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02/08/2002
Return to Castle Wolfenstein
World War II, comic book style
by Benjamin E. Sones

During one of the cut scenes in Return to Castle Wolfenstein, one of your superior officers remarks, "Advanced weapons, biological engineering, robotics, and the occult… it all fits. I'm not sure into what, but it fits." You have to admire a game that knows where it stands.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein is loosely based on the great granddaddy of all first person shooters, Wolfenstein 3D, much in the same way that the Dodge Viper is loosely based on the Model T. Wolfe 3D, in turn, was loosely based on Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, a pair of top-down action/puzzle games from the 1980s. Aside from the name, these games share only one thing in common, but it's the single most compelling element in all of them. You kill Nazis.

Hitler's minions may well be the best game villains ever, and Return to Castle Wolfenstein plays them to the hilt. These aren't the real deal, but rather comic book caricatures, menacing goose-stepping sadists that dress in black (so that you don't forget that they're evil), worship the devil, and spend all their spare time polishing their weapons. You'll gun down hordes of them before the final credits roll, and in case that isn't enough the game also throws in zombies and a few uber-enemies that might have stepped right out of Quake II. It's like a Bad Guy reunion tour, and you play the gatecrasher.

Nazi zombies are no laughing matter
That gatecrasher is the completely characterless star of Wolfenstein 3D, U.S Army Ranger B.J Blazkowicz. You take your orders from the Office of Secret Actions (OSA), an organization so powerful that it can magically deliver written mission directives even in midst of covert operations in the heart of enemy territory.

The game comes with a story, but it's ultimately disposable. Cut scene interludes deliver most of it in snippets of melodramatic exposition that provide an excuse to send you to a variety of locales and pit you against a host of foes. It's tough to take it very seriously.

Fortunately the game beats you to that punch—it doesn't take itself very seriously, either, and it often pokes fun at its inadequacies. At one point you discover a memo from high command about the unusually high number of ladder-related fatalities among Nazi soldiers. Anyone that's ever tried to navigate a ladder in a Quake-based game (or in any shooter, for that matter) is sure to get a chuckle.

Shoot first, ask questions later
The game does good job hiding the fact that the core gameplay is essentially very simple—you kill all the bad guys. It throws a few superficial twists into the mix, such as stealth missions and missions where you are hunting for a specific object or information. In one mission you get to steal a top-secret jet aircraft, in another you creep around a German village, assassinating key Schutzstaffel officers. At one point you have to escort a stolen tank through a bombed-out city, protecting it from hidden Panzergrenadier elements (for the record, this is easily the best mission in the game). The game spices up the environments with props cribbed from Thief and No One Lives Forever—intercepted notes and messages that offer insight into the mind of the enemy and the now familiar overheard conversations that are fast becoming a staple of the genre.

Make no mistake, however—this is no NOLF. None of the twists offer a dramatic departure from the basic run and gun formula. It uses mirrors and sleight of hand to make you forget that what you are really doing is moving through a completely linear environment shooting anything that moves (well… except civilians—that's a strict no-no), but that's what it boils down to. In an assassination mission you get a handy list of all the officers that you have to kill (the names, for the humor impaired, are straight out of Hogan's Heroes), but you can accomplish your goal with equal efficiency without even reading your briefing. Just kill everyone. The stealth missions don't require careful observation of enemy movements or precise timing; instead they merely require that you switch to your silenced weapons and mow down your opponents quickly, before they can trip an alarm. In the tank mission you have to make sure that the tank survives, but it's never really in much danger.

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GENRE:
Action

RATING:
Computer Games Online Review Rating

UPSIDE:
Killing Nazis, great pacing, best looking shooter on the market, killing Nazis, great multiplayer game, killing Nazis

DOWNSIDE:
Solo game could be a bit deeper, some jarring differences between solo and multiplayer


ESRB RATING:
Mature

PUBLISHER:
Activision

DEVELOPER:
Gray Matter Studios; Nerve Software

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS:
Pentium 400, 128MB RAM, 3D Accelerator

MULTIPLAYER INFO:
2-64 Players; Internet, LAN




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