Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War
Kristan is high on the Tide.
I, like many others, got this game when it came out on the PC in December 2001 and promptly got bored after a couple of chapters. Sure, it was pretty, but it was all-too apparent that this was A.N.Other FPS. Formulaic, tons of weapons, Quake III sound effects, some nifty architecture, and a major let down after all the hype. Apparently the multiplayer rescued the package for some people, but it was too late. I was off playing other, better games and never gave it another look.
Nevertheless, I've always felt that one day I'd give it another look, and the beefed up Xbox version gave me the perfect excuse to have a thorough look this time around. With a whole new seven-level prologue mission, and - glory be! - full Live play, I was given more than enough reasons to give this more than the usual cursory glance.
BJ chases the leather clad Nazis
Although the single player campaign has now been beefed up, the majority of the prologue missions are so basic that they merely act as a glorified training session for newbies, and add all of about an hour to the overall playing time. Set immediately before the original PC version, B. J. Blazkowicz and his partner find themselves sneaking after the Nazis in Egypt, whereupon they are lead to an excavation site full of pissed off undead and uncover the beginnings of a bizarre Nazi plot to resurrect a 1,000 year old Knight.
Blasting undead zombies into a pile of bones and doing battle with sword and shield wielding Jason and the Argonaut rejects is hardly what you'd generally associate with World War II, but with a little suspension of disbelief, the concept of the Nazis dabbling with the occult to create the ultimate killing machine is nevertheless a welcome alternative to the dozens of so-called authentic takes on the Third Reich and its power crazy leanings.
The intro levels give you a chance to re-adjust to the controls, and by all accounts they're on a par with any other console FPS - everything mapped to a reasonably logical place; right trigger for fire, left for jump, A and B to cycle weapons, click right thumbstick to use, and the usual left and right thumbstick combo for movement and looking around. An auto aimer also helps deal with the lack of accuracy inherent in joypad aiming, and all round it works well.
Unlike most console FPSs to date, Tides of War retains the ability to quicksave, meaning you can soon blitz through the single player campaign. Depending on which skill level you choose, and whether you're prepared to 'cheat', it's not going to last you much more than 12 hours all in, across all eight chapters and 34 levels. Were it not for the despicable cheating of the AI opposition you'd be able to polish it off it even quicker, so you're basically forced to quicksave - the game gives you no other choice.
So much for the hype; the AI is as inconsistent as we've seen. Yes, on one occasion in the entire game we saw an enemy impressively kick over a table and use it as cover, but in the main, they're either docile idiots that stand around waiting for you to put them out of their misery, or evil uber death machines that turn their implements of death on you before you can even see they’re there. On one particularly evil section, it's like playing a cheating Counter-Strike monkey, with your hapless soldier routinely capped before you can even see the enemy. Even a basic knowledge of where they are doesn't aid you - scoping them from a distance bore the same result - as soon as one pixel of their body entered your field of vision, Game Over.
As the game eventually pushes on and heaps better weaponry upon your pack horse solider, likewise the Nazi scum and their mutant creations get proportionately more evil. Really; without quicksave you'd be utterly frustrated [that's not the original F-word he used -Tom] and its PC developed origins are never more apparent as a result. Frankly, a more forgiving but tense game, that requires more concentration and skill, would have been far preferable to this kill/quicksave/die/reload vanilla FPS binge.
The slapdash mixed with the sublime
One thing we were hoping Tides of War would retain was the visuals; and to a very large extent it has done. Naturally the overall texturing and resolution can't hope to compare with the PC original, but the forgiving anti-aliasing effect that TVs bring means that the game looks largely superb on all but the largest, sharpest mammoths. The character models are superb throughout, and - at times - the intricate architecture does a great job of heightening an already murderous atmosphere, although there are some slapdash levels here and there, and the general lack of texturing lets the package down, and exposes the age of the Quake III tools at hand. Next to Halo - itself 18 months old - it's not in the same league.
The old school feel of the package is ingrained in almost every area of the game; the unlimited inventory, combined with the proliferation of ammo pickups/armour/medipacks/meals means there's little consequence to taking damage - especially in conjunction with quicksave. The level design itself also rarely extends to more than clearing a room of a handful of enemies, move on, heal, reload, and repeat to fade. Occasionally you're tasked with being somewhat stealthier than usual, but Splinter Cell this is not. For the most part it's a full on, guns blazing US shooter, for people who just want to kill, kill, and kill again.
