Wolfenstein marks one of the first-person shooter genre’s most convoluted journeys. The series has gone through a ridiculous number of ups, downs, and reboots (soft and hard) since its inception in the ’80s. Wolfenstein’s amblings (and its missteps) have covered a lot of ground for a video game that’s elevator pitch is “kill Nazi scum,” including demonology, space travel, multiple timelines, violent political resistance, and (somehow) heartfelt portraits of people struggling to stay sane in a world that’s burning down around them.
With Wolfenstein: Youngblood arriving later this month (our hands-on impressions are here), now is as good a time as any to look at the series’ strange and alluring catalog of Nazi-slaying adventures and rank them from worst to best.
10. Castle Wolfenstein
Sometimes being first doesn’t mean you’re the best. Before id Software got its itchy trigger fingers on Wolfenstein, the brand was better known as an infiltration adventure game called Castle Wolfenstein developed by Muse Software for the Apple II in 1981.
At the time, Castle Wolfenstein was pretty cool, serving as a prototype for what the stealth action genre would ultimately become (Metal Gear would not be released until 1987). However, the game is impossible to enjoy now outside of its historical significance. Sure, it created the foundation upon which Wolfenstein lies, casting you as an operative in search of secret war plans during World War II and letting you kill Nazis along the way, but there’s no real reason to go back to this one. It’s just not fun.
9. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein
Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, Muse’s last hurrah with the series before it became a first-person shooter, is largely the same game as its predecessor. However, it did introduce some improvements, including the ability to hide bodies of those you kill, now a mainstay feature in games like Hitman and Assassin’s Creed.
Still, Beyond Castle Wolfenstein is another game that’s real value is in minor historical importance rather than enjoyment. Ultimately, it’s not an experience worth seeking out in modern times.
8. Wolfenstein (2009)
Of the modern Wolfenstein games, Raven Software’s tango with the series is the weakest. Technically a sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the reason this entry fails to stand out is because it’s ultimately a budget first-person shooter chasing Call of Duty-created trends. The campaign is dull, and the supposed terror of hordes of Nazi and supernatural foes is undone by brainless A.I. The shoehorned multiplayer component is equally shrug-worthy.
Nothing about the game is awful. It’s an okay way to kill an afternoon, but there’s nothing special about it either outside of the fact that it introduces Caroline Becker, one of the best characters in MachineGames’ take on the series. Luckily, you don’t have to play this one to understand her importance.
7. Wolfenstein RPG
Here’s a weird one. Like Doom RPG before it, Wolfenstein RPG is a mobile game from the pre-smartphone era (though it later released on iOS) where Wolfenstein’s shooting is turned into turn-based fighting. This strange deviation takes the storied shooter into unexpected territory in a number of ways, with the series’ dark tone being more jokey and the combat more cerebral.
At the end of the blood-soaked day, this RPG jaunt is nothing to write home about, but you could certainly do worse as far as spin-offs go.
6. Wolfenstein: The Old Blood
As we’ll discuss later, Wolfenstein: The New Order bore down on emotionally grounded storytelling and embraced real-world themes that the series had long avoided, like controversially acknowledging the Holocaust, to set itself apart from what had come before.
By contrast, The Old Blood (a standalone six-hour experience released between The New Order and The New Colossus) marked a return to the pure pulp of the first decade of Wolfenstein first-person shooters. The supernatural (including zombies) was back, and so were stony castles and crypts packed with secrets to uncover.
For fans of Wolfenstein 3D or Return to Castle Wolfenstein, The Old Blood’s full-on grindhouse aesthetic is a fun trip, as are MachineGames’ robust shooting mechanics and its perk-laden RPG-lite system. However, those who yearn for more of The New Order’s compelling and somber world are better off turning to The New Colossus.
5. Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
Originally conceived as an expansion pack for Return To Castle Wolfenstein, Enemy Territory launched in 2003 as a freeware standalone team-based multiplayer game that pitted the Allies versus the Axis across six maps.
Thanks to a class system that borrowed liberally from Team Fortress, diverse maps, and robust game modes, Enemy Territory not only marks Wolfenstein’s only successful multiplayer outing but also one the biggest and most enjoyable multiplayer surprises of the 2000s.
4. Return To Castle Wolfenstein
Gray Matter Interactive’s take on Wolfenstein returned to a world that had been untouched since id Software wrapped up production on 3D’s post-release episode, Spear of Destiny. Wolfenstein’s dormancy made sense. Beyond Doom being a huge success, Wolfenstein’s concept and execution of said concept were pretty straight to the point: You’re a dude killing Nazis. What was there to expand, really?
Return to Castle Wolfenstein answered that question in more ways than probably intended. Developed with the id Tech 3 engine (Quake 3, Call of Duty), RTCW was a looker of a game for its time, and even to this day, it has enough dark fantasy elements to make it stand out among its peers. Getting embroiled in firefights with Nazis in the narrow stone corridors of a castle is fun enough, but the added presence of Frankenstein-like monsters and other monstrosities ratchets up the tension (good thing you have a flamethrower). Sandwiched between genre-defining FPSes like Half-Life and Halo, RTCW didn’t light the world on fire but laid the foundation for the future of the series.
