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GAMING

RETURN TO CASTLE WOLFENSTEIN
By: Visionism
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  • Rating: 5 stars5 stars5 stars5 stars5 stars / 62
    2003-10-01

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    Almost a decade ago with the release of Wolfenstein 3D, Id software ushered in the first person shooter as a mainstream genre and did it in style. After all, what could be more fun than giving hordes of pixilated nazis a bad case of lead poisoning? The answer apparently was ‘Not much’ The gaming public voted with its feet and the FPS genre was here to stay. A decade or so later we finally have a follow-up to the classic Wolfenstein 3D in the form of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, one of the most eagerly anticipated titles of the last year.

    Developer: id - Gray Matter - Nerve
    Publisher:
    Activision

    Review for OCAddiction.com – Neil ‘Visionism’ Charlesworth


    Reviewer’s Note: Return to Castle Wolfenstein is, in essence, two separate games which share resources and an engine, but have different executables and were developed separately. Therefore this review will be in two parts. This first part covers the single player game developed by Grey Matter. The second part, coming soon, will cover the multiplayer aspect developed by Nerve Software


    Minimum System Requirements

     
    · System: PII 400 or equivalent
    · RAM: 128 MB
    · Video Mode: 3D Accelerator 16meg or higher
    · Hard Drive Space (MB): 800
    · Sound Board: Yes
    · Operating System: Windows 95 or higher



    Part 1 – Single Player

    Almost a decade ago with the release of Wolfenstein 3D, Id software ushered in the first person shooter as a mainstream genre and did it in style. After all, what could be more fun than giving hordes of pixilated nazis a bad case of lead poisoning? The answer apparently was ‘Not much’ The gaming public voted with its feet and the FPS genre was here to stay. A decade or so later we finally have a follow-up to the classic Wolfenstein 3D in the form of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, one of the most eagerly anticipated titles of the last year.

     

    In Return to Castle Wolfenstein (RtCW hereafter) you reprise your role as William ‘B.J.’ Blascowicz, lantern-jawed, nazi slaughtering, all American hero. B.J. works for a secret allied organization who we meet in the first in-engine cutscene. This is where the game really starts to raise your eyebrows. Realistically billowing flags and curtains lead us into an office for a fairly typical ‘talking heads’ type cutscene. But what heads! The facial texturing and animation really grab your interest immediately with competent lip-syncing and terrific texturing. Id software’s Quake 3 engine once again proves what a versatile tool it can be in the right hands. Already I’m impressed and we’re not 30 seconds into the game!

     

    As with Wolfenstein 3D, the game proper starts with B.J. incarcerated in the dungeons of Castle Wolfenstein (the guy must be on first name terms with the guards by now) with his partner being tortured by a mad scientist type. Said partner not giving out much information on account of being dead, soon B.J.’s turn arrives. After disabling the guard with a typical movie ploy (If I were designing a jail cell the first thing Id do is put spikes on the ceiling, but then I watch too many movies) B.J. is off and running so to speak.


    Visuals

    So how does it all look? At first glance it looks like most fps games have looked recently. Looking a bit closer however reveals some pleasant surprises. The skinning of the enemy models is nothing short of stunning. The authentic German uniforms are a triumph of detail. A huge variety of textures, realistic to the well defined fingernails, are brilliantly mapped onto the models yielding a result that looks as if it has three times the number of polygons that it actually has. Its an old trick to be sure, but I have never seen it pulled of with quite so much aplomb, Perhaps the great textures in Max Payne came close but throughout the game I never saw one stretched, squeezed, misaligned or inappropriate texture on a character model.

     

    The environments are equally impressive. Wood looks like wood, glass looks like glass and stone looks like stone, especially impressive when it happens to be covered with a thin layer of windblown snow which piles up in the corners and adds a wonderful depth to the 3D landscape. Even the grass, usually a texture artist’s nightmare, is creditable. The only letdown is a couple of levels in that old shooter favorite ‘underground weapons labs’ Bland textures abound but there's really only so much you can do to make a concrete bunker look interesting so it’s a mild ding against the otherwise terrific work.

