Return to Castle Wolfenstein Preview

We played several hours of this game alongside members from Nerve, Gray Matter, id, and Activision. Read our impressions.

Id Software's 1992 release of Wolfenstein 3D may have kicked off the success of first-person shooters, but it wasn't until Doom and later id games that multiplayer gaming--which some gamers consider to be far more important than single-player levels--became standard fare. To match how the action genre has evolved since the first game's release, the developers of Return to Castle Wolfenstein decided late in the game's design to add team-focused multiplayer to what was originally just a story-based single-player game. The multiplayer portion of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, created by former American McGee's Alice team Nerve Software in conjunction with Gray Matter and id, was first shown at QuakeCon last month, but this weekend a test version with one of the maps will be released for public consumption. Activision and the trio of developers recently gave us the chance to take an early look at the Return to Castle Wolfenstein multiplayer compatibility test that most of you will be playing throughout the coming weeks.

Allied soldiers seek cover from Nazi machineguns.

The compatibility test is composed of the same beach level that id Software showed off at QuakeCon. Called Beach Invasion, this map is essentially the Allied invasion of Normandy wherein two teams--the Allies and the Axis--must achieve three goals to win. For the Allies, those goals are to breach the wall surrounding the Axis fort, to steal sensitive documents from a bunker deep within the base, and to carry those documents to a radio room located high atop a tower at the back of this fort. The Axis players' objectives are simply to prevent the Allied team from reaching all three of its goals. Essentially, this gameplay mode is almost exactly like the assault mode from Unreal Tournament, with the exception being the notion of reinforcements. Unlike Unreal Tournament's assault mode, this mode has a persistent 30-second timer that sends any dead players back onto the battlefield every time the clock expires.

This is where the real differentiating quality between Return to Castle Wolfenstein's multiplayer component and that of other Team Fortress-themed games becomes apparent. When your character dies, he doesn't actually die. That is, when you become mortally wounded, your character model will writhe on the ground in pain and call for a medic. If there are any medic players nearby, they'll be able to heal your character back up to half your original health, and you can continue your attempts at fulfilling your team's objectives. You can also choose to jump back into the limbo menu. Doing so will force you to wait until the timer expires before being able to reenter the fight, but you'll have access to a bevy of options that include following your teammates' progress throughout the level, viewing which objectives have been completed, and most importantly of all, being able to switch weapons and character classes.

The build of the game we were given access to seems to have all of the weapons that you'll find in the final build of Return to Castle Wolfenstein's multiplayer component. In all, there are 13 weapons that you'll find in the Beach Invasion level, including a combat knife, a Colt Model 1911 pistol, a Luger 9mm pistol, two types of grenades, an MP40 submachine gun, a Thompson submachine gun, a Sten silenced submachine gun, a Mauser sniper rifle, a Panzerfaust rocket launcher, a venom minigun, and a flamethrower. Generally speaking, however, you'll be able to carry only a knife, one pistol, and one two-handed weapon at any given time, and some of the more devastating weapons like the rocket launcher and minigun will significantly hinder your walking and running speed as a means of balancing their power. Additionally, the class of character that you choose to play as will dictate which of these weapons you'll be able to have access to. Let's take a closer look at those classes.

Class Structure

Like Team Fortress and Q3F, this game features a unique number of classes that you can choose to play as, each with a distinct set of characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. The following classes are functionally identical for both the Allied and Axis sides, and you can switch between the four at any time in the limbo menu.

Soldier


Although the standard light infantry soldiers for the Allied and Axis sides look different from each other, they're both functionally identical. The Allied soldiers don the standard-issue green and brown GI garb of the time, while the German soldiers wear slightly darker uniforms, complete with black helmets and trench coats. Of all four classes in the multiplayer game, the soldier is the most adept in combat since he can equip any of the two-handed weapons that are available to you. Additionally, soldiers can also carry four grenades, a pistol, a combat knife, and three clips for their primary weapon.

Engineer


These engineers are the game's demolitions experts, and while they can't equip any two-handed weapon other than the Thompson, they do have the unique ability of repairing and destroying hardened emplacements that you'll find throughout the game's levels, and they have an initial health of 110 hit points. Specifically, the engineer carries a toolkit, which when activated and held down for a given length of time will repair gun emplacements that have been damaged by enemy fire. This toolkit can also defuse any dynamite that the enemy places to breach a wall or blow down a door. When defusing a bomb or repairing an object, a timer/health bar will appear that will indicate exactly how much longer you need. The engineer is also the only class capable of carrying and setting dynamite. Like the soldier, he can also carry four grenades, a knife, and a pistol, but he's limited to two clips for his Thompson.

