With a nod to the past and a peak at the future – Return to Castle Wolfenstein
Originally published in April 2002.
Name: Return to Castle Wolfenstein
Genre: First-person action shooter
Developer: Gray Matter Studios
Publisher: Activision, Inc
Requires: Pentium III 450Mhz or AMD Athlon, Windows 9x, 128 MB RAM, 800 MB hard disk space, CD-ROM drive, 3-D Hardware Video Accelerator, Windows compatible sound card
Retail Price: $54.99
Street Price: $34.99
The year was 1992. In the United States, a recession was ending, a new president was in office, and a new computer game was about to change everything I had come to expect from computer games. Wolfenstein 3D from Id Software established a whole new genre of computer game that has come to be known as the first person shooter (FPS). At the same time, it started a chain of events that took a form of entertainment from the relative obscurity of computer geekdom to the multi-billion dollar mainstream entertainment business we know today.
Now comes an updated version of this historic game: Return to Castle Wolfenstein, developed by Gray Matter Studios and published by Activision. Updating the game with enhanced graphics, sounds, and true 3D environments, Return to Castle Wolfenstein (RCW) tries to recreate the jaw-dropping awe so many of us experienced back in 1992. While RCW is an excellent example of the state of the art first person shooter, the genre is beginning to show its age.
Escaping is just the beginning
The initial premise of RCW is similar to its decade-old predecessor. Your character wakes up in a Nazi prison and is about to be interrogated, tortured and eventually executed. Being a resourceful American soldier with a proper defiant attitude, you naturally must try your best to escape from this predicament by defeating an assortment of World War II rabble. Armed with only a knife and cunning, you must over-power your captures, steal whatever weapons and ammo you can find, and then make your way out of the labyrinth that is Castle Wolfenstein.
However, unlike the original game, freeing yourself from imprisonment is merely a stepping-stone to the other clandestine missions you will have to complete as an elite commando. In the best one man against all odds tradition, you will have to repeatedly use you cunning and guile to infiltrate enemy encampments, steal documents, and generally create havoc when and where you can.
Your over-arching mission, and the twist that makes RCW more than just a basic shooter, is to discover the secrets behind the Nazi plot to use the occult to create an invincible army of mutants. The brainchild of SS head Heinrich Himmler, and with the full support of Adolf Hitler himself, the Nazis apparently plan to use genetic manipulation and paranormal artifacts to create monstrous weapons and hideous soldiers. The idea of such dreadful weapons motivates your one-man crusade.
Using the Quake III Arena game engine, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a marvel of current state-of-the-art game technology. The visual effects are stunningly rendered and the sound effects are fantastic. Their combined efforts create a surreal and ominous 3D environment that teems with tension and anticipation. Each new corner, every patrolling guard’s footsteps, ooze with palpable tension.
Probably the most talked about example of technical excellence in RCW is the fire effect. Yes, I’m talking flame-thrower. Before RCW, the flame-thrower was often cited as the most requested piece of weaponry yet to be modeled in a first person game. Apparently, the boyhood fascination and curiosity concerning the infamous WWII weapon has not been satisfied. Technically not feasible just a few years ago, the infliction of incendiary destruction on your enemy is now merely a click of the mouse away.
While technically-speaking RCW is masterful, the game play itself lacks inspiration. Maybe it is because I have played so many first person shooters in my day, but I found the game play to be mundane and, more importantly, unchallenging. Except for a few sneak from spot A to spot B levels, the game basically devolves into the simple shoot-everything-that-moves trap that hampers many games in the genre. Maybe the developers were trying to pay homage to the original game and its frenetic pacing, but some tactical and strategic planning would have been a nice diversion. And while the environments are ominous and creepy, they are often too easy to traverse in relative safety.
Once the single-player game is complete, you can test your skills in multiplayer mode. For multiplayer aficionados, RCW has garnered a reputation as one of the best games around. In multiplayer, Allied teams do battle with Axis teams in one of three modes: objective, stopwatch, or checkpoint. Multiplayer mode is really a completely different game than the single-player mode. This extra dimension is what keeps the RCW boxes hopping off the store shelves. However, old strategy buff that I am, I find the running, strafing, and shooting of these arena maps repetitive and, well, boring.
Just in case the talk about flame-throwers was not enough, I would like to emphasize that Return to Castle Wolfenstein is made by adults for adults. This game is not appropriate for children. It is rated Mature by the ESRB and it deserves every bit of it.
The man with two brains
When I think about Return to Castle Wolfenstein I am of two minds. On the one hand I appreciate the game’s technical brilliance. This game is a state of the art FPS and is deserving of many of the awards it has received in the gaming press. On the other hand, RCW is fairly mundane in terms of game play. Levels are technically well designed but lack inspiration. Experienced game players, especially those that play FPS games regularly, will find the single-player game a bit too easy and will probably be disappointed. However, if you are into multiplayer team-based game play, Return to Castle Wolfenstein could be just the ticket.