Return to Castle Wolfenstein comes at that time of the year when we're all itching for a new action game as the nights draw longer and the weather takes hold, and it's a bit of a stunner. I'm sure a lot of gamers crying out for a new online fixation will buy Return To Castle Wolfenstein purely on the strength of the multiplayer test demo. The RTCW single player game is a solid albeit extremely linear experience, with plenty of atmosphere thanks to the significant attention to detail and excellent visuals. The game is based on the Quake III engine, but from the opening levels, where developers Gray Matter have crafted a fortress to rival the one in Where Eagles Dare, to the final gory conclusion, the journey is decked out in a whole new wardrobe. The game boasts some of the most impressive models and texturing we've seen to date, the guard and weapon animations flow gracefully and, with a couple of exceptions, every little item in or around the room can be poked or manipulated in some way. Fortunately there's more to it than pretty pictures though. Your quest concerns the story of a mysterious evil buried near Castle Wolfenstein. The Nazis intend to unleash a warrior of demonic powers and his unlikely hellspawn, and it's your job as a secret Allied operative to deal with the problem. After your partner is sliced and diced in the torture chamber, you have to break out, rendezvous with local resistance and try and force your way back into the reckoning. The story is told through various paper clues hidden in the game, the guards' conversations and in-game cutscenes that appear between levels. The game's opening scene is fairly exciting, but for the most part from there on in it's some fat Churchill-alike and his Allied commanders propping up a desk in a cushy office, which needless to say is a mite boring when you get the same rambling prose on the next page's mission brief.
The levels are fairly well designed, although some are worse than others, and the texturing and audio accompaniment really helps to build up this vision of an epic adventure. Going from the castle to a nearby village and the catacombs, the game's mood errs on the side of the disturbed, with Nazi insignia and propaganda all over the place, and harsh, cultish undertones lurking in the shadows. The sound is distinctly eerie, rather than spooky, and the sound effects are pretty standard. One non-standard addition (or subtraction, depending on which way you look at it) are the German voice-overs from our friends the guards. There will be no more hysterical waffling in German as you sprint through an open doorway and pepper the room with lead. Instead, the guards - and everybody else in the game - speak English. The dialogue is drab and conventional guard-speak, uttered in the few moments before they round the corner for you to open fire… A bit of a let-down. Overall the single player game is strong, but it's more Red Faction than Half-Life. There are some huge, Doom-like nasties to be despatched and diversions like heavy assault weapon bunkers, which can be commandeered to cut through swathes of Germans and scenery alike. The game also features some stunning weaponry (from the familiar automatic rifles and sniper's Mauser to the old-skool rocket launcher and a flamethrower) and the effects are daring and of the same high visual standard as the rest of the game. There are enough set pieces to keep you entertained, the AI of your enemies is effective, and ducking in and out of cover as sniper bullets rain down around you gives an authentic feeling of being in the midst of a war. The thing is, having completed Return to Castle Wolfenstein I can't help but feel that something was missing. For example, when I first played Half-Life, the very notion that a game could carry the player on a magic carpet ride through a lightshow of a first person shooter while thrilling him or her so completely that they would be hooked and gush about the game for the next three years was utterly hysterical, but Valve proved that it was possible. They took a new approach, and it worked. RTCW isn't the watershed for the genre that Half-Life was. Of course it's good, but ultimately it's not going to be remembered as a defining moment in first person shooter history as the original Wolfenstein 3D was, because everything it does somebody else did first. It's as if Gray Matter were afraid to try anything new. As far as the single player game is concerned then, it's a nice footwarmer, but it plays second fiddle to multiplayer...
The multiplayer game is what really defines Return to Castle Wolfenstein. As revealed a while ago, Gray Matter actually spent their time developing the single player game, while a group called Nerve worked on multiplayer. When the 'test' was released, it was obvious why. RTCW multiplayer is like digital crack. Amazing really, given the scope of the multiplayer game when compared to that simplistic demo. Its only real fault is the lack of bot players - you will need to play on the Internet or a big LAN to get a good game, so make sure you have a decent connection. Multiplayer features two sides - Allies and Axis - and four basic character classes for each. In the interests of balance, not all of the weapons from the single player game were brought over to the multiplayer aspect, but your basic soldier can use any of the weapons in the game with a larger capacity for ammo than the others. Most of the players on any given server will choose to be a soldier, since they can use the messiest weapons like flamethrowers. Next up is the engineer class, which can plant and defuse dynamite and repair any turreted guns on the level. If you're defending something (such as the fort in the Omaha beach style level) you will definitely want an engineer to help touch up your defences when you're close to being breached. The third class is an absolute necessity though; the medic. If you don't have a medic, you will just keep on dying and losing health until you are dead. Medics can regenerate constantly, give 10 health to each player on joining the game, and they can also resuscitate borderline troopers and hand out health packs. Develop your abilities as a medic and people will make way for you on a packed server. Beyond the medic there's the lieutenant, who can hand out ammo packs like there's no tomorrow. He also has binoculars and the authority to call for air strikes on enemy positions, so each team wants one good lieutenant.
Return of the Map
There are a couple of nuisances with the multiplayer mode though. After you die you have to wait a few seconds to respawn. This is handy for picking another character class, or would be if the interface wasn't so cumbersome. You can bind macros for selecting different character classes, but you would have to find those on the Internet and add them to your config files outside the game. The other thing that bothers me is that a lot of the levels in multiplayer are just reworked versions of the single player ones. This is fine, but I had hoped for some original efforts. Fortunately these are only mildly annoying aspects of the game, and they have a plus side too. For instance, the game's interface is perhaps a bit complicated with its big game window and buttons and whatsits all over the place, but the HUD is surprisingly reserved. Health, ammo, your teammate's names and health percentages all appear on the screen, and the last two are particularly important for medics and engineers. Medics and lieutenants can also locate people in need of help via the various voice commands players can use to call for health and ammo. Hit one of these and your name will be shown to nearby medics or lieutenants, and you will appear with a red blob over your head in their view. Furthermore, the maps may be based on levels seen in the single player game, but they have all been subtly (and occasionally not so subtly) altered so that they make excellent levels for strategic warfare. Eight maps ship with the game, and the overall standard is very good.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a worthy addition to the stable of id Software affiliated shoot 'em ups. The single player game is average to good and takes quite a while to finish, but the game really earns its salt by shipping with a first class multiplayer element. Given that the first person shooter genre is full of developers happy to ship a game with half of its functionality broken out of the box, RTCW makes a refreshing change, and if The Great Escape doesn't really appeal to you, perhaps slaughtering Nazis on the battlefields of Europe will go nicely with that glass of brandy.