     

    Architecture shows similar attention to detail with the weapons facility sections perhaps being the letdown once again. Several levels though are notable for their superb construction. The castle itself is convincing. Bombed out building come with ragged blown apart brickwork and great drifts of rubble, one level set in a crypt features some fantastic ceiling vaulting and another takes place in a truly impressive ruined church.

     

    Lighting, while competent can be a bit on the garish side at times. One pool in a village really stands out as an example with an off-white old-style lantern casting a searchlight-bright, carrot-orange glare on the water. There are little touches of genius here and there however like the shadows thrown on a concrete wall by a metal gantry and a dull overcast day in a bombed out town being particularly notable.

     

    The fogging too, is well done and provides for some memorable moments. The great thing about the fog in RtCW is that with perhaps the exception of the pea-souper in the penultimate level there is exactly the right amount of it. In probably the most jaw-dropping sequence in the game (which reminded me so strongly of Where Eagles Dare that I kept looking around for Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood,) you must descend from the castle via a cable car. The fogging here is fantastic. You can just barely make out the silhouette of the next cable tower looming through the mountain mist. It works wonders and contributes a great deal to the RtCW’s most stunning feature, its incredible sense of place. When you're on the castle walls you can almost feel the icy wind knifing through your clothes. When you're in a crypt you can almost smell the smoke from the torches and feel the damp chill. Grey Matter have really put some effort into immersion. These things don’t happen by accident.

     

    One more thing to cover on the graphics front. If you played Unreal (and if you haven't, go stand in the corner) you will remember the start of the second level where you emerged from the wrecked prison ship and got your first look at the planet. I mention it because that was the first time while playing a game that I ever stopped and said ‘Oh my GOD!’ aloud. RtCW gave me the second. The fire effects on the torches in the castle are nice, don’t get me wrong, but just wait until you run into your first fire zombie. At this point you may pause the game and thank your creator for giving you eyes. The spewing, liquid, fire effects of the flame zombies and flamethrower wielding nazis are nothing short of eye-popping. We’ve seen flamethrowers in games before. Usually shooting out a stream of expanding puffs of flame. The flamethrowers in RtCW look like, well, flamethrowers. Even when you're not pushing the trigger the effects are impressive. Move left and the pilot light flutters to the right of the barrel. Simply outstanding. 

    In short, the game is a visual feast. This is probably the best looking game I have ever seen, Max Payne included. But, as they say, looks aren't everything. Lets crank up the volume and see how she sounds.

     


    Audio

    The problem with reviewing the sound in RtCW is that there simply isn't all that much to talk about. The game in this respect reminds me a bit of Britney Spears. It’s a treat to look at and it doesn’t exactly sound horrible, but its nothing to get excited about either. Sound effects are done well enough with nicely varied weapon sounds and footsteps that correspond to what you're walking on, but nothing really stands out. Voice acting is reasonably good, especially in the cutscenes. The in-game speech it patchy at best varying between some nice (and occasionally mildly amusing – ‘I must go polish my vepon’) overheard nazi conversations and at least one German accent that sounded more like Russian. The speech presents something of a dilemma too. Germans, for the most part, speak in German, rather than the flawless English in the game. There are a few phrases auf Deutch but that smacks of indecision. Let them either speak English or German. Not both. Personally I would have liked to hear them in German with subtitles, like in those old WW2 movies.

    The music is a disappointment. It was suitably martial where it needed to be and sped up when you were spotted but it didn’t add much in the way of atmosphere like the truly great game soundtracks do. It didn’t make my pulse pound like Quake 2, it didn’t make me feel ethereal like Unreal and it didn’t make me feel faintly nervous and, well, dirty like Max Payne. There was no recurring theme in the music. Listen to a movie score by John Williams if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Themes really are the hallmark of a great soundtrack. Look at Star Wars and the first Batman movie and it’ll make a believer of you. Ask people to hum a track from Quake 2, Unreal Tournament or StarCraft, or Star wars for that matter, and I’m sure they’ll oblige (If they don’t send you to the funny farm first) The minute I stopped playing RtCW I couldn’t hum a single tune.

