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.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein in multiplayer is the best multiplayer I've played in a long time, and bears a little more analysis.

Teams
The teams are Axis, sporting grey trenchcoats and helmets and fighting under the Wolfenstein flag (Very wisely the Nerve people made it so you don't have to be a complete Nazi to play for Axis), and the Allies, wearing green pants and a beige flak jacket and sporting a green helmet - I'm a little miffed that there's no in-game option to change the damn flag though, I'd rather have a New Zealand flag than the US one. Of course, the game is all packed into WinZip accesible PK3 file so there is nothing stopping me changing it myself....

Classes
There are four classes, each with different abilities. The idea being to support teamwork and prevent "idiot rush" tactics. This does not prevent such rushes (in fact one game mode promotes them) but it makes it possible to simply fend them off with a little strategy. Each class utilises the "power bar" which lets you use certain special abilities.

Soldier
The Soldier is the base that Nerve used for all the other classes. the idea being that they would give him a good range of weapons to choose from and make him the backbone of the team. He can use all the weapons and comes with four grenades. The Soldier can also discard an empty or useless gun and pick up another from a foe or fallen comrade, making him more dangerous, since he has a wide range of options for killing you on the battlefield. The Soldier only draws from the power bar when he is firing the Panzerfaust.

Medic
The Medic is most vital to the game. He can drop health packs (4 if fully charged) and revive fallen players before the go into the reinforcement queue at no cost. Medics also increase the base health of their teammates - when there is a Medic on the team everyone has 10 more health points. A Medic's health also gradually increases up to around 125. Medics pay for their powers though, having only one main weapon (MP40 or Thompson), no reserve ammo for it and only one grenade.

Lieutenant
Probably the most over-used class, often for the wrong reasons. The Lieutenant provides ammo to his team, in the same manner that the Medic drops health packs. The Lieutenant can also call in airstrikes by throwing a smoke grenade (using half the power bar), or the slower but long range artillery (whole power bar). Like the Medic the Lieutenant also has one grenade, but then again he has fire support so he does not need more. The weapon range covers only the base machineguns, the MP40, Thompson and the silenced Sten, though he even gets extra ammo on top of being able to drop some for himself. The Lieutenant is lucky enough to be able to drop his gun and take another machinegun should there be one handy, and they also get a nifty pair of binoculars!

Engineer
The Engineer is a vital class, and most maps need at least two if you have enough players to provide them while filling other roles. Engineers come with either the MP40 or the Thompson and have a whopping 8 grenades. They can also do the vital planting of dynamite, which can blow up objectives thus winning maps. The pliers are used to arm dynamite, fix stationary gun emplacements and most important for the defending team DEFUSE dynamite planted by your enemies, which means a defending engineer is also important.

Play Modes
There are three main play modes, but making it so people have limited lives opens up a whole new strategy level making for another kind of play. first, that game modes.

Multiplayer (MP)
In this, the standard mode, teams will need to work together to accomplish their objectives, in something akin to those special forces war movies, only with more explosions. The best known is the beach map, where the Allies must breach a bunker, steal some documents and get to the radio room to transmit them. The Axis forces must hold them off until the timer runs out, making for a frantic game.

Stopwatch (SP)
In this mode the teams are fixed, and the best thing to do if you are defending is to hold out as long as possible, because when the first round ends the map restarts, but the teams have switched - you have to succeed in less time than the other team took to win.

Checkpoint (CP)
Checkpoint offers a capture the flag style situation with a more strategic twist: You must raise your teams flag on all the flagpoles on the level to win. If no-one wins in the time limit, then it goes off the team with the most flags. IF it's still a draw then the game goes into sudden death overtime - First flag taken wins the round.

Note: There is only one map in the retail release of Return to Castle Wolfenstein that is made for Checkpoint. The other maps can be played this way but they are much, much harder (less satisfying as well) to play, as the main Checkpoint map forces a confrontation, whereas the other maps can be won by people running around madly.

Max Lives
Not a mode of play, but a setting that changes the whole perspective of the game. When you die and go to the reinforcement queue in this mode you lose a life, and when you run out of lives your team no longer benefits from your services. This mode makes it vital to have a couple of good (fast to help) Medics on the team, and keeps people from behaving like lunatics.

Reinforcements
In other games you can die, hit space or fire or whatever and start again, fresh and new with no worries. In Wolfenstein it works differently. If you die you're not dead, you are lying on the ground in pain waiting for a medic to revive you. IF no-one comes and you get tired of waiting you can hit space and go to limbo, where you wait to reinforce. This is a wait of 20-40 seconds, depending on the team and the map. This makes for more strategy, and means there are some real benefits to roasting a room full of enemies with the flamethrower. note that if your body is blown to smithereens you will be forced into the reinforcement queue, as there is no way for the Medics to rebuild your body from the remains.

Weapons
MP40
A standard, rather loose spread machinegun with a 32-round clip and average damage. Available to all classes. - Update, 11/4/02: This gun is actually a little more accurate than the Thompson, especially at range. Sustained fire makes the spread VERY loose - you are more likely to get headshots with a tap on the fire button. The gun, while doing less damage than the Thompson in most cases, is reputed to do double damage when you shoot someone in the back. This is possibly to the advantage of the Axis forces when killing enemy Engineers as they arm dynamite.