Completists might be drawn to the new reward system that has you scouting out levels for secrets and treasure, but in reality the treats rarely extend to anything more exciting than some armour. It's never going to be one of those games that will have you going back to old levels in the hope of unlocking new features. More's the pity. The inclusion of the original Wolfenstein 3D once you complete the campaign is a nice touch, but you'll play it for all of, ooh, a minute before you think of something more entertaining to do, like picking your nose or setting fire to your receipt.
They couldn't be arsed
Although Tides of War's single player campaign does have its moments, on reflection you feel that Gray Matter simply couldn't really be bothered to push things forward beyond the confines of the traditional. Where do we start? The storyline is shoehorned after each and every level, with longer, fairly dull cut-scenes delivering little more than reflection on your achievements (from an Allied war-room chat between a stereotypical Brit and a Yank - how imaginative). Even fundamental FPS advancements like the subtle scripting and buddy AI of Half Life and co. are passed over, with the odd mundane chat between guards and that's all. Linearity in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing - and Tides of War is as linear as they come - but even exciting on rails opportunities are passed over. It's just you, a huge selection of, admittedly excellent, weaponry, and a whole pile of bloodthirsty foes.
In fact the constant supply of new weapons and increasingly bizarre enemy are just about all that drives you on - and the knowledge that it'll be over soon. Just don't expect a dramatic ending - it's the very definition of a let down. Just as well it's got Xbox Live support, then.
Thus far, our Xbox Live shooting antics have been restricted to a few bouts of Ghost Recon and Unreal Championship, so another entrant to freshen things up doesn't hurt at all. As with every other Xbox Live title we've tested, setting up is a piece of cake. Once logged in you're presented with the standard Quick Match or Optimatch options, the former of which allows you to jump straight into the action in any one of the four matches, whilst the latter allows you to define and filter to your heart's content. Failing that, just create your own match to your own requirements and off you go.
Tides of War offers four types of Axis Vs. Allies online action for up to eight per team across 13 maps; Elimination, Stopwatch, Checkpoint, and Objective. Before stepping into the fray, players must choose from one of four classes; Soldier, Medic, Lieutenant, and Engineer, each with their own strengths and weaknesses (for example Soldier can choose from more weapons, while the Medic can dispense medikits to ailing and even dying team members), and a limited choice of weaponry - which you must take a gamble on.
Of the modes, they're all familiar team-based variations on FPS favourites. Elimination is a simple fight to the death, Stopwatch has two teams attacking or defending a point or points on a map within a pre-determined time limit. Checkpoint has the two teams, for example, trying to dominate a series of flagpoles, while Objective has you attempting, for example, to destroy the opposition's radar tower.
Kill or be killed by lag... or your team-mate
While lag is an issue, the game has the decency to warn you of any potential problems beforehand, with a useful Green/Amber/Red system, which proved pretty accurate. If you've got enough mates, you can always block potential laggers with your own private match. Likewise, if idiots are intent on killing their team-mates, you can either vote them off or file a complaint against them, on a 'five strikes and you're out' basis. With full voice support you can also tell your wayward team-mates where to go, which is nice, although voice masking is just ridiculously annoying.
For someone who's a self confessed online gaming luddite this is an absolute pleasure. I've long been fed up with being on the end of too many whuppings against either cheating bar stewards, or those no-lifes who know each and every FPS map better than their own face [or me -Tom]. In a sense, Xbox Live is a safe haven from the uber hardcore, and a fairly level playing field for those that want a decent blast, but don't want to have spend shed loads on their PC to make it run properly. The hardcore will doubtlessly stay where they are, and all power to them, but after a few hours on this, I'm already plotting my return visit.
It's an odd experience praising a Microsoft service, but aside from some lag, the whole thing was seamless. The key thing is whether enough people sign up to the Live service and buy the game to keep the servers populated. Right now, there are plenty of Brits, along with a fair number of Yanks too, so you'll have plenty of competition, and more sign ups as time goes on.
Offline there's a plethora of options too, with two-player split screen for co-op or head to head play, as well as system link. The lack of four player mode is a baffling omission, but Live more than makes up for this.
Blasting out for the summer
With Xbox Live crying out for an online FPS, Tides of War is certainly a great addition to the service, and anyone currently in possession of a subscription would be doing their Xbox a disservice to miss out. Until Counter-Strike arrives later in the year, and Halo 2 a few months after, this is a great way to hone your joypad skills in the meantime. On balance, despite the fairly humdrum single player campaign, Tides of War is well worth engaging in for the Live experience alone. PC gamers, however, can save their cash.