Dear Xbox, Please Save Raven’s Wolfenstein
You may have heard about Microsoft’s recent $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax Media, parent company of Bethesda Softworks and other game development studios behind multiple celebrated gaming franchises. It’s kind of a big deal, but in short, a trillion dollar company basically swallowed a billion dollar company without chewing, and we all just watched like it was a cute video of a hamster cramming a corn cob into one cheek.
Fascinating stuff, but now that the dust has settled we can start asking the real questions. Like, does Starfield really exist? Is Indiana Jones a multiplatform title? Will Todd Howard adopt me? And when will we once again be able to legally acquire and play Raven Software’s delisted 2009 FPS Wolfenstein?
Black Sun Rising
OK, so maybe that last question isn’t a top priority for most, but it’s still one I want to ask. For some juicy context, Wolfenstein was a belated sequel to Gray Matter Interactive’s critically acclaimed Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001). It was also the final collaboration between Raven, Activision and id Software prior to the latter’s absorption by Bethesda (and with them, the entire Wolfenstein IP). It was also the penultimate game developed by Raven before Activision shackled them to the Call of Duty chain gang for all eternity, but that’s a grumble for another time.
Wolfenstein launched in August 2009 to decent review scores, and remained available to customers for almost a full five years before suddenly vanishing from digital storefronts on a dark and stormy night in May 2014. Now the only traces of its existence are overpriced physical copies on eBay, and the game’s Steam community hub (don’t click on that, it’s haunted).
“Who cares? Wasn’t it just another Xbox 360 shooter with regenerating health and an overreliance on aim-down-sights combat?” I hear you ask, you irredeemable philistine. Yeah, Wolfenstein was more or less exactly what you’d expect from an FPS released at a time when Call of Duty dominated the gaming zeitgeist. Level design was rigidly scripted, enemy AI was neither here nor there, and a substantial chunk of playtime was spent hunkered down, waiting for the low-health vignette to disperse.
Thing is, it was also a pretty fun time. Setting aside the obvious comfort food factor of getting to embark on another Nazi-squashing adventure as B.J. Blazkowicz, Wolfenstein was yet another reminder of Raven’s FPS talents. Come on, these guys made Soldier of Fortune and Jedi Outcast. Of course they’re gonna make a kickass World War II horror-shooter.
So it’s no surprise that each level feels lovingly crafted (in id Tech 4 no less) and hurtles you through such staples of WWII gaming as occupied farmhouses and besieged towns, to sci-fi Nazi facilities and the obligatory gothic castle mission. Enemy variety was also impressive. Beyond Nazi soldiers, expect to fight occult sorcerers, ghoulish mutants and extra-dimensional monstrosities. Plus, there’s plenty of ways to dismember, burn and electrocute foes, including a particle cannon that reduces anything it zaps to skeleton dust.
So what are the hurdles obstructing this glorious rebirth? Spoiler alert: I don’t know much about lawyer stuff, so you might want to skip this bit. But even though Bethesda and Microsoft should in theory now own all things Wolf-related, it is entirely possible that Activision still has control over this specific title’s distribution rights. If that’s the case, then the only way we’ll ever see Wolfenstein on storefronts again is if Microsoft buys it from Activision first. I don’t know what kind of blood sacrifice Bobby Kotick would demand from Phil Spencer, but I’m sure they could work something out.
Then again, it might not have anything to do with Activision. The exact date of Wolfenstein’s delisting occurred on May 5th, 2014. That’s just two weeks before Bethesda rolled out Wolfenstein: The New Order, the first in an ongoing reboot series developed by MachineGames. Could it simply be a case of Bethesda trying to keep the spotlight on the New Order saga and avoid customer confusion? Do we just have to wait until sometime after the release of Wolfenstein III: The New Subtitle? While I’d love for it to be that straightforward, it rarely is.
But wait, there’s more. While searching for literally any kind of official statement from the powers that be, I stumbled across a Twitter conversation from 2015 concerning this very same topic. Taking part was none other than Pete Hines, marketing vice-president at Bethesda. On the matter of Wolfenstein’s disappearance, he wrote, and I quote: “The issues are technical”.
Now that’s a bit ominous, and conjures up images of lost source code and fried hard drives. I don’t want to think about that. Maybe he’s just using PR lingo to tastefully halt the discourse. Besides, the internet is a big place and there are, uh, methods of obtaining even the most doomed pieces of abandonware, so there has to be more to this than just someone spilling coffee on a mainframe.
All I can do now is present my list of demands to the newlywed Xbox and Bethesda (Xbesda? Bethbox?). If it’s at all possible to save Raven’s Wolfenstein, then this should be a three-pronged attack:
1 – Restore the game’s Steam page.
2 – Make the Xbox 360 version backwards compatible on Xbox Series X/S.
3 – Include it on Game Pass for Xbox and PC.
And that’s it. Not too unreasonable, right? I’m not asking for a remaster (though I certainly wouldn’t say no). At the end of the day, it’s about bringing a veteran FPS team’s nearly forgotten entry in a long-running franchise back into the public eye and giving it a second chance.
Because it’s worth it.
P.S. Please don’t forget about Nerve Software’s 2003 Xbox port of Return to Castle Wolfenstein! Of course, the original PC version is a bona fide classic that can be easily acquired on Steam and GOG, but that console port featured a selection of new levels in addition to an exclusive co-op mode and seems like another natural fit for backwards compatibility. OK, I’m done now.