We recently had the chance to get some hands-on time with a more complete build of Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War for the Xbox. The console incarnation of the 2001 PC hit that followed up id's first hit, the classic Wolfenstein 3D, is being tailored specifically for the console market. The game features a number of tweaks and additions to its gameplay and content, a strong overall presentation, and some truly impressive multiplayer elements, including a new cooperative mode and Xbox Live support.
While the core content in Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War is obviously based on Return to Castle Wolfenstein for the PC, the game is not a port. Developer Nerve Software and id have taken the opportunity to revisit the entire game. The results so far build on original developer Gray Matter's excellent work in the single-player game and Nerve's own stellar multiplayer contribution to the original game. The game's story has been fleshed out and includes a prologue made up of a series of missions set in Egypt that detail the first meeting between main character B.J. Blaskowicz and Agent One.
As far as gameplay goes, Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War offers the same core game mechanics with some enhancements, and some changes have been made to the structure of the game. The game's user-friendly control scheme is a marriage of the control options from the PC game and Halo-style controls. While the setup works well, Nerve has also added an enhanced targeting option to compensate for the obvious loss in precision when going from a mouse to a console controller. Another bit of functionality added to compensate for the lack of a mouse is a variation on the 180-degree quick turn in the PlayStation 2 version of the game. While the PS2 has a button dedicated to instantly switching your view 180 degrees around, the Xbox game lets you speed up how quickly you can turn. By holding the down button on the d pad, your turning speed will dramatically increase, and you can quickly shift your aim anywhere you like.
When playing the single-player game, veteran PC players will likely pick up on a change to Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War's gameplay. Many levels will encourage a much more deliberate style of play that is a departure from the more "guns blazing" approach that was one of the engaging aspects of the game's PC cousin. The levels we had the chance to play were spread throughout levels in the prologue, crypt and factory, and X-lab areas and gave us a good feel for what to expect out of the game. The control was easy to pick up and was spot on once we got comfortable with the Xbox's controller S. The varied levels let us cut our teeth on the different gradients of challenge you'll encounter as you go deeper into the game. We were able to try out some of the new additions to B.J.'s arsenal--the EMP device, which temporarily incapacitates the cybernetic creatures in the game, and the X-shield, which forms a protective shield around B.J. for limited amounts of time. The X-lab level also gave us a peek at some of the new enemies being added to the game, most notably the X-shepherd. The cyberpooch shoots you from afar with its back-mounted machine gun or tries to gnaw your face off when it gets in close.
One of the notable differences in the Xbox game is in the pacing. There's a stealth component to the gameplay that gives you the option of slinking around and quietly knifing people in the back pretty regularly. The game actually encourages this by giving rewards in the form of useful pickups when you successfully shank someone from behind. The stronger emphasis on this element of the game actually works pretty well and adds a new layer of tension to the action. At the end of each level you'll come to a statistics screen that shows you a detailed breakdown of your performance. Unlike in the PlayStation 2 version, the secrets in the Xbox version of the game don't offer up points you can use to enhance B.J.--you'll be awarded set bonuses instead.
While the single-player game is solid and as engaging as its PC predecessor, the real hook in Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War will certainly be its multiplayer options. You'll be able to play through the single-player game with a friend in split-screen cooperative mode, which is a solid addition to the game. However the game's Xbox Live multiplayer modes is where Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War shines. You'll have a choice of several different game types to try with up to 15 other players on 13 multiplayer maps. To ensure that the online game experience is as rich as possible, Nerve has worked to offer a robust selection of customizable options, in addition to the standard Xbox Live features, for playing online, such as the ability to set up an Xbox as a dedicated server whose games you can customize.
The online game types are a mix of team-based and competitive games that offer a welcome range of possibilities when you're playing with friends. Objective and stopwatch are goal-oriented matches that pit teams of players, divided into Axis or Allied forces, against each other in a race to accomplish a specific goal on a level. The catch with the stopwatch game is that once the goal is accomplished by a team, its time is logged and the game restarts with both sets of players on opposite sides. The goal is to beat the winning team's time using the same forces. Checkpoint games require you and your teammates to capture and hold flagpoles strewn throughout a level. Whichever team holds them all wins. Finally, elimination matches are standard last-man-standing-style bouts where you have one life. You'll emerge victorious if you manage to be the last one on the battlefield.
Team-oriented gameplay is strongly emphasized, due to the differing abilities of the four classes--soldiers, engineers, medics, and lieutenant--available in the game. Soldiers can use all the weapons found in the game. Engineers can both plant and defuse the dynamite needed to destroy goal structures, and they can also repair the mounted guns that appear in various fixed positions throughout the maps. Medics can drop health packs and revive "dead" teammates, permitting them to instantly respawn where they've fallen. Each medic also provides every team member with 10 extra starting health points. Lieutenants can drop ammo packs, and they are the only class equipped with binoculars. Lieutenants can also call in air and artillery strikes, which cut a wide swath of destruction at their target point. As you'd imagine, all four of the classes are useful and necessary when playing the various game types. The only catch is that they require proper team coordination to ensure each of the classes is represented in matches. There's nothing more pathetic than a team of soldiers staring helplessly at a bundle of dynamite that an engineer could easily defuse. However, if situations like that do come up, you'll be able to use the Xbox communicator to curse out your fellow team members using a variety of voice masks.
In terms of its presentation, Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War is doing some very cool things on the Xbox. The game matches the PC title's graphics and adds some polish to boot. The core graphics have been brought over pretty much intact but are now spruced up by little touches such as a new animated sky and new particle effects used for blood splatters. Detail in the game is very high, and the frame rate is impressively fluid. And the game's HUD has been redesigned for the Xbox. Character models have been tweaked to reflect the region they're in--enemies will be wearing desert fatigues in the Egypt levels and thermal clothing in the ice levels. You'll also find general streamlining of the Allied and Axis character models in the multiplayer games. The game's performance was fairly solid, even during an Xbox Live game with testers in a different state. The game's audio has shaped up quite nicely on the Xbox, making use of multichannel Dolby surround sound, which does an excellent job of pulling you into the experience. On the whole we were quite impressed by how the game looks so far, especially considering it has had a shorter development cycle than the PlayStation 2 version of Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War--it's been in development for only eight months or so.
From what we've seen so far, Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War is coming together very nicely. Not only has Nerve managed to ably bring over the single and multiplayer experiences, but the developer has managed to throw in some cool extras, such as three downloadable multiplayer maps via Xbox Live and, as a special treat, the complete version of the original Wolfenstein 3D. Fans of first-person shooters and Xbox Live owners eager for some very slick multiplayer action will want to keep a look out for Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War when it ships this May.