Return to Castle Wolfenstein Review

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Publisher: Activision
Developer: Gray Matter (Single-Player), Nerve (Multiplayer)

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 400 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB video card, 1.1 GB HD space

United States Army Ranger B. J. Blazkowicz has been recruited by the Office of Secret Actions (OSA). Heinrich Himmler is heading an initiative to create an unstoppable force to win the Second World War by pursuing facets of the ancient occult as well as advanced genetic and biomechanical experiments. Blazkowicz faces Nazi soldiers, SS elite guards, undead, and genetic monstrosities as he unearths Himmler's esoteric plans for world domination. By engineering super-human soldiers that combine the worst of man and machine, Himmler's scientists have created monsters to assume the role of Dark Nights – which the SS Paranormal division can use to raise prince Heinrich and his undead minions from their thousand-year slumber. Should Himmler succeed in restoring Heinrich's ancient evil to power, the human race will suffer a fate far worse than even the Nazis have plotted.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein includes a multiplayer component with objective-based team play. These games pit teams of Axis soldiers against Allied fighters, with each side composed of up to four specializations: Soldier, Medic, Engineer and Lieutenant.

Kyle Ackerman

The trimmings of Return to Castle Wolfenstein (RtCW) – the graphics and the sound – are both technical accomplishments. It's the gameplay of RtCW that lacks the creativity and originality of its breakthrough predecessors.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein (RtCW) is a visual treat. Based on id software's Quake III Arena technology, the environments are large, attractive and full of detail. While the colors become monotonous, this is in keeping with the various bombed-out factories, snow covered mountains and underground crypts that serve as the setting for RtCW. The music is decent, and occasionally stirring. The attention to detail is often superb, such as the flame-thrower, which can be used to scrawl one's name in flames across the night sky. RtCW's major flaw is that it is not true to its own history.

Don't take this to mean that the historical inaccuracies of a somewhat absurd plot involving zombies, a paranormal Nazi research division, a genetic super-soldier project, X-creatures, and a thousand-year dead prince spoil the fun – they don't. The problem is that RtCW is much more true to the 1992 game released by id software (Wolfenstein 3D) than to the more venerable Castle Wolfenstein from Muse Software made in the early ‘80s. While Wolfenstein 3D was a groundbreaking game that put the player in a landscape that actually looked three-dimensional, play consisted of shooting things... a lot. Shooting things was interspersed with big "boss" battles, in which the player had to kill a particularly tough creature by shooting it... a lot... and then a lot more. If you were looking for something to do other than empty clips of ammo at baddies, you could search for secret rooms. The Castle Wolfenstein (programmed by Silas Warner – who taught me early coding skill through his game Robot War) that came out on the Apple II series (and later on Commodore and IBM platforms) was much more flexible. Although much simpler than its first-person shooter successor, you could fight, sneak, or bribe the hero's way to a bomb. You could even rob guards with an unloaded pistol, eventually fleeing the castle. This flexibility is the historical legacy RtCW could have pursued. Games are more appealing when they incorporate flexibility of choice, and now that technology has progressed another decade past Wolfenstein 3D, to be denied that choice is frustrating.

A few missions in RtCW are excellent. These tend to be the missions without anything paranormal involved. The bombed-out factory complex, tram and chateau are all well-designed maps that offer the option of direct assault or stealth. You can charge machine gun emplacements, or sneak around them to quietly drop a grenade. A silent knife to the back is quite effective, and in such levels a viable alternative to rushing in with automatic weapons blazing or sniping from great distances. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, there are more and more boss-style battles, and these offer no alternative to repetitive shoot and dodge action. The super soldier and the prototype super soldier combats are tedious. Many creatures take so much damage to kill, that until you have destroyed a few of that creature type, it is difficult to say if the monster is just tough, or if its resilience is simply a damage-immunity bug. Zombies are hard to kill, and show no sign of damage. They just keel over when they've absorbed enough bullets. Even merely human opponents have obscene pain thresholds. Soldiers with flame-throwers and elite female guards can take a high-powered round from a sniper-rifle to the face, shrug off the pain, and fry the main character, B.J., to a crisp while he changes to a more practical weapon. The super soldier prototypes can take multiple rockets to the head without seeming to notice. At least the super soldiers themselves, as well as Prince Heinrich, show some evidence of damage by sloughing armor as they are wounded. Add to this irritating damage resistance the fact that some zombies and x-creatures will jump out at you when you reach a certain spot and not before. Even if you can clearly see that a zombie is going jump out and slash you, your only choice is to let it do so and then back away shooting. The supernatural levels seem to herd the player through, guns blazing, breaking only for boss battles and the occasional secret room. The maps filled with mostly human opponents seem like a different, and more interesting game, albeit with the same weapons and textures.

Almost as strange as the inclusion of the undead and X-creatures, are the elite female guards. Everyone loves lush graphics, and smashing portraits of Hitler and shooting down banners clad in swastikas is fun. The question is, does including luscious, leather-clad (or is it rubber?) Nazi babes with guns and platform heels alienate more gamers than it pleases? No question that they are attractive, but they seem to trivialize the Nazi threat more than the occult or mutant soldiers could ever do. The fetishist, mascara-clad, death-dealing sex kittens steal the gravity of the game and just make it comic. Everything above goes double for the tattooed, thong-wearing Nazi enchantress who summons Heinrich. We also won't dwell on the impact of comic, drunken German soldiers who apparently speak a slurred form of English when intoxicated. It makes one long for the tension of the internal speaker on the Apple II shouting garbled German epithets in the original Castle Wolfenstein (often billed as the first talking computer game).

The single-player game has some fun maps and some awful maps powered by good technology and art, but it is the multiplayer function in RtCW that truly shines. Each side (the Nazi Axis and the Allies, staffed entirely by Americans) can be composed of Soldiers, Medics, Lieutenants and Engineers. Soldiers can use all weapons, including the heavy and support weapons such as the flame-thrower and rocket launcher. Medics can drop health packs and revive fallen comrades. Engineers can arm and disarm powerful explosives. Lieutenants can drop ammo packs and call in air strikes and artillery support fire to soften opposition and clear strategic locations. Ammo is short and death comes easy, so Lieutenants and Medics are critical to every mission. Engineers are required to demolish or defend objectives, and what force could function without a supply of grunts to do the heavy lifting?

Pound for pound, this was still more fun
Multiplayer gaming always depends on the quality of your human teammates and adversaries, but the design is superb, and most of all, fun. The multiplayer maps are huge and thoughtfully planned, with multiple paths of attack, open fields, tight corridors and sniping locations. Team composition will affect how a given battle plays out, as all of the roles have a unique impact and are fun to play. Woe to the engineer trying to disarm dynamite in a game filled with lieutenant teammates who can only call air strikes to defend him. Nerve's solution to the problem of death is to have dead players respawn in waves of "reinforcements." This helps to mitigate, although not entirely stop, waves of suicidal rushes just as it prevents molasses-paced play where every player fears being eliminated and sitting out for ten minutes or more. The single player campaign is short – lasting between seven and ten hours, but multiplayer matches have tremendous replayability, and new maps have been released since RtCW first hit shelves. The single-player campaign is a nice diversion, but team multiplayer RtCW is what makes this product worthwhile.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 1, 2002 8:56 PM.

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