Written by: Stoo

Date posted: January 21, 2008


Approaching an airbase – perfect sniping opportunity.

Wolfenstein 3D wasn’t, to be accurate, the first ever game to let you view a 3D world from a first-person perspective and shoot things. There were after all even more ancient ancestors out there, and defining things that widely you can throw in a lot of games, even flight sims. It is however widely regarded as the starting point for the First Person Shooter as we know it, with smooth-scrolling interior environments and texture-mapped walls. Nowadays it’s all rather flat, cartoony and bleepy but it still earns recognition from gamers as the vital common ancestor. It’s the shooter’s version of the primordial fish crawling out of the sea half a billion years ago. Well, except that Ultima Underworld was more advanced but hey, it’s Wolfenstein that everyone noticed.

Such is the pace of technology that by 2001 it was already a museum piece, and looked back on with nostalgia by shooter fans. Thus it was ripe for revisiting, taking the basic themes and implementing them in a (then) modern engine. The themes are of course, Nazis, zombies, miniguns and a square-jawed American commando. The engine meanwhile is Id’s Tech 3, although I imagine most of us know it better as the one behind Quake 3. iD didn’t actually create the game themselves – rather they kept to the role of overseers and brought in two separate studios to do the developing work. For the purposes of this review we’re just looking at the single player game, developed by Grey Matter studios. The multiplayer is apparently a different beast, with character-class based capture-the-flag or something. Er, sorry, we’re not really into such things here.

Anyway Return to Castle Wolfenstein isn’t a sequel to what we laughingly call the original game’s “story”. Rather, it’s a retelling. You take on the role of American special forces soldier BJ Blaskowitz. He’s on a mission to uncover secret Nazi superweapon projects, relating to the occult and to cybernetics research. At the start of the game the mission isn’t going too well for BJ – he’s been taken captive. However, no poxy cell can hold such a rugged hero for long. The opening (in-engine) cutscene sees him overpowering a guard and busting out. Armed only with a pistol and knife, it’s up to you to A: get some more guns and B: find out just what those nazis are up to.

The sten gun is the most accurate submachinegun, but overheats quickly.

Initially it all seems quite plausible. Well, that is, not in gameplay terms as it mostly follows the same rules as any other traditional shooter. You stagger around under the weight of eleven guns, you can take several hits without dying, and merely touching a first aid kit will miraculously patch up grievous wounds. Also over the course of the game you single-handedly destroy what appears to be half the Wermacht. Good old utterly unrealistic run-and-gun, then. However, the setting seems grounded in reality. Starting in the castle itself you escape to a frosty village, patrolled by common-or-garden nazi solders. Your weapons meanwhile are actual historical gear, like the german MP40. Early objectives include commandeering a cable-car, Where Eagles Dare style and meeting up with a resistance member in the the village.

A few missions in, though, you find yourself investigating an archaeological survey in a long-forgotten crypt. Deep inside you find the Nazis shooting at something other than yourself, which turns out to be sword-waving dessicated corpses. Who, once they’ve hacked down the germans, turn their baleful life-hating attention towards yourself. Looks like the Germans have been meddling with unnatural forces that should have remained buried forever! Those crazy Nazis. Later on they wheel out secret weapons based on that meddling, such as leaping electric mutants, and giant cyborgs with rocket launchers. Oh and there’s a nazi witch in a black bikini. Of course.

Don’t worry though, as true to the original you get a man-portable minigun to tackle them with. Like, the kind of gun that would probably rip a man’s arm off in reality. Yup, it all gets a bit silly, but in a highly entertaining manner. If you want something closer to a “real” second world war experience, go play Call of Duty. This one revels in its fantastical action-movie nature. A Monocle-wearing Nazi general gloats at you as his twisted creation sprays you with rockets and, and the supernatural bits are like Rambo wading into Indiana Jones.

Oh dear, he looks unfriendly.

It’s all, if a bit dated, at least decent enough to look at. Tech 3 is obviously several steps behind the latest graphics technology, but it was regarded as pretty special in its day and it’s a clear step closer to realism than its predecessors. So coupled with some skilled design work, we’re given a range of quite convincing environments like a richly detailed mansion, a frozen U-boat dock and a huge dam. A few places feel a bit dull and grey, but usually they’re quite atmospheric. The snowy levels seem crispy-cold, the catacombs are gloomy and foreboding without dragging on too long, and the little mountain villages have almost a homely feel. Character models are decent too, if a bit blurry by modern standards, with the odd nice touch like soldiers losing their helmets when they first take a hit.

Combat meanwhile is mostly well-balanced. Headshots count for extra damage, thus rewarding those who take careful aim. Also as you hold the trigger down on an automatic weapon the accuracy falls off, signalled by your targeting reticule growing in diameter. As for the enemies their AI seems at least a couple of steps above mindless; for one thing they won’t stand out in the open getting shot. Rather, they’ll run for cover, and duck in and out of your line of sight. The giant cyborgs meanwhile just kind of stomp terrifyingly and relentlessly towards you, not too bright but their threat is based more on simple durability. They force you to you to shoot, take cover, repeat until the damn thing drops dead. The only enemies that really annoyed me are the super-fast electric-mutant-things, that seem to be able to hurt you just by getting within ten metres.

The one area where RTCW ventures outside of standard running-and-gunning is some nods towards stealth. You have no less than four silent weapons, most importantly a submachinegun and sniper rifle, and using these does seem to save you from alerting someone in the next room. Which can save a headache. That said, the stealth dynamics are pretty simplistic, without for example much attention to player visibility. Two maps are stealth-focussed, one of which works and one which doesn’t. If any guard spots you and sounds an alarm it’s Game Over, but you’re working in broad daylight, guards can spot you from a fair distance off and they seem to go straight from oblivious to opening fire if given only a brief glimpse.

So does she.

I can forgive one low note, though. Overall, RtCW accomplishes well what it sets out to do. It doesn’t get my top recommendations – in first person gaming those go to really engrossing experiences that aim for something a little different, with greater depth to the experience. Games like Thief or Half Life 2 – snobbish perhaps, but that’s the way I work. RtCW isn’t one of those. There’s nothing really new here, it’s not ambitious and it didn’t have me hunched in front of the monitor at 2am utterly immersed in its fictional world. I won’t bang on about it the way I might Deus Ex. It is, however, a lot of fun and sometimes shooting Fascist cyborgs in the head is just what you need to unwind.

So this one arrives in solid 8/10 territory as far as I’m concerned. Plenty of action, plenty of guns, quality action. The production values show through, and its polished to a good standard with and no real howlers of mistakes to derail it. Plus it still looks slick enough; we might be retro gamers but we know a 2001 shooter is going to be a step more convincing, and easy to get into, than an average 1995 shooter. So it’s not so reliant on nostalgia. At $20 on Steam this one’s a solid buy that’ll keep you going for a weekend, battling it out with sneering Nazis (Schweinhund!) and gun-toting monstrosities. Which is enough for a “silver medal” recommendation here.