Return to Castle Wolfenstein Updated Preview
We get a chance to play nearly final versions of the game's single- and multiplayer components.
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id Software Speaks
After the massively popular release of its multiplayer test demo last month, Return to Castle Wolftenstein looks certain to be the biggest PC action game coming out this holiday season. With all the buzz surrounding the game's intense team-based multiplayer, you might overlook the story-based single-player campaign, but then you'd be missing out. At a recent Activision event, we had the opportunity to play through previously unseen missions and multiplayer maps and found that the game serves up plenty of surprises. The setting blends World War II realism with experimental technology and gothic occult themes in a way that makes Nazi Germany a more dangerous place than ever.
It's been nearly a decade since the release of Wolfenstein 3D, id's genre-defining first-person shooter, and the new game combines all the advances in 3D technology and story-based gameplay we've seen in the meantime. As B.J. Blazkowicz, a top agent of the fictional US Office of Secret Actions (OSA), you've been sent in with a team to investigate disturbing reports that the Nazis are trying to harness occult powers to further their war effort. But your team doesn't make it. Once you manage to escape from Castle Wolfenstein--Heinrich Himmler's base of operations for leading the Nazis' secret experiments--you'll find that the initial reports are not only true, but also worse than imagined. Naturally, this will make for plenty of chances to test out your impressive arsenal. Kicking off the story is a cutscene in the OSA briefing room that has a cinematic flair similar to the one in No One Lives Forever. It also shows off the much higher level of character detail in Wolfenstein, which uses a modified version of the Quake III: Team Arena engine.
In fact, those who have played the multiplayer test will quickly notice that the Return to Castle Wolfenstein's single-player environments are much more detailed than what's in the test demo--and that the levels are much larger. After you escape from the dungeons of Castle Wolfenstein, you'll descend a tramway that leads from the castle's snowy mountaintop location down to a village below. This mountainous area and immense forest level are great examples of how the engine has been modified to allow for large outdoor environments. The developers have done a great job making the World War II-themed locations as dramatic as possible, including the large working airfield you'll assault at one point, as well as a V2 missile test facility.
You'll also spelunk down into the ancient crypt of Henry the Fowler or Heimlich--the 10th-century dark prince whose powers the Nazis are trying to harness. This is where you'll first encounter the other evil in the game, the undead. You'll find the likes of skeletal dark-age warriors wielding axes and shields, as well as spellcasting zombies. The tight confines of the crypt and the incredible damage that these monsters will take make them quite dangerous. And the boss is even tougher.
The Nazi forces pose another challenge, especially as you start to face the advanced troops later in the game. The elite venom soldiers are particularly dangerous, wielding the vicious minigun, but the soldiers with the most dramatic entrance have to be the paratroopers who'll parachute out of the sky to storm your position. The game even has some attractive female agents, whom you might run into at an inopportune moment. And the enemy AI is fun to go up against--ordinary Nazi soldiers take cover intelligently, throw grenades to flush you out of hiding places, and even pick up and throw back your own grenades.
But you can't shoot everybody and everything--you'll also come across undercover agents in dark alleyways or as captives of Nazi soldiers, and you'll certainly want to pick your shots carefully at those moments. But not every innocent-looking civilian is off-limits--Nazi workers may put up their hands to surrender, only to pull out pistols and start shooting you when you turn around.
The game includes an impressive arsenal of real-world and experimental World War II weapons, several of which aren't included in the multiplayer game at all. There's the FG42, a side-loaded German assault rifle with a scope, which combines high damage, accuracy, and a quick rate of fire. There's also a silenced sniper rifle equipped with a night-vision scope, which is very useful for missions that absolutely require stealth instead of a frontal assault. The weapons are grouped as in Half-Life, allowing you to choose the type of weapon with the number key and then scroll through the available choices. Considering how many weapons you can carry at a given time, this makes things much more manageable. Also, there are weapons of different caliber, so if you run out of 9mm ammo for your MP40 submachine gun, you won't be able to use your Sten--but you can just as easily pull out the .45 caliber Thompson. There are also a few belt-fed machine guns placed at key locations that you can use against large groups of enemies. The view conveniently zooms in so that you can see far-off groups of targets, and there's a new aiming reticule that wasn't present in the test demo. A further interface tweak from the multiplayer test is that the reticule now gives you a heads-up indication of your health, turning yellow and then red as you're wounded.
While the developers don't want to specify the number of final levels or hours of gameplay, there seems to be quite a lot to the single-player game. We played through the levels as quickly as we could and didn't complete more than a few each in the time we had with the game. Return to Castle Wolfenstein's single-player and multiplayer components will be installed as separate applications, but a menu option will let players switch between them. From the number of interface and weapon tweaks, it's apparent that the developers have been busy since we last saw the single-player game at QuakeCon and even since the release of the multiplayer test.
