fact that no one in the general public seems to know exactly why they happened, or who 'we' (by which, of course, I mean the American public for whom most of these games are made) were fighting. There's a general consensus that the Vietnam War was a huge mistake, and far too depressing to make a game about—although that taboo is starting to crumble. All the wars since Vietnam have been short and fairly dull. So where do the developers go for inspiration?
The Nazis, of course. More than sixty years later they remain the perfect villains, simply because they were so amazingly, unfathomably evil. The combination of imperialism with an eye on world domination, their stylized, often black outfits and the pure incomprehensible nightmare of the Holocaust have left the Germans as the world's default villains.
Just including Nazis in a game provides the ultimate storytelling shortcut for a game's designers. The assumption is made that the gamer won't require any exposition at all. Most fictional villains since the Second World War have been, in one way or another, just rehashes of Hitler's armies. Putting a swastika on something in a videogame is arguably more effective than a bull's eye if one is trying to get players to shoot it.
Games like Return To Castle Wolfenstein: Tides Of War follow a very strict formula. Put the player in a location with some semblance of historical accuracy, point them in the general direction of the Germans are, and let them run straight at the opposition, guns blazing. Wolfenstein follows this formula with slavish, almost cynical fervor. This is both the game's greatest strength, because it gives players exactly what they want and expect, and its greatest flaw.
It's almost as if the game's designers understood what they were 'supposed' to be doing at a subconscious level. When the game sticks to putting the player in ruined cities battling soldiers room-to-room, everything works. The second the game moves into more far-fetched horror and science fiction elements, though, the game begins to fall apart. The game contains some of the most ill-conceived and uninteresting undead villains ever to be programmed into a game. Perhaps they were only included because zombies are the only more popular video game enemies than Nazis, and the developers were trying to hedge their bets.
While the human villains are designed with some creativity and style, their uniforms distinctive, and, in the case of the Paratrooper, frighteningly memorable, the game's monsters are drab and lifeless. All of the zombies are painted with a muted brown and gray color scheme that makes them as dull to look at as they are to fight. The bio-mechanoid monsters that appear towards the end of the game are even worse—there's nothing here that any experienced first-person shooter (FPS) player hasn't seen a thousand times before.
Which makes it lucky that the fundamentals of FPSs are so well-respected here, ensuring that even if the villains aren't that interesting, they're always a blast to shoot at. There is a wide selection of weapons on display, most of them fairly historically accurate, and all of them fun to use. One of the most overlooked facets of gun design in FPS games is the tendency to make them sound too muted. Wolfenstein doesn't suffer from this particular malady. The report of the larger guns made a crack so loud it seems like the world is ending—exactly as they should. The selection of weapons is well-implemented enough that, despite minor quibbles (why is there a shotgun, but almost no ammo for it? Why can the player perform woo-style two-fisted gunplay with the rare Colt .45s, but not with the incredibly profuse Lugers?), it's safe to say that it ranks among the best FPS arsenals around.
Likewise, the play controls are very tight and extremely customizable. The developers have learned well from the many awkward console FPSs that have gone before, and with a mixture of analog controls and well-implemented auto-aim, they've managed to take most of the pain out of playing an FPS on the Xbox.
Wolfenstein taps directly into the player's desire to be a hero by remembering the old adage—heroes are judged by the strength of their villains. Even if the game suffers from problems, they can be overlooked when considering that the game succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish. There's nothing revolutionary to be found here—no innovative play mechanics, no stunning graphics. This is a rock-solid Nazi-blasting FPS, and nothing more. And that's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Wolfenstein is pretty much the definition of an 'average' game, it's light, forgettable action fun, but gamers looking to cut a bloody swath through the third Reich could do a heck of a lot worse for themselves.