2001, PC CD-ROM (Windows, Linux and Mac versions)
Developed by: Gray Matter (multiplayer portion by Nerve Software) under license from Id Software
Published by: Activision

The Multiplayer Test

(Written prior to the full game's release)

Return to Castle Wolfenstein is shaping up to be the most promising addition to the FPS genre since Half-Life. Based on the Quake III Arena engine (and benefiting from two years of tweaks and enhancements), the game recreates various World War II-themed scenarios in an action-oriented (as opposed to hardcore simulation) style.

The single player game involves a plot by the Third Reich to harness occult powers (see Spear of Destiny, Indiana Jones, etc.), which serves as an excuse for all manner of freaky enemies such as zombies, as well as the products of Nazi military experiments. As G.I. hardcase B.J. Blazkowicz, you have to put a stop to these nefarious goings-on utilising an impressively varied arsenal as well as vehicles and devices scattered around the playing area.

Gray Matter plan to have a mission-based slant to the game (as opposed to- or rather as well as- straightforward run-and-shoot), and have implemented a smart 'activate' key which allows you to interact with your surroundings in a variety of ways (indicated by a small icon at the bottom of the HUD).

The multiplayer game offers (among more traditional game modes) a teamplay mode where players can take different roles (Soldier, Engineer, Medic or Lieutenant) and have to complete multiple objectives (think of it as a multi-part Capture The Flag game, with elements of CounterStrike and Team Fortress and you're not far off).

From the small part of the game that has been made public so far, it seems likely that RtCW will be a blockbuster. It's possible of course that something else may steal its thunder in the interim, but that seems unlikely. And hopefully there'll be a feature to kick out team-killers in the finished version. Mein Lieben!

The Full Game

Return to Castle Wolfenstein (herein RtCW) bucks the trend of the last couple of years by trying to provide a complete single player and multiplayer experience.

The first thing that strikes you about the single player game is that it really does manage to stay true to Wolfenstein 3D (while modernising the presentation, of course). In the initial stages, stealth is an option, but it's not the focal point of the game. There are satifsyingly hectic sequences involving pure run-and-gun action, where hapless Nazi footsoldiers are filled with lead if not by the dozen, then at least in satisfyingly large clusters.

Each level (as this is a strictly level-based game) contains a number of secrets as well, which range from the simple (lever hidden behind a painting) to the more obscure (such as pushing over a stone cross to smash through a weakened floor) and encourage you to search through your environment more thoroughly.

The game is made up of about seven missions (short episodes) comprising of several levels each. As each level is pretty self-contained, there are a variety of different playing styles at different points in the game. Starting out with straightforward gunplay, we then see a bit of claustrophobic 'survival horror'-style suspense, followed by a boss battle, then maybe a more militaristic objective-based level, or a stealth level, or an outdoor level where most of the time is spent behind a sniper scope. There are influential touches from a wide range of games, from Half-Life (of course) to Project IGI and even Time Crisis.

The game manages to pull off all these aspects well, the worse probably being stealth which is occasionally very frustrating, but does compensate by sporadically putting you in a 'safe' area where you can twat a load of officers with your silenced Sten. As the game progresses the enemies become more of a challenge, with sharpening AI and (by the final two episodes) a ridiculous amount of health. There are some non-human enemies as well that range from the just-about-manageable to the nigh-on indestructible. (Those bloody Uber Soldaten!) And OK, I'll concede that things go a bit awry towards the end of the game, with the ending being rather anti-climatic. But then Half-Life's last section (Xen) was crap as well, so it's just about forgivable.

The design and appearance of the levels is probably RtCW's greatest triumph. Not even Half-Life or Quake II managed this much variation, or pulled off such ambitious goals. Some of the highlights (bearing in mind there isn't really a bad level in the game- except perhaps the excavation site near the end) include a spectacular Dam, huge outdoor areas with realistic looking trees, a bombed-out German town, a picturesque German village (Paderborn) in twilight, and a vast secret air base. The game uses fog, light haloes, coloured lighting and airborne particles (cobwebs and things) to give each space in the game a unique feel. The multiplayer test, or even the majority of Quake III Arena fan efforts, cannot prepare you for the sheer artistry that Gray Matter have poured into these environments.

The multiplayer side, which is for many players the main reason they bought the game, is solid and highly entertaining, even though there are only seven or so maps currently on offer. It manages to play well even over my crappy modem, which is a stunning achievement. The open-ended nature of the 'objectives' system that Nerve have developed pretty much ensures for some highly imaginative maps and mods. I've never been a great fan of Counter-Strike and its horde of imitators, but RtCW does something sufficiently different to give it a wide appeal. I love teamwork. I love miniguns and silenced Stens. This game can't fail to make me happy.

In my opinion, RtCW is one of the best, if not the best, shooters available today. Detractors who moan about it being 'not as big a step as Half-Life' or 'not realistic' or 'too short' (wtf?!) are missing the point. Half-Life was the genre's R-Type in a way - from this point on, we can make FPS's bigger, shinier and more complex, but there is little new ground to explore, without deviating into RPG territory. RtCW is a fine, well-crafted game in its own right, far, far superior to the stylish but superficial Max Payne and on a completely different playing field to anything else, bar Half-Life and AvP2 (although they very different games, with different strengths and weaknesses).

Apparently, the game cost a cool $9-10 million to develop. It was definitely money well spent.

Additional info

I have started noding the official multiplayer levels seperately. I think that this is defensible from claims of NFN, because each of the levels is a self-contained experience. Furthermore, I do not plan to write them up unless I feel there is enough to say about them.