QuakeCon 2001: Wolfenstein multiplayer

We get a hands-on look at the new multiplayer component in Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein was originally conceived as a pure single-player game, but id Software and Gray Matter announced earlier this week that the game will in fact ship with multiplayer. In order to let Gray Matter continue focus purely on the single-player missions, Nerve Software has been brought on to add team-based multiplayer that takes advantage of the game's WWII setting and real-world weapons. We spent quite a bit of time playing the multiplayer game on the QuakeCon show floor and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Wolfenstein's multiplayer divides teams along the lines of Axis and Allied forces. The game is expected to ship with 12 maps, although only one was on display at QuakeCon. The immense beach assault map we played used part of a level that Gray Matter cut from the single-player game, and Nerve's efforts do generally take advantage of the art prepared for the solo missions.

The beach map is a good example of the mission-focused style of the maps. The Allies start the game out from amphibious vessels landed on the beach, and are exposed to Axis machine gun emplacements and snipers. In this assault mission, the Allies must penetrate the coastal defenses, sneak into the heart of the base, steal some secret documents, and climb into the communications tower to transmit the information back home. To even get into the base, the Allies must detonate explosives in two key choke points. Once the defenses are blown open, it's possible for either side to control a respawn point in the middle of the map.

The game has four player classes, which are intended to promote cooperation between teammates. The class system isn't overly complex, and is made up of one all-round soldier that does the bulk of the fighting and three support specialists. The engineer can repair defenses and plays a key role in accomplishing the Allied beach mission, as this class is the only one with the demolition charges necessary to open the Axis base to attack. The medic can heal teammates and get fallen comrades back on their feet who would otherwise need to wait to respawn. The lieutenant can resupply teammates with additional ammo, providing the only source of ammo on the map, and this officer can also call in deadly air strikes with flare grenades. The lieutenant seemed a little less intuitive to use in our quick pick-up games, but this role has real potential in skilled hands, especially in supporting soldiers out on the offensive. Each of the support classes is equipped with a submachine gun, but the soldier gets to choose one primary weapon from the range of WWII weapons available.

Players can choose the class and weapons that they will next spawn into with the "limbo" menu. While it's easy to switch classes and equipment selections, it's not something to do casually, since respawns don't happen immediately. The game reasonably justifies respawning as troop reinforcements that each side receives, and there's a certain time that must elapse before a player gets back in the game. This time varies primarily by how long it's been since another player on the team respawned, increasing the delay when players are dying frequently. A map may also give a time bonus to one side, as in the beach map where the assaulting Allies respawn much quicker. When there are many dead teammates that are slow to respawn, a medic really comes in handy. The game gives you a teammate's view of the action during the downtime, which ranges from five seconds to a half a minute or more.

Some elements of Wolfenstein's single-player game have been rebalanced for the new multiplayer component. Movement speed is most affected by the rebalancing. The stamina meter that limits how long you can sprint has been tweaked to allow for a much shorter run in multiplayer. Even more important, heavy weapons affect a player's standard movement speed. This is particularly evident with the venom minigun, which slows you down to about half speed to compensate for the weapon's incredible firepower and 500 belt-fed rounds of ammo. For this reason, it's likely that soldiers moving quickly into forward positions will choose a more conventional Thomson submachine gun over the heavy weapons, which are nonetheless devastating in a defensive role.

Since Return to Castle Wolfenstein wasn't initially intended to have multiplayer, the Nerve team has had to rebuild many multiplayer elements of the Quake III engine that were broken during the single-player development. Nerve has had just two months time to work on the Wolfenstein multiplayer, so there's still quite a bit to do. The multiplayer is one of the only uncertain elements in what's an otherwise feature-complete game, but if what we saw is representative of the final maps, Return to Castle Wolfenstein will be a better overall game for its addition.

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