The evolution of the Castle Wolfenstein franchise would make Charles Darwin proud. Gameplay has advanced from sneaking past guards in the original to the innovative first-person perspective of Wolfenstein 3D. Even the very walls of the infamous castle have changed from 2D to 3D, from sprites to polygons. The inherent fun of infiltrating the stronghold and defeating the Nazis has remained a constant throughout.
Now, more than 20 years since its humble beginnings, you once again assume the role of William "BJ" Blazkowicz in Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the latest incarnation that maintains the high standard of quality in gameplay and technology. Seems as though the Nazi S. S. Paranormal Division, in addition to creating horrific biological weapons known as X Creatures, is working to resurrect a 1000-year-old entity to lead Germany to world domination. You, as Blazkowicz (the allies best agent), must overcome zombies, mutants, and a host of Nazi soldiers to save the world from certain doom.
From the start, it's apparent that the development team gave the single-player experience top priority. The story-driven missions are linked by nice cut-scenes and, rather than merely serving as a reason to hunt Nazis, the tale takes on more urgency and intrigue throughout the game. Return to Castle Wolfenstein is comparable to Half-Life in that single-player mode is worth playing to the very end.
The game is a return to serious gunfights as well. Over a dozen lethal choices are available to eradicate the Nazi threat, including submachine guns, sniper rifles, and experimental weapons. Damage is location specific, rewarding headshots more than body parts. More emphasis is placed on sniping than charging in with guns blazing. Even at close quarters, the one-shot sniper kill will have you reaching for the Mauser Rifle instead of the MP-40. Sadly, the Tesla and Venom weapons don't deliver the same accuracy or damage in Blazkowicz's hands as when the enemies use them.
As good as the game is, there are a few missed opportunities. Only one vehicle is operational, a tram on rails. After spending a mission stealing a prototype rocket jet, it would have been nice to have a short flying sequence. Also, the original Castle Wolfenstein incorporated stealing uniforms to sneak past problem areas and the manual makes reference to using uniforms in Wolfenstein 3D, but the designers chose to stick to action over stealth. Even though Return to Castle Wolfenstein has a few stealth missions, adding the uniform swapping would have been a welcome nod to the original.
Multiplayer games feature Axis vs. Allies in team-based combat. Similar to the Team Fortress mod for Half-Life, players can choose from four classes: soldier, engineer, lieutenant, and medic. A variety of maps contain specific objectives, from destroying a submarine to claiming flags in a ruined shell of a town. Especially exciting is the beachhead map where players must storm a hill and get past bunkers in action reminiscent of the opening of Saving Private Ryan. The system requirements for smooth multiplayer action are, however, somewhat hefty so don't take it on without the requisite computing power.
Graphically, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is simply stunning. Bavaria has never been rendered so beautifully, and a bevy of locations such as secret labs, crypts, villages, and, of course, Castle Wolfenstein, create an immersive atmosphere. Landscapes are powered by the Quake III Arena engine, so curved architecture, realistic water and fire effects, and high polygon counts are the order of the day. Characters and vehicles are slightly blocky, but not terribly so. As expected, this quality of graphics require a fairly powerful computer -- certainly giving you the reason you've been looking for to upgrade to more memory and that top-of-the-line accelerator card.
While Return to Castle Wolfenstein is still a FPS at heart, it's not the mindless shooter with the muddled inept storyline so often encountered in the genre. In fact, it's nice to have a positive example of gameplay and story telling that keeps pace with technology. While the designers stuck a bit too closely to the "gunplay over stealth" mindset, the missions requiring sneaking are a nice change of pace. Perhaps not as innovative as Wolfenstein 3D, the art form of the FPS nonetheless has now been refined to rival the best of the genre.
Graphics: From the quiet villages to the creepy castle, graphics are uniformly superb. The powerful Quake III Arena engine is put through its paces and performs beautifully.
Sound: Gamers need to listen for audio cues (running, directional gunfire, voices) in order to survive. Guns bark with authority and Germans call out warnings to comrades before trying to hunt you down. The background music swells during gunfights, adding to the tension commensurate with infiltration of the Nazi fortress.
Enjoyment: The single-player mode is well thought out and exciting. Multiplayer is non-stop squad action requiring teamwork to achieve objectives.
Replay Value: Some missions are worth reloading after finishing the main game. Multiplayer design requires practice, and will undoubtedly spawn many clans of players looking to hone their skills.
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