A medic revives a fallen comrade.

Medic


Like the engineer, the medic is a specialized class of infantry who is nonetheless quite capable of defending himself. He's also limited to a pistol, a knife, and a Thompson, but he can carry only a single grenade and he starts with only a single clip for his two-handed gun. To offset his relatively small arsenal, the medic has the unique ability of regenerating his own health up to 123 hit points, which goes quite a long way in extending his survival on the battlefield. The medic can also drop health packs that, when picked up by teammates, will restore 20 points of health. This ability is regulated by his power bar, however. Lastly, the medic can also approach any player who's been mortally wounded (and who hasn't jumped back into the limbo screen) and restore him to half of his total health, which means that a good medic can significantly change the pace of a battle since he can effectively spawn in teammates faster than the reinforcement counter can.

Lieutenant


The lieutenant is arguably the most powerful of the four classes in Return to Castle Wolfenstein's multiplayer game. Like the others, he can carry a pistol, a combat knife, and a single grenade, but he can also choose to wield any one of the game's three submachine guns--the Thompson, the Sten, or the MP40--with two clips of ammo. The lieutenant's supposed leadership role stems from his ability to drop packets of ammo for his teammates and from the fact that he can call in two types of devastating attacks to level a certain area of the battlefield. The first such attack is an airstrike, which the lieutenant can summon by tossing a smoke grenade anywhere on the map. A few seconds later, a series of explosions will rock the area immediately around the smoke grenade. His second attack is a mortar strike thatcan hit any target on the map simply by lining it up with the crosshairs of his binoculars. The mortar attack isn't as powerful as the airstrike, but its reach extends to nearly anywhere that falls within the lieutenant's line of sight.

The Presentation

An Allied soldiers blasts a machinegun nest with a Panzerfaust.

There's a surprising amount of graphical detail in Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The swirling flamethrower effect has grabbed attention since the game's first showing, but there's so much more eye candy in the game now that it's near final, from fiery explosions and multicolored signal grenades to an undulating ocean. The game's eight player models use superhigh detail textures, and players' helmets fly off if they're hit in the head just the right way, so you'll occasionally see bareheaded soldiers running around. There's sensible use of dynamic lighting--the flamethrower's pilot flame casts a blue glimmer on surrounding walls, and your flaming victims give off a satisfying golden glow. But what's most noticeable is simply how densely packed the map is with details that convey the World War II setting. The Axis barracks in the fortress look lived in. The beach is desolate and foreboding, crossed with barbed wire and littered with wreckage from earlier losses in the battle. It's rare to see this kind of realistic level design in a multiplayer game, and it has a good deal to do with the fact that Nerve has been able to work in much of the art developed by Gray Matter for the solo campaign over the course of a couple of years. In fact, the beach level in the test release was originally destined for Wolfenstein's single-player game but was cut and then reworked into its current form.

The game's graphical interface is a bit more involved than most multiplayer shooters. In the lower half of the HUD, you have the standard health, ammo, and weapon info. There's also a compass, which shows the location of teammates who are making chat requests or who are wounded and waiting for a medic's attentions. To each side is a status bar, one that indicates how much sprint time you have left for dashing up the beach or chasing down an enemy near the mission objective, and the other, located on te right side of the screen, is a power bar that displays the reload time for special weapons and abilities such as the Panzerfaust, the engineer's demolition charge, the medic's revive, and the lieutenant's mortar attack. The top half of the screen displays more strategic information, with icons representing which side has achieved mission goals and a team overlay listing the health and positions of teammates. Also, you'll see an icon in the center of the screen when you're in range of objects in the world that you can interact with, like gun emplacements to man or repair, or walls to destroy.

Our experience with Wolfenstein's multiplayer game has been brief but sweet. With large enough teams, the simple class system works well, and the asymmetrical beach map gives you a lot of different assault and defense options without being too complicated. The multiplayer test will give you a good feel for the game, but certainly the final release will have a lot more to offer. Id's Marty Stratton says there will be game modes in addition to the assault-style mission on the test map, but he wouldn't comment on specifics or confirm how many total maps the multiplayer game will have. At QuakeCon, Nerve suggested there would be between nine and 12 maps, depending in part on how much room was left on the single game CD. Luckily, we won't have too long to wait to see what the full Return to Castle Wolfenstein game will offer, and we're just as eager to get a look at the extensive single-player campaign. Activision has said that we can expect the game in November.

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jakeboudville
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