Return to Castle Wolfenstein

User Rating: 9 | Return to Castle Wolfenstein PC
I’ll spare you the sentimental retrospective about how the original Wolfenstein 3D birthed the first-person-shooter craze and get straight to the point: Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a damn, damn fine game. Want a perfect example of how far the first-person-shooter genre has evolved since it first hit our 386s? Wolf, as it’s affectionately known, is it. The game’s graphics, sound, and gameplay reflect all the improvements and advances we’ve made in the last decade, and wraps them together in one genuinely fun, challenging, and varied package, with a pretty little multiplayer bow on top (see boxout, next page).

Our hero, U.S. Army Ranger B.J. Blazkowicz, makes the move from flat 2D sprites to the lush and beautiful 3D world of id Software’s Quake III engine. To say that he and his Nazi nemeses have never looked better is an understatement of epic proportions. This collective facelift gloriously brings to life the German army and Nazi commandos, brings half-to-life undead zombies, and brings an imposing life to the baddest cyborg monstrosities since Doom II’s Cyberdemon.

High-res textures, smooth animations, and detailed character models are just some of the treats Wolfenstein has to offer. Nazi soldiers have immaculately detailed uniforms, complete with medals, patches, and insignia. Enemy troops encountered on the battlefield look the part: many wear the scars of battle, bloody bandages, and tattered clothes. As an added treat, the all-female elite guards of the SS Paranormal Division cram their svelte bodies into tight leather outfits that would make Lara Croft blush.

Not only do these characters look great, but they move great, too. Sentries walk the perimeter, stopping from time to time to curse their guard duty lot with a buddy or smoke a cigarette. Elite Guards perform various acrobatic flips as they shred you to bits with their Sten guns. And zombies shamble like no other videogame zombie has shambled before, all thanks to some very well-executed motion-capturing.

These bad guys aren’t dumb, either. While you won’t run into the same level of AI complexity that impressed us so much in Ghost Recon, these enemies are certainly capable of giving you a thorough and humiliating spanking if you slack off. Snipers armed with the devastating paratrooper rifle duck behind cover between shots rather than staying exposed, and soldiers are alerted when they see the bodies of fallen comrades.

As B.J., you begin as a prisoner in the dungeons of the Nazi-controlled castle: You’ve been captured while checking out reports of paranormal goings-on. Escaping from Castle Wolfenstein is just a small part of the game. As the story unfolds, you’ll travel all over World War II Europe, from snow-capped mountains to bombed-out cities, infiltrating secret underground labs and ancient crypts. With each level, you’ll uncover more about a Nazi scheme to crush the Allies by harnessing the powers of the undead.

Once again, the Quake III engine shines brightly. Dark tombs look wicked and foreboding thanks to eerie fog, cracked sarcophagi, and flickering torches. A secret weapons factory is replete with shiny Death Star flooring and wondrously reflective textures. Even more spectacular levels are the ones that re-create alpine villages, some of which have been ravaged by war. These environments all bristle with the polish that makes some games truly great. It’s all in the details, be it rust on metal grating, moss on stone walls, or Nazi propaganda posters hanging in the castle hallways.

The sound department is no slouch, either. PC sound has improved dramatically in just the past year, and recent releases have all showcased superb sound effects.

Return to Wolf is no exception: the audio in this game is easily on par with the terrific sound in Ghost Recon. Bullets make different noises depending on what materials they impact against, the flamethrower emits a breathtaking whoosh when fired, and the screams from Nazi soldiers desperately trying to pat out the flames will make you smile the morbid smile of victory [or in Rob’s case, cackle like a maniacal madman — Ed.]. The sound-design team paid every bit as much attention to detail as the modelers and level designers, and complemented by the game’s dynamic music, the result is an aural masterpiece.

The mission objectives in Wolfenstein are some of the most diverse I’ve seen in an FPS. Some call for you to eliminate all opposition, both living and undead, while others include escorting a tank through a Nazi-held town, sneaking into an enemy camp, and (my personal favorite) assassinating five high-ranking SS officers in a quiet countryside villa. A few of the missions require absolute stealth, but it’s not over if you’re spotted — only if you’re spotted and the person who saw you is able to sound the alarm. A savvy gamer will take out the guard before the button is pressed, or better yet, destroy the button itself so no alarm can be sounded.

Other missions are completely open-ended, and while it’s fun to kick down a door and pump the surprised SS troops full of .45-caliber slugs, the stealthy approach is incredibly satisfying. Silently creeping up to a Nazi scumbag and knifing him in the back is guaranteed to be one of the best moments in gaming this year.

A few people have voiced concern that the inclusion of zombies would compromise the game’s gritty WWII feel, but trust me when I say that their worries are completely unwarranted. When the zombies are introduced to the game, it’s in a part of the story where they make sense, and you won’t see them anywhere else. Also, you don’t spend that much time fighting these gruesome corpses. The meat of your opposition will come from the German Army, and later in the game you’ll encounter some impressively tough cyborg mutations called Lopers.

The biggest challenge, though, comes from the bosses, and in Wolfenstein, you’ll have to deal with some of the hardest end-level battles ever. These epic shootouts will pit you against mechanized supersoldiers, a large SS woman possessed by demonic spirits, and other horrors that are best

kept secret. Strangely enough, while these struggles are tough, and the chances of you winning on your first try are slim, they’re truly thrilling. I finally downed the final boss with just four health remaining, and Rob managed it with eight health and his last remnants of ammo — a perfect example of the finely honed game balance, which gives you a real sense of accomplishment.

The arsenal is made up mostly of real-life WWII weaponry such as MP-40 submachine-guns, Thompsons, Colt 1911s, Lugers, and Panzerfauzt rocket launchers. By now, you’ve probably already heard about the biggest treat: the flamethrower. This instrument of destruction is both beautiful and terrifying in its pyrotechnic glory. Never before has a more convincing representation of fire been created on our PCs, and when you get your hands on this baby, you won’t want to let it go. Topping off the weapons lineup are two experimental arms you’ll find during your missions into Nazi research laboratories — the venom gun (a handheld minigun) and the tesla gun (which projects purple lightning similar to what the Emperor in Return of the Jedi cast from his hands).

We experienced no significant performance issues on a range of systems, but a GeForce2 is certainly recommended. Similarly, we had nary a crash through the entire game, though one time a level loaded and our guns were missing. A quick reload solved the problem.

Gray Matter didn’t take any mind-blowing new steps in the world of first-person-shooter creation. Instead, it took the core aspects of every good shooter, and made them great. By the time you finish this game, you’ll be eager to go back for more, and at a harder difficulty level (there are three). Wolf is money well-spent, and I recommend it to any gamer.