An old-school shooter that feels modern.
The reveal of WolfensteinII:The NewColossus has put me in the mood for some mindless fun. What better way to sate that urge than with more Wolfenstein? WolfenDoom:BladeofAgony is a GZDoom mod and an unofficial successor to Wolfenstein3D. Downloading it, I assumed it would offer an answer to the unasked question: What if id Software had stuck with Nazis, instead of messing around with demons on Mars? In fact, it’s so much more. There are elements of Wolfenstein, such as the chunky Aryan bosses dual-wielding arm cannons. And there are elements of Doom, notably the combat, which has Doom’s pace, if not its plasma gun. But what makes BladeofAgony exceptional is that it’s more than just PC gaming alt-history fan fiction. This is not Wolfenstein3D by way of Doom, but rather Returnto Castle Wolfenstein by way of two decades of experimentation and dissection from the Doom modding community at large.
You play as BJ Blazkowicz, Nazi killer über alles, drawn back to the frontlines after a period of administrative leave. BladeofAgony’s first major surprise is its cinematics— specifically, the fact that it has them. It opens on a dolly shot set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, as Blazkowicz’s brother-in-arms Cpt ‘Dirty’ Douglas Blake types out a letter urging the American beefcake to return to active duty. The way the camera moves through the low-poly room lends an amount of depth and drama to the otherwise retro style.
Blazkowicz returns, of course, but isn’t immediately sent to the battlefield. Before each mission, there’s a briefing at allied high command. Here, in an imposing mansion surrounded by picturesque countryside, General Miller sets out the upcoming missions—complete with a slideshow consisting of tactical maps and grainy black-and-white photos. The presentation is on point: The mansion is full of detail. The walls are covered in flags, and accurate posters of WWII-era films, such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Hitler—Dead or Alive.
I’m not au fait with the limitations of id Tech 1, but it’s clear that much of this is only possible thanks to the innovations of source ports like GZDoom. While BladeofAgony looks similar to Doom, it’s filled with lavish extras. And that’s reflected in the performance. One of the downsides of BladeofAgony is its framerate dips, even on a powerful PC. I experienced more performance problems here than while playing id’s most recent Doom game.
Missions are set across the breadth of World War II’s many fronts. The first, Operation Speerspitze, takes place in Tunisia. It’s a night infiltration mission, and feels reminiscent of the opening levels of MedalofHonor:Allied Assault. There’s a distinct difficulty curve to the opening mission, as Blazkowicz starts equipped with just a knife. Here’s where BladeofAgony reveals another neat trick: Stealth. It’s basic, but it’s possible to kill enemies by creeping up to them unseen.
It becomes a fast shooter that rewards exploration and thoroughness
Much of the first mission is spent managing ammo. It’s fiendishly difficult, as marksmen hide on the rooftops, chipping at your health. But after this period of desperate scavenging, the pickups come thicker and faster, and the action transitions to something more familiar. As you collect weapons and ammo, Bladeof Agony’s pace evens out. It becomes a fast shooter that rewards exploration and thoroughness. At HQ, you can spend money on armor, health packs, and even a metal detector. You’re encouraged to leave no room unturned, and no Nazi unkilled.
It also becomes increasingly Wolfenstein. The opening would suggest a serious, realistic story, but occult elements and weird science are slowly introduced. A recurring boss, Dr Josef Schabbs, is a giant in a lab coat, who throws handfuls of syringes in your direction. Before long, undead Nazis are thrown into the mix. It’s a weird mix of styles, but, thanks to the presentation—the mix of 3D environments and 2D sprites, and the exaggerated Doomstyle death expressions—it never feels so serious as to be jarring. And that’s despite their being a mission set during Operation Overlord.
Yes, as a World War II game— even a silly one with supersoldiers— there is a Normandy mission, as Blazkowicz works to disable flak cannons with C4. One of my favorite things about BladeofAgony is the distinct color palette of each location. Allied HQ is warm, almost sepia in tone. Tunisia is dark, with a blueish tint against beige and yellow brickwork. Normandy, of course, is so gray as to be almost monochrome. The amount of effort that’s been poured into these maps is admirable, and I regularly found myself impressed by some small detail.
Much like those early id shooters, BladeofAgony is split into episodes. Two have been released so far—the second, ShadowsoftheReich, having arrived in June. It shows definite ambition, opening with Blazkowicz stealthing through a Nazi prison— again subverting the later action with an unarmed section and a careful crawl towards your first pistol. Later, you fight alongside an AI companion and man the turret of a tank. Throughout, you’re running and gunning, but there’s enough variety to keep things from feeling stale.
BladeofAgony isn’t the best example of combat in a Doom mod, nor is it filled with the purest, most intricate maps. But its scope is remarkable. It’s an amazing showcase of the malleability of GZDoom, and a fascinating clash of shooter styles into an ambitious campaign that somehow still feels cohesive. It’s not yet finished, but these first two episodes are a great start, and well worth your time.
It’s not all beach landings. There are zombies, too.
Before each mission, you can visit HQ for a briefing.
The facial expressions are on point.
It’s no MedalofHonor, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Look at that guy, furious that his dinner’s been ruined.