    Ok. Graphics: Unbelievable, Sound: ho hum (or no hum in this case) Time to take a look at what really counts.

     

    Gameplay 1 – Level Design

    Usually you’ll find that the best gameplay comes in the early part of a game (Unreal springs to mind). RtCW has things backwards to some extent. The first few levels will feel awfully familiar to anyone who played a first person shooter before. Corridor, bad guys, room, bad guys, stairs, bad guys. It isn’t actually bad as such it just could have been better. When I start to see doors that are opened by switches in 1940’s Germany, I have to groan a little. At least it isn’t colored keys. Once you get over that initial corridor shooter hump things get a little more interesting. There are a couple of ‘remain undetected’ stealth levels but they come off as half hearted attempts at Deus Ex/Thief type gameplay. While they’re certainly challenging (particularly the first one) they end up being more frustrating than intriguing. Several moments however really shine. The cable car sequence is brilliant, along with a great level set on a dam and one where you must escort a tank (A single soldier escorting a tank?) through a bombed out town infested with nazi anti-tank grenadiers. These short moments of genius though, again serve to frustrate, by giving a glimpse of what the game could have been.

     

    The story, such as it is, is revealed through the time honored fps tradition of reading stuff you find lying around, mostly in the form of letters and memos, which sometimes have a little touch of character and humor (The Safety officers surname is ‘Vorsichtig’ – German for careful) Health and ammo are logically placed and plentiful and only once did I find myself desperately short of ammunition. Health comes in the form of first aid packs and hot and cold meals, making a return appearance from Wolfenstein 3D. Also back for an encore are the treasure items hidden in various places. Sadly you get no extra credit for finding treasure, other than filling up the totals presented at the end of each level.

    Stamina is implemented and is degraded by sprinting and jumping (The inclusion of no fewer than three movement speeds is a great idea) but never really became a factor. Stamina, as any game nerd over 21 will tell you, is enhanced by the consumption of alcohol, found rarely enough in the game to make me believe that the stamina aspect was a ‘lost’ feature.

    Speaking of ‘lost’ features, RtCW was originally intended to include a greater emphasis on stealth, including donning German uniforms. Early in the game an empty locker, the only one in the game that I could open, acts as a sad reminder of what might have been.

     


    Gameplay 2 – Enemies and AI

    Enemy AI, while generally competent, is spotty in places. The nazi soldiers will certainly give you a run for your money though. They strafe, crouch and take cover behind tables, although they never seem to act as a coordinated team as in Half-Life. Also they will obstinately refuse to chase you onto your preferred turf, some of them seeming rooted to the spot. The female elite guards are a little more challenging, ducking and rolling and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The way they will kick your grenades back at you (All the bad guys do this) is impressive too, to such an extent that I found myself not using grenades unless I had a height advantage. The way they move however, is predictable and once you get the pattern down then they get much easier to beat, unlike the similar but faster black-ops women of Half-Life who always provided a stiff challenge. Zombies shamble vacantly as zombies (and people in the line at the post office) tend to do, and don’t display much intelligence but in this case its entirely appropriate behavior. Armed zombies are more aggressive in their advance and the fire zombies always provide a good fight.

     

    Some of the more challenging enemies come in the form of nazi cyborg types. Super soldiers and monstrous legless (no, they’re not drunk, they don’t have any legs) ‘lopers’ are aggressive and well armed and will test your movement skills as well as your aim.

     

    One thing about the AI did strike me as particularly creditable. You can forget about constantly circle strafing, as most of them are good enough shots to hit you anyway. Again, the AI comes off as not being bad, but there’s definitely room for improvement.

     

    Level bosses, long thought to be a thing of the past, are back with a vengeance. Now level bosses are all well and good as long as they provide some variance in the gameplay but the RtCW bosses never present any puzzles. There are no crystals to shoot, no weak spot that has to be hit, no towers to knock over. They are simply incredibly tough, slow moving bad guys with lots of firepower. Even Quake gave us a more interesting method of killing the end of game boss. Here you just keep circle strafing while pounding away with whatever weapons you have until they fall over. When one of the bosses is simply two of the bosses from an earlier level you have to wonder whether the idea barrel was running dry.