Despite confusing marketing and vexing design decisions (BJ’s hair going from blond to brown back to blond, for example), all Wolfenstein games from RTCW to The New Colossus are set in the same universe. The tonal shift of Return to Castle Wolfenstein from 3D’s slightly bloody arcade take violence to literal hellish darkness also cast a thematic shadow of gloom over the series that has remained. This is also the entry that introduces the deliciously evil Doctor Deathshead. Wolfenstein 3D (or technically Muse’s Castle Wolfenstein) might have put this train in motion, but Return was the first game to build the lore that Raven Software and MachineGames would use to make the series what it is today.
Outside of its building blocks, it doesn’t hurt that Return To Castle Wolfenstein remains mostly a fun ride that balances gothic dread with sci-fi camp to great effect.
3. Wolfenstein 3D
Before Doom, there was Wolfenstein 3D. Sure, there had been games you could quibble about and technically call first-person shooters, like Hovertank 3D, but the first-person shooter genre we know today was born with Wolfenstein and protagonist BJ Blazkowicz. A man, a gun, and a lot of bad guys to kill. Beyond Doom, Half-life, Halo, Call of Duty, and GoldenEye are all descendants of this game.
While Wolfenstein 3D isn’t as easy to go back to as Doom given that it isn’t as neatly structured or has as interesting an aesthetic as its successor, its importance to gaming can’t be overstated.
2. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
The New Order ended on a tidy note of finality and emotional gravitas. After failing to stop him the first time, BJ took on his nemesis again, killed him in a satisfying battle, and brought the world a chance at hope in a finale that smacked of a pyrrhic victory. If Wolfenstein had ended there, it would have been a satisfying, dignified conclusion that video game series so rarely get. However, the New Colossus proves to be a worthy sequel.
If The New Order was a somber tale about a world gone awry, The New Colossus is one about the righteous anger needed to reclaim it. Set in America in the 1960s, BJ and crew ostensibly mount a new American Revolution to run the Nazis out of the country. Few first-person shooter campaigns have ever been packed with as many wild moments as The New Colossus. Whether you’re fighting massive robots on Venus, settling daddy issues with a hatchet, or blowing up a Nazi parade with an atom bomb, the campaign is always interesting and always has the dial turned up to 11.
Sure, elements of the combat are divisive. Segments featuring a weakened BJ as well as a finicky incoming grenade indicator could make for frustrating encounters. Powers available mid-game and onward let you turn the tables and absolutely annihilate foes.
However, despite all its anger, The New Colossus is at its best when it’s about hope. An expanded hub world lets you spend more time with fellow resistance fighters who didn’t get much opportunity to shine in The New Order, like wise-cracking lothario Bombate and fan-favorite Max Hauss. These sequences drive home the notion that these people are family, with all the tension and genuine love that goes along with that, and ultimately make The New Colossus’s world one worth saving.
1. Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game that few people wanted. The initial reveal and trailers were met with shrugs and questions about who would actually want to play a new Wolfenstein game in the year 2014. Luckily, the same talent that set a new bar for licensed games with Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Darkness came to the cobweb-covered property with more than a few ideas of how to bring the franchise back to life.
Few FPSes have as strong of an identity out of the gate as The New Order does. An exhilarating opening finds BJ part of an international assault on Deathshead’s castle. An assault that’s not going well.
Ultimately, it fails, and BJ falls into a coma. When he awakens, the world has been overtaken by Nazis. He resumes his quest to finish off the Nazi regime by taking them on across Europe, but there’s less pep in his step. He’s tired, he’s old, and he has nothing driving him but pure willpower to push past all the despair around him. And there’s a lot of it.
The New Order paints a compelling portrait of suffering without reveling in it to the point of excess. Everyone in the resistance is traumatized, from kind-hearted Anya to paraplegic Caroline and resentful Fergus. Everyone has lost something, and they’re trying to figure out how to soldier on without it. This sense of loss makes the stakes of The New Order’s plot thrilling, even if the beats of its plot are hardly innovative. Layered on top of all of this is the fact there are two separate world instances depending on a choice you make at the beginning of the game, with scenarios that play out differently and new characters in each playthrough.
Existing alongside this compelling and sad world is a fantastic combat system that balances old-school first-person shooter design (notably eschewing the health-regen mechanic of the 2009 entry) with an RPG-lite skill tree called the perk system that lets you earn enhancements by performing certain actions during the game. The New Order is, thankfully, a game that makes the act of interacting with its world just as interesting as the world itself.
The New Colossus is a wilder ride and has been given a substantial facelift, but The New Order’s transformation of a series that everyone had written off for dead is still shockingly impressive. It’s not perfect, of course. We don’t excuse the annoying sewer level and poorly designed final boss fight. However, the game’s frantic gunplay, narrative ambitions, and beating heart make these shortcomings easy to forgive and ultimately prove this the best entry in the series.
For more on Wolfenstein, check out our feature on how MachineGames saved Wolfenstein and our review of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.
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