I’ve noticed a funny thing about the reading public. In one of the Rental columns I asked for suggestions as to the best horror movies of all time, and got maybe 40 responses, which I considered pretty good at the time. Then in my review for Armada, I point out that there was some kind of plot discontinuity between Armada 1 and 2, and fully 300 people wrote in pointing out that I had missed some missions near the end. Now, the assistance in pointing out the error of my ways I appreciate, but the roughly 70+ responses that insinuated that my missing the levels was somehow related to my mom, and more specifically to people or things my mom might have had sex with. Too much, people. Too much. I have half a mind (uh, poor choice of words) to take my ball and my videogame insights and go home. A couple of months of buying games like Hot Wired and Dukes of Hazard: Racing for Home because you don’t have me around to tell you not to, and you’ll be begging me to come back. Capish?
Back when Quake 3 came out, I thought to myself (and was far from alone in this thought) ‘cool graphics engine, but not a game.’ Especially in comparison to Unreal Tournament, I felt that Quake 3 was lacking in just about every category, except the graphics engine. Fast forward a little, and out comes Elite Force using the Quake 3 engine. It was plot driven, with a sort of interactive environment, and it looked great. The Icarus engine, or whatever they called the thingy that was supposed to dynamically allow you to alter the plotline, was a bust, but otherwise I felt it was a solid 1st person shooter. Fast forward once again, and we come to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, a game that in the hearts of gamers had to be almost as anticipated as Duke Nukem Forever. DNF at this point has had so much hype built up around it that it could never match expectations, and would perhaps be better off if it were never released. RTCW isn’t quite in that boat, but it does have so much history that I think it will find it difficult being everything people are hoping it to be.
I remember playing Castle Wolfenstein on my Franklin Ace in, oh, it must have been about 1980. It was a top-down shooter at that point, looking a great deal like the old arcade game Berserk. Your mission was to escape from Wolfenstein and steal the plans for operation Reingold (I don’t believe Reingold beer is even sold anymore). There was also a Return to Castle Wolfenstein, in which you had to break into the castle, find a bomb, and use it to blow up Hitler – a pretty good vocation for a good Jewish kid from New York. But I’m sure the Castle Wolfenstein that most of you remember is the 1st person shooter for the PC. I knew people who were nuts for that game, drawing out the maps carefully on graph paper and scouring the levels for every secret room. Good times. The thing that I think made Wolfenstein the phenomena that it was is that it’s always been innovative, unlike anything else that you could be playing at that time. In that sense, RTCW has an even harder fight on its hands in a market almost dominated by 1st person shooters, and in the shadow of the recent and excellent Max Payne.
So how does it stack up? For those of you with short attention spans I’ll come right out and say that it’s good. Very good. It lacks real innovative sparks (such as bullet time or interesting puzzles or a greatly interactive environment) that would set it apart, but otherwise every piece of the game has been put together just about as well as I think it could be. The graphics are excellent with fog, flickering torches, cobwebs, and all the nice touches that really bring the place to life. I did hit some points where the frame rate dropped, but that could well be my machine at this point (P3-500, 128MB RAM, 32MB video card - I’m shopping for my next dream machine now). The weapons are nothing new and different (and don’t ask me if they are historical or not – I have no idea), but they are well rendered and matched with sounds that are great. An interesting note is that weapons have a several second reload time, so you can’t just slap in a new clip and go a-blasting. You’ve got to plan your reloads accordingly or find yourself fumbling with clips while being peppered with machinegun fire, and you can listen for enemy reloads to catch them temporarily unarmed.
The AI is a peculiar combination of the disappointing and the surprising. Some soldiers run blithely at you blasting away until you cut them down from your concealment. And with the alarms blaring, some soldiers stand at station utterly oblivious. But some prove to be much smarter, hanging out around corners, rolling, dodging, finding cover, and going for help. I had one soldier kick a grenade I had thrown back at me. That was a surprise! And then again I’ve seen soldiers trying to run at me but stuck on some piece of furniture or a doorway. Enemies are varied, the most interesting perhaps being the Elite guard, a matched set of blonde assassins dressed in full-body leather catsuits and stiletto heels, that synchronize their attacks, dodging, rolling, and diving to avoid your gunfire. The click of their heels on the floor, however, gives them away from a great distance. The plotline (kind of a combination of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy), while not exactly blazing new ground, does tie the various levels together nicely and keep you moving forward.
In some ways the game is a, to use a three-dollar word, homage to the earlier game. There are secret rooms filled with Nazi treasure and/or supplies, and at the end of each level you are given a summary of the number of enemies you killed out of the total available, and the number of secrets that you found, giving you a chance to go back and try to finish them off. Some of the secrets are quite obvious, such as the old twisting wall sconce. Others are more elaborate, requiring you to knock over or shoot over a heavy object that falls and breaks a hole in the wall or floor, or blow something up. Others still must be more complicated, because I haven’t managed to find them all.
The single player game is perhaps a little short. Not Blue Shift short, but I did complete the game in less time than it took me to get through, say, Max Payne. As I continue being bandwidth deprived (which my cable company assures me will change in February), I didn’t take a shot at multiplayer, but the buzz on the web is good, and the fan mapmaking machine is in full swing offering dozens of levels already for download.
You’re not going to find a single thing in RTCW that hasn’t been done elsewhere, in some instances done elsewhere a very long time ago. And yet they do it all nicely, producing a game that is well-polished and just plain fun to play. It also held, for me at least, a warm dose of nostalgia that left me feeling all gooey inside.