Changes in Multiplayer
After a few hours with the single-player portion of the game, we were able to play three maps from the multiplayer portion of Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The first map was Beach Invasion, the same level that was included in last month's compatibility test download. While playing this now classic map, it was interesting to note the improvements that id Software and Nerve Software implemented in this latest build in the short time since the test's release, because the game has both significant and subtle changes. Arguably, the most drastic of these changes comes to soldiers who equip the flamethrower, as their speed is severely reduced. In fact, soldiers who carry the flamethrower won't be able to run any faster than soldiers with the venom Gatling gun or the panzerfaust. Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software, says that the flamethrower was thought to be a little too powerful in the compatibility test, so the developers are tweaking to make this weapon a little more even with the others in the game. Some of the tweaks originally included reducing its range or the amount of fuel that players can carry, but reducing the overall running speed seemed the most logical. Hollenshead stresses that Nerve and id are still fiddling around with a combination of factors and haven't made a final decision on the flamethrower's fate yet.
Having said that, the latest version of Wolfenstein's multiplayer component does boast a feature that is undoubtedly a direct result of feedback from victims of flamethrower friendly fire. When a member of your own team kills you, you will have the option of lodging a complaint against that player. When the offending player receives a certain number of complaints, the entire team will have the chance to vote that person off the server. It seems like there are constant mishaps involving players roasting their own teammates with the flamethrower, so this new feature should punish team killers and make the careless think twice before blindly letting loose a stream of fire into a room full of players.
The other major change to the game's multiplayer formula that we noted while playing Beach Invasion was to the engineers. After placing dynamite next to the sea wall door and sea wall breach (or anywhere on the map, for that matter), engineers need to take an extra five seconds to arm the explosives--otherwise, the dynamite will just sit there. The arming process involves switching to your tweezers, standing over the dynamite, and holding the fire key for about five seconds. Just like before, you can keep this button depressed to increase the dynamite's fuse by five-second increments. While this adds an extra level of difficulty for players who play as engineers, the nice thing about this new feature is that once an explosive is placed, any engineer can then arm it, even if the player who originally planted the bomb has been killed.
Most of the other tweaks in the game are just that--minor changes that few people will notice. These include a visually enhanced limbo menu with new graphics for each class of soldier, a different font, and the addition of two different victory messages. Additionally, all classes will now start the round with one more clip than they had in the compatibility test, and the spawn flags have been changed slightly as well.
In addition to Beach Invasion, the two other multiplayer maps that we played through at Activision's event were Das Boot and Assault, which are variations on existing single-player levels. In fact, Beach Invasion will be the only multiplayer map available in the game that isn't based on some single-player level. Like Beach Invasion, Das Boot is an objectives-based level, although it contains only two instead of three. This map is slightly larger than Beach Invasion, but it's almost exclusively indoors, so it doesn't have the same expansive feel that Beach does. The first objective for the Allies is to blow up a series of doors leading into an Axis submarine pen, and the second objective is to destroy the actual submarine by placing a charge near the boat's stern. The Axis' objective, naturally, is to prevent the Allies from achieving these goals. Obviously, because both of the Allies' objectives require the use of dynamite, this map is much more dependent on the proper use of engineers than Beach Invasion was. This is true of both sides, since Axis engineers will have the chance to defuse dynamite placed close to the sub before it explodes. The game's executive producer told us that this map will be more than playable with eight people, although 10 or 12 is a more ideal number.
Unlike Das Boot or Beach Invasion, Assault is a checkpoint map that's similar to domination mode in Unreal Tournament. This map is an enhanced version of the air base from the single-player game, and it has four locations that need to be held simultaneously in order for one side to win the match. Holding a location simply involves touching one of the four flags that are spread around the level. When all four flags--which are located within the Axis hangar, the Axis warehouse, the main gate area, and near the radar dish--are held by the Axis or Allies, that side is proclaimed the winner. Some matches will time out before all four flags are held by a single side, however, and in those cases, whichever side has the majority wins. If both sides hold an even number of flags when the time runs out, the game goes into sudden death, and the side that claims the first flag wins.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein will have a third multiplayer mode that Activision is tentatively referring to as "stopwatch." These maps are basically objectives based, but with a stricter emphasis on time. When a match starts, one team will be timed to see how fast it can complete its objectives. After the match is over, the sides switch, and the new team is tasked with beating the first team's record. Whoever ends up with the faster score is declared the winner.
Unfortunately for purists, the game won't have any capture-the-flag, deathmatch, or team deathmatch modes. Activision is hoping to move the first-person shooter genre along with this game, and it feels that resorting to those classic multiplayer modes will chain Wolfenstein to the past. Whatever the reasons, with modes such as stopwatch, checkpoint, and objectives, we won't miss the antiquated CTF and deathmatch for a second. Both the length and visual splendor of Return to Castle Wolfenstein's single-player campaign and the addictive nature of its multiplayer component make it one of the promising action games coming out this year. And id Software and Activision assure us that it will be out this year.