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by Activision

nazi_tilted.jpg (2726 bytes)When I heard that id softwares’s and Grey Matter Studio’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein was being released at the same time that the original Doom was being released on the Game Boy Advance, I thought it somehow appropriate. In one way, it was a stunning reminder of how far first-person shooters have come in the last seven years. In another, it was a stunning reminder of how far first-person shooters--especially those produced by id software--have not come in the last seven years. From the original Wolfenstein to Quake III, id software has always specialized in FPS’s that emphasized stellar graphics and quick-twitch action over anything like a plot or sophisticated puzzles, much to the delight of the "I can shoot my way out of hell" crowd. In fact, by the time Quake III was released, id software had forgone any pretense at all of presenting single-player games or stories, and gave us nothing but pure fragmeister multiplayer eye candy.

villager_help.jpg (2940 bytes)Which was good enough for a lot of gamers. But others couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the powerful Quake III engine somehow got married up to a terrific single-player game --especially after they’d played such revolutionary single-player FPS’s as Half-Life, System Shock, Thief, No One Lives Forever, or Deus Ex. Those games combined a compelling narrative, sophisticated AI, and a distinctive atmosphere with gameplay that demanded a bit of thought from gamers. After playing through about the first half-dozen levels of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, I’ve got to say I’m impressed. While it doesn’t have quite the narrative depth or complex gameplay of any of the aforementioned games, it’s so far got stellar graphics, excellent AI, great atmosphere, challenging gameplay, and Nazi zombies. And Nazi zombies make up for a lot.

tram_shot.jpg (3299 bytes)The first thing you’ll notice upon firing up RtCW is its graphics, which are in a word stunning. This is the best-looking first person shooter ever, and even though some of the levels employ the traditional "color-challenged" id palate, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how colorful some of the outdoor levels can be. Every level thus far is extremely atmospheric, from the fog-shrouded catacombs to the snow-driven tram scenes to the exquisitely modeled bombed-out cityscapes. Weapons effects are stunning, and the game is probably worth buying just for the flamethrowers. Nazis come in a variety of fabulous fascist haberdashery, and monsters look damn good, too.

fire_zombie.jpg (3688 bytes)Speaking of Nazi monsters, enemy AI in this game is very capable. While not above the occasional slip-up, most enemies will take account of the situation before attacking you. Sometimes they’ll try the traditional "damn the torpedoes" approach, but usually they’ll take cover, try to sneak around you, and fire from a range appropriate to their weapons. Especially at the higher difficulty settings, you’ll be forced to do a lot of save-and-loads due to tricky enemy behavior.

helga_monster.jpg (4477 bytes)There’s no lack of distinctive enemies in the game, either. Thus far we’ve faced your garden-variety Nazis, shield-wielding and spell-casting zombies, high-heeled leather-clad Nazi vixens, crack Nazi paratroopers and some sort of flame demons. They’ve all been armed with a variety of weapons, from sniper rifles to panzerfausts to flame throwers, and they all use them pretty effectively.

dead_nazi_chicks.gif (48256 bytes)But fear not; you’ll quickly acquire quite an arsenal yourself. So far I’ve picked up two kinds of pistol, three kinds of submachine gun, three kinds of rifle (and two sniper rifles), a panzerfaust, demo charges, grenades, and the flame thrower. Since all of these also have an alt-fire function, you have a lot of tactical possibilities. By using the proper weapon you can fairly easily solve almost any game situation.

Level design so far is fairly pedestrian; again, while everything looks great, most levels are quite linear, and most of the puzzles therein are pretty quickly solved by some sort of variation on the "hit-the-button-and-run-like hell" or "find all the switches" conventions. No jumping puzzles yet, thank god. That being said, it is nice to see such a premium put on stealth in the game. You really can’t just go in banging away; most missions will require you to stalk, to employ stealth, and to work your way around the maps until you can take out some enemies without alerting others.

BTW, multiplayer looks great—though there are only seven maps, they’re all pretty huge. Since I haven’t played much MP yet—other than the beach demo—I’ll hold off on passing any judgement for now.

Overall, I’m so far favorably impressed with Return to Castle Wolfenstein. While it’s not quite as innovative as No One Lives Forever or as cerebral as Deus Ex, I can’t tear myself away from it in the same way I couldn’t, all those years ago, tear myself away from Doom or Quake. So far it seems that with the single-player game of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, id software has both returned to its roots and reworked its gameplay in light of recent FPS trends. It’s a happy combination. 

Rick Fehrenbacher   (11/27/2001)


Ups: Lots of Nazi zombies; nice graphics; good AI; lots of weapons.

Downs: Fairly standard level design.

Platform: PC