     

    One thing about the gameplay never ceases to delight. Remember Blood? Did you ever run through it in god mode just trying to identify every single horror movie reference? I did but then I'm a huge nerd that way. Wolfenstein is littered with similar tongue in cheek ‘homages’ but this time the subject is first person shooters. There are veiled references to lots of games buried in there, whether by accident or design, I couldn’t tell you.


    Gameplay 3 - Hardware

    For your Nazi ventilating pleasure, we have a couple of pistols, three submachine guns a pair of scoped rifles, grenades and an assault rifle plus more exotic stuff like flamethrowers (which are loads of fun to use) and the experimental nazi weapons found later in the game. The models look good, with the exception of the mauser rifle where the perspective makes it look slightly odd and the reload sequences are a minor triumph. They take a bit longer than in some games and the actions are convincing.

     

    The let down is the weapons themselves. There is very little difference between some of them even though the specs of the real weapons differ greatly, the deciding factor in using one over the other being the type of ammo you have to hand. The silenced Sten gun is a nice touch though. Being fairly silent but overheating after only a short burst, they can get frustrating, but incredibly after a little research I found that the effect has actually been toned down for the game. Real silenced stens were almost never used to fire bursts.

     

    The experimental weapons are decent, if predictable (basically a minigun and a lightning gun/thunderbolt/arc welder) The Tesla cannon disappoints with its weakness, while the venom ‘gatling’ gun on the other hand can turn the stoutest of enemies into hamburger fast enough to make Ronald McDonald take up knitting for a living.

     

    Conclusion

     

    Let me tell you a story. A few months ago I started playing Max Payne at about 7PM. By about 1AM the next morning I was thinking ‘Ok I’ll just finish off this level then save and go to bed.’ So on I played. The next time I looked up it was 4.30AM. My problem with RtCW is that I simply don’t get sucked into it the way I have with other games. That pull to see what's around the next corner just isn't there this time.

     

    The story isn't particularly compelling and never develops. The characters are cardboard cut out bad guys from B movies with the exception of a brief cameo from Himmler, whose a cardboard cutout bad guy from real life. If you’re looking for the next Deus Ex or System Shock 2 you’d be better advised to look elsewhere.

     

    It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Everything the game does, it does well. Fans of straight up action shooters will certainly get their money’s worth. There are plenty of things to shoot and get shot by, level layouts are solid, and the game looks simply stunning. If you enjoyed Quake 2 more than Deus Ex then you should probably get down to your local game store schnell while the shelves are still full of those nice tin collectors editions of RtCW.

     

    In the end, don’t be surprised if you’re left with the feeling that you played a game that was well put together, competently done and had a few moments of sheer brilliance but, ultimately, Just Another Shooter.


     

     Pros

    • Eye candy to die for.

    • Solid shooting action

    • Competent voice acting

    • Well pitched difficulty level

    • Stable and crash-free out of the box

     Cons

    • Mediocre AI

    • Poor soundtrack

    • Level design is old hat

    • Dull bosses

    • Uninspiring story

     

    How the numbers stack up

    • Graphics - 95%

    • Sound - 65%

    • Gameplay - 85%

    • Replay Value - 55%

    • Innovation - 70%

    • Storyline - 70%

     Final Score - 75%

     


     

    Screenshots? You want screenshots?? Come and GET 'EM!!!


























    Thanks for joining us here at OCA and props are in order for Guest Reviewer "Vis". He's been a forum junkie for quite awhile now and surely knows his stuff. Be sure to head in to our forums to DISCUSS this review and many others. And be on the lookout for Part 2 - Multiplayer.

     


    DISCLAIMER: The content provided in this article is not warranted or guaranteed by Developer Shed, Inc. The content provided is intended for entertainment and/or educational purposes in order to introduce to the reader key ideas, concepts, and/or product reviews. As such it is incumbent upon the reader to employ real-world tactics for security and implementation of best practices. We are not liable for any negative consequences that may result from implementing any information covered in our articles or tutorials. If this is a hardware review, it is not recommended to open and/or modify your hardware.

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