Late to the Party: Wolfenstein 3D


On my journey through classic first person shooters I was finally able to trick Steam into running a Wolfenstein 3D source port and have it track my hours. I also wanted to go ahead and knock this one out before I got around to Wolfenstein: The New Order. I decided to approach 3D from the context of the first two DOOM games which I first played last year. It is very different, and not just because of the earlier technology on which it was built.

The big technical difference between the DOOM engine and the Wolfenstein 3D engine is the former can create environments with varying levels with stairs and such, while the latter cannot. Looking at the automap in 3D reveals its levels are literally interpreted from 2D overhead maps. If you ask me, this had the effect on the game of causing the developers at id to basically plan its levels like they were drawing blueprints for buildings. Mots of the time, 3D’s levels feel far less surreal than DOOM’s and more like id tried to build logical-looking places.

The first level in 3D is a prison from which you escape, and for the most part that’s what it looks like. You break out of one cell and see other cells lined up. Some levels have areas that look like they’re supposed to be kitchens or dining areas or barracks planned out somewhat realistically. If you look back at my posts on Duke Nukem 3D and the original Shadow Warrior I said those games achieve the same sense, but rather in a different way. Instead of the various weapons and copious destruction accompanying super soldiers like Duke Nukem or Lo Wang, Wolfenstein 3D just has lowly B.J. with three weapons surviving a bunch of Germans in austere but relatively realist environments.

The way enemies work in 3D furthers this, and surprised me given the game’s simplicity and how early it sits in the history of first person shooters. Enemies have clearly distinct standby and alert phases. You can effectively stealth kill enemies because they take the most damage if they haven’t detected you (or from behind). Damage is also dependent on range. These are basically tactical and stealth game elements showing up in a 1992 FPS. By the end of the game I was constantly checking corners, stacking at doors, and utilizing choke points.

To me all this makes 3D feel a little bit more like a soldier’s raw fight for survival throughout German World War II bases rather than a one-many army’s romp through hellscapes designed to be obstacle courses above all else.

Maybe a lot of that was because id was still figuring out what to do with the then-new technology of displaying three-dimensional environments in first person. Faced with that, it’s easy to imagine that the first thing many would do is depict actual buildings. That’s more or less what Origin systems did with Ultima Underworld around the same time as 3D. That philosophy of level design brought us classics like Deus ExThief, and even GoldenEye in the late 90’s, but modern examples are rare in today’s era of first person shooters designed to be cinematic corridors. I say all this here because it brings an interesting light to what MachineGames has done with this year’s New Order. That game’s second post-tutorial level is a collection of alternate paths winding through multiple buildings that plausibly look like barracks and other such things. It fits both the style of the original Wolfenstein shooter and the work MachineGames did when its staff were members of Starbreeze.

In any case, in the later sections of 3D’s extra prequel levels, especially Episode 6, you can start to sense id getting wilder with its level design, plotting levels to prioritize gameplay ideas over a sense of place. The early parts of Episode 6 in particular are a shock, utilizing the game’s range-based damage by filling tight hallways with alcoves hiding enemies who’ll chop your health percentage in half with each point-blank shot. By the end of the game things were beginning to feel more similar to DOOM.


  • What happened to the Top 25 and N64 exclusive lists? Well, those all linked to blogs on, which are now gone. I still have the original drafts to all those posts. Someday I plan to go back, re-edit, and repost them on this site. I don’t know when that will be however.
  • I hope the reason Intel pulled its ads from Gamasutra is because they didn’t fully understand what was going on with this whole GamerGate business.
  • I didn’t realize Super Win The Game was coming out so soon.
  • A game I talked about a long time ago on this blog called Fairune is coming out on the 3DS in Japan.
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