Wolf 3D needs no introduction. Its later sequels probably do. If you’ve avoided Spear of Destiny because it sounds like a simple expansion, offering yet more identical gameplay, well, your concerns are justified. 60 levels in the original Wolfenstein is a helluva lot – enough to run the concept out within that title alone. A pack of 20 more levels laid out as a prequel (once you kill Hitler in your series, I guess everything after has to be a prequel) almost seems pointless. Almost.
First, let’s get the expected disappointments out of the way. The core game is unchanged. No new weapons, no new enemies (except in the final level), and you can count the new textures on one hand. There ARE five new bosses, but their behavior is lifted from the bosses in the first: Dual-chaingun packing Hans Grosse has an identical brother here named Trans Grosse (not naming him Frans is a wasted opportunity). Barnacle Wilhelm is a straight copy of General Fettgesicht. The Death Knight is just Mecha-Hitler with a sleeker look and missiles. Pretty much the only thing you can expect from this title are new level layouts. If you weren’t ready for Wolf3D to be over, Spear will have some value. If you’re looking for something – anything – new to the formula, you’ll need to seek out Formgen’s later two missions disks.
I maintain that more of the same isn’t all bad. Something drew me to seek out and start up this game, and I couldn’t quite figure out what. It had been a few years since I’d beaten the original. The Jaguar version was a surprisingly good distraction. But I couldn’t pin down a logical reason why I would want to return… to castle Wolfenstein. It finally hit me after a few minutes of play – Wolfenstein perfectly captures the spirit of the cheeseball action flick. Yes, its graphics are primitive compared to modern titles. Yes, to really enjoy it, you will have to use your imagination. But the tension of guards swarming around every corner is certainly there. It’s still a thrill on harder difficulties where mistakes can end you in seconds, and it can do all of the excitement of modern shooters without the variety-based distractions (like damnable stealth levels).
Also, sometimes you want Arnold to just shut his fucking mouth and put bullets into bad guys. You’re willing to forgo plot development, backstory, and awkward scenes where he tries to express emotion to a woman. It’s not every movie you want to see for the rest of your life, but sometimes you just want to chapter skip to the end of Commando and watch him go apeshit. That’s Wolfenstein 3D. That’s Spear of Destiny.
It’s also not all totally mindless. Enemy AI manages to put up a good fight. Having distance factor heavily into the damage given or received helps keep you cycling between charging and running. Allowing enemies to hear your gunfire is another wonderful addition. It can get pretty tense to shoot a lone guard and hear a chorus of “Achtung!”s erupt from rooms nearby. I also love how they split up if the layout allows it, prompting them to come at you from different angles. I can’t count how many times I’ve taken out a group of guards, only to see that one has slipped away through the backdoor and is now trying to circle back on me. Sure, it means that I’m in more danger now, having lost track of a bad guy, but I loves me the chase!
The engine has no apparent upgrades. It still runs fast and relatively smooth, though quickly turning is a problem. You won’t spin fast enough to save yourself if an enemy sneaks up behind you and starts blasting, which, as I said, they will try to do. The engine also has a nasty habit of letting enemies shoot your gun for damage – it looks to you like you’re safely behind the edge of a wall or a doorway, but enemies can still shoot your outstretched hands for full damage.
The major difference between original Wolf and Spear is that level design seems more malicious this time. It’s not that the game adapts to your playstyle – obviously impossible for this era – but more that it lures you into a predictable way of playing, then sets up traps in direct opposition. One level drops you out of the elevator, facing two lone guards. Naturally, you shoot the guards. This triggers two rows of SS gunners in recesses on either side of the elevator, flush against the wall so you won’t see them when you first step out. Now you’ve got machine guns on either side drilling into you. Floor 8 is a giant maze, even more blatantly so than the other levels, meaning you have endless short twists and turns that leave you always surrounded. You can’t bottleneck enemies or clear them out in sequence, which is basically your bread-and-butter strategy. It definitely gives a neat rat-in-a-trap feeling.
Now if I haven’t yet sold you on why Spear is still relevant today, then allow me to regale you with a war story:
I came around a corner and found myself face to face with a surprise combination of 15 guards, SS, and officers, just waiting. Shouts went up as they came to life and all started firing. I held the trigger down on the chaingun and backpedaled – not much else I could do. Bodies lined the floor as my ammo supply plummeted. One SS left. He shudders from two bullets and then, nothing. The chaingun is quiet; out of ammo. I spin and run toward the last group of enemies I killed, hoping I missed some dropped ammo. Get nicked by the SS on the way – down to 2% health, no way I can take him with the knife now. I round a corner, find the slain bodies and… YES! One clip still there, four bullets.
I call up the pistol, head for another corner, and check behind me. SS guy is in hot pursuit, zigzagging his way up the corridor. Too far away to hit reliably – better let him catch up. I wait around the corner for a few seconds and peek out again. He’s much closer now, firing range, and I shoot. The first is a hit. He starts zigzagging again. I struggle to turn my view to keep up. Second misses. Third misses. Just one left now, and he’s definitely in range to waste me. He stops moving to raise his machine gun. It gives me the moment I need to get a bead on him. I plant the pistol’s sights on him, have a millisecond to send out a silent “Hope this works!” and press fire. He falls and I’m still alive.
Any game that can generate a story like that, with no need for embellishment, has my respect. It’s the reason I’m still playing today. Granted, modern titles can do the same in more intense situations – you’re not going to be rappelling down a building as the roof explodes in Spear. You might even prefer a Call of Duty campaign to the primitive setup here, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I would argue Wolf3D still does sheer running, gunning, overcoming impossible odds, “Get off my plane!” kind of action very well, and is still totally playable today.
As for Spear, it loses out for being the shorter twin of its popular older brother. It does nothing particularly wrong, it is just as good as the original, and it’s got a pretty sweet final level. It just suffers from Expansion-Pack-itis. “If I already bought this game, why should I pay money to buy it again?” If you played and loved Wolf, the Spear of Destiny awaits. If you haven’t checked out either, the original – with 60 levels compared to 20 here – is unquestionably the better value.
Still a fun shooter romp. Still runs on just about anything.
Just new bosses and new levels. No new weapons, extremely limited new art. 1/3 the number of new levels as the original.