Wolfenstein 3-D, the third game and first FPS in the overall Wolfenstein series, is first and foremost a piece of history and a pretty mechanically simple first-person shooter - at least on the surface. Released via shareware in 1992, it was iD's first FPS and second 'proper hit' after Commander Keen. At the time, its fast, brutal Nazi-killing action was much more shocking to people than many games today; it was simply a new thing
back then. This was released before the ESRB even existed
, and it says something that iD voluntarily rated their game PC-13 - for Profound Carnage.
You play as B.J. Blazkowicz, Allied agent in World War II. You've been charged with solo infiltration of Nazi strongholds to hamper their war effort in various ways. This involves - surprise, surprise - shooting a good number of Nazis. To put it shortly, the game can still be fun as a surreal experience and a raw, oftentimes challenging shooter, not to mention a piece of gaming history. Plus, you get to blast Nazis and steal their treasure. Given how it's designed, though, it gets old after half an episode of playtime. It's best played in chunks, unless of course you really want to shoot those damn Nazis
There are 6 episodes of 10 maps each, including each episode's secret map. Gameplay involves navigating the maps, dispatching Nazis, searching for keys to progress if you need them, and picking up ammo and health lying on the floor when needed. There is no looking up or down; even the floors and ceilings are a single texture here. Secrets can be found by pushing on the correct wall tiles, and they're still satisfying to find more than 20 years later. There are treasure items scattered around some maps, presumably looted by your enemies, that you can loot back (or carry them around in a magic bag/simply destroy them seeing as there's no way B.J. can carry all that stuff around with him normally) to increase your score. This along with the lives system are interesting parts of an otherwise straight-shooting game; indicators of a transition between the games of old and the games Wolf3D would end up inflencing even today.
The enemies you'll most often face are brown-uniformed pistol guards, machine gun-toting Schutzstaffel who wear blue uniforms for some reason, and German shepherds. You'll encounter white-clad, crack-shot officers and deadly mutants in the later episodes, both of which are enemies to watch out for. At the end of every episode is a unique boss, and they range from a bit difficult to quite hard. Hope you learned how to strafe.
You'll have up to four weapons to choose from: a semi-automatic knife (you have to fire once every time you want to attack with it, and you need to time stealth kills just right or hope you stun your target enough), semi-automatic Luger (good for precise takedowns of weak enemies), a machine gun (pretty much your default weapon, good for taking out multiple targets and handfuls of stronger enemies), and an ammo-eating chaingun (for those rooms just full of Nazi ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥s). Compounding this is the fact that you can only carry 99 bullets.
The music is mostly decent, but while it can be pretty good (for 1992) it loops fast and can get a bit grating after a while. Combined with the blank colored ceiling and floor, intently deployed scenery, labrynthine, abstracted maps with no automapping feature by default, 1992 sound effects, 'unique' game mechanics and often tense nature of gameplay, I meant it when the game can get difficult and surreal at times.
On the higher difficulty maps it's not uncommon for a single enemy to take a good chunk of your health off with one shot, to say nothing of an SS' machine gun or mutant attack. There are a good number of enemies on the later maps, too. You don't have any armor, either, and on some maps health can be hard to come by. And on some maps, opening fire on an enemy alerts several others that will converge on your location, including by flanking you.
The controls are not very configurable and can take some getting used to, and you can only strafe by holding down a key. You can at least enable mouse movement, which I much prefer. If you must have your modern controls, you can download the ECWolf sourceport.
Fortunately, you have the aforementioned multiple life system...which is mostly rendered moot by your limitless and merciful ability to save anywhere.
While the game can be played at a fast pace, it is more common and usually prudent to take a cautious and slower approach, and there is ultimately more of an emphasis on tactics - positioning, luring and predicting enemies - than aiming ability (apart from capping unaware enemies) and dodging (what little of it you can do, anyway). You can still run and gun of course, but that's easier said than done sometimes, especially when compared with its successor DOOM.
In fact, while this game is ostensibly macho, some of the situations you can find yourself in can be downright unnerving. You aren't always comfortably in control of situations, with lurking enemies that could kill you in seconds and map design that works against you, and this happens more and more in the later episodes.
That's not to mention the maps, which can become evocative and an influence in themselves. Wolfenstein 3-D is more complex than it can seem on multiple levels! For more reading about this topic I recommend Liz Ryerson's writing about the game
So is it worth playing after two decades? Well, I think so. See the second paragraph for why. Maybe it's not for everyone, given its age and the way it plays, but for people who like old-school games and/or really like shooters and shooting Nazis? I'd recommend it.
It's cheaper than The New Order, too.