Thompson
A better machinegun, offering only a 30 round clip, which supposedly makes it balanced because the gun has more accuracy and more damage - Two bullets do not mean much. - Update, 11/4/02: The Thompson seems to be tighter for sustained fire, but can't handle long range bursts as well as the MP40. It still does more damage in all cases aside from the back shot.

Sten
If you liked the silenced Sten in single player, you will get a kick out of this. The reload time is the same, and it still takes 30 rounds. This gun is only available to the Lieutenant and the Soldier, and though is supposed to be more accurate than the other two machineguns the fact that you cannot get more than a handful of bullets into someone before the gun overheats makes it dangerous to yourself to use.

Mauser
The Mauser is the sniper rifle for Wolfenstein multiplayer, and is one hell of a fun gun to use. You can zoom it in, fire it merrily and watch people die. the big bang doesn't usually give you away in a big open map, it more likely serves to scare the enemy into cover. It takes ten rounds in and comes with ten spare, and unlike the single player version you have some degree of movement with it when zoomed. Only a Soldier can select or pick up a Mauser.

Panzerfaust
The Panzerfaust is a lovely tool to use, for flushing out snipers, clearing bunkers, wiping out people sneaking up behind cover or generally laughing yor head off over the huge mess it makes. When you select the Panzerfaust you get four of them, and they take a little over a second to prime before firing. The blast radius is considerably higher than in single player, but you run much slower when carrying it. Firing uses the whole power bar, and so you must wait a while to fire another - It is best to have backup. Only soldiers may use the Panzerfaust.

Venom
The Venom was one of the coolest things in the single player game (like a Vulcan Machine Gun for personal use), and the one in multiplayer is also nasty. It overheats much quicker, and only comes with 500 rounds. Of the heavy weapons this baby slows you down the most when using it, so you have to get some range to make good use. Again, only the Soldier can use it.

Flamethrower
The Flamethrower still looks beautiful, and still incinerates everything it touches. When a Soldier selects the Flamethrower it comes with a full tank of gas, so there is little need to call for ammo. It slows you down, and does not work at range so it is best in tight places. Soldiers only, once more.

Grenades
One for Medics and Lieutenants, Four for Soldiers and Eight for Engineers, these are great. Allies get a lovely pineapple, Axis get the distinctive potato masher stick grenade. They both work the same, a five second fuse and a big bang. Lovely.

Pistol
Everyone gets a pistol, with an 8 round clip and 24 spare rounds. Axis get the seriously loud Luger and Allies get the Colt. There doesn't seem to be any real difference, and frankly, if you have to use it start to pray.

Knife
Well, the pistols look good now. Out of ammo, nothing left to defend yourself, desperate.... So duck behind something and stab anyone who gets close! Of course I have used it for stealth kills on a couple of rare occasions, sneaking up on someone and saving myself some ammo, so it's not a total loss.

Strategy

  • Volunteer to be the Medic if there are not many. You need Medics, especially in a Max Lives game
  • As a Lieutenant don't throw out airstrikes for nothing. They are not long range, and use up all your power. Artillery can cover a whole map, and either way you must be careful for teammates
  • For the love of god, if you are a Soldier use something other than a standard machinegun! Your only special skill is to use those heavy weapons!
  • If you really, really want to be a Soldier and use a standard machinegun go as an Engineer - Those grenades make you more lethal
  • If you use the Flamethrower then get in front - and if not then let people with them in front!
  • Learn to use the voice chats. The default key is V, and then you hit numbers to pick the type of message and the specific one, making the game much faster.
  • Axis Lieutenants! It is fun to take the higher damage Thompson or the Sten, but think of your Engineers and Medics! If you die and drop your gun they can pick it up if it's an MP40. If you use the Thompson then the Allied forces get ammo off your corpse!

Griping
It's really great. I payed $NZ100 for the game and think the multiplayer was worth the price alone, far above the single player. There are, however, problems with the balance of gameplay I have seen (18/12/01).

The teams are imbalanced, with Axis having a hard time on most of the maps, as it comes down to getting your team to block choke points. Axis is on defense more often, so why not make the game always work in stopwatch mode? It would be fair that way.

All the servers I play on give the Axis Engineers and Medics the MP40, but their Ally counterparts seem to always have the superior Thompson - If this is a game related thing it would have been better fixing the default weapon to the same gun for both of these classes.

Another irritating feature is that the option to force people into joining the team with the least players is not on by default. It seems everyone joins servers and goes to the team with the most people, something that is not local, as I have heard that the Allied team is favoured in England (Other way around in Germany perhaps?). Some people here have been downright nasty when people ask, repeatedly, for the teams to be evened up, no matter if it is two to one, and this is not one of those games where 2-1 odds are viable for the outnumbered side unless the larger side is seriously stupid.

The in game server browser does not let you filter out servers with ping results higher than a user specified value, and having to wait for 700-odd servers that I ping at 200+ for the few ones I can play on is not good because....

....The favourites menu dumps my favourites no matter how many times I enter them. This is combatted by sticking the IP of my favourite server on my monitor with a post-it note, so it's not much of an issue.

Conclusion
All that said, it is still the best multiplayer game I have played in three years, giving a great feeling when teamwork pays off, and some exciting moments, as well as some good laughs (Like firing the Panzerfaust into hole to kill one enemy, and seeing six names scroll up dead, YEAH!) so what are you waiting for?

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