Return to Castle Wolfenstein
Although on show to all and sundry, it was in one of Activision's back rooms that we saw the best that the sequel to the granddaddy of all first-person games had to offer. The Quake III-powered Wolfenstein will primarily be a single-player game, offering intelligent AI (the Hun work in teams), plenty of WW2 weaponry and puzzles that, for the first time since Half-life, should take the genre away from the ponderous malaise of switch-pulling and key finding.
Although ex-Kingpin coders Gray Matter will be handling much of the game's development, id Software will be keeping a keen eye on the project, id's Graham Devine was just as excitable as Gray Matter's director, Drew Markham, on the game, both of whom were keen to show off all the graphical enhancements that had been made to the Quake 3 engine. With allied troops to fight alongside you, experimental weapons to try out and some intriguing multiplayer modes, Return To Castle Wolfenstein could well be the game to topple Half-Life off the top spot. It is about time after all.
There was a time when people's idea of a first-person game was one that started every sentence with T, when Quake was just an earth tremor and Doom was just a sense that came over you when you listened to The Smiths. There was a time when all id meant to anybody was an unconscious part of the psyche where all the primitive incestuous drives lay hidden. Then Wolfenstein 3D appeared sometime in 1992 and the computer game industry changed forever. Eight years is a very long time in games, and things have moved on considerably from the 286s and masses of large pixels covering half of the screen. But, with id Software announcing that there's a new Doom game in the works and developer Gray Matter taking Wolfenstein into the next millennium, it seems that first-person shooters are closing a neat circle. If you're unfamiliar with the Gray Matter name, it's because it's a brand new company made up of ex-Xatrix people, the makers of the swearathon Kingpin.
Recreating the good old "kick some Nazi ass" spirit that kept the Hollywood industry alive for so long, Return to Castle Wolfenstein puts you on a one-man Guns Of Navarone type mission to deepest, darkest Germany. The thing you're sent to destroy isn't a weapon, it's Himmler's mad plan to create a race of undead soldiers.
Despite the weird horror/sci-fi connotations of these sinister experiments, the weapons are going to be strictly accurate for the WW2 time period. Anyone who's played Counter-Strike will know how important realistic weapons are, and it looks like Gray Matter are doing their best to recreate Lugers and other WW2 weapons to the finest possible detail.
We're lucky enough to have seen the game running (or at least the first level) and the AI is already looking like it could match or better Half-Life's. The Nazi enemies take cover, sneak up on you and even throw back your grenades before they explode (they use timed fuses). They also react differently depending on the weapon you're brandishing. Go up to a group with a flamethrower and they'll scatter and take cover.
But it's not just Nazis either. The story quickly unfolds a group of genetic experiments, some more successful titan others and thse provide a different threat to flesh and bone fascism.
Another thing to look forward to is the fact that the environment is highly interactive and the detail in the textures is simply amazing, as a quick look at these early screenshots show all too well. The developers actually went to the trouble of photographing real German castles and digitising the pictures into the game, so take the time to appreciate them.
One thing's for sure, though, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is destined to be one the biggest games of next year.
Drew Markham has issues. Serious issues. Not least of which is his almost pathological hatred for chairs. We've been sitting through a presentation of Return To Castle Wolfenstein at Gray Matter's Santa Monica headquarters for a little over an hour already and the current chair destruction count is somewhere in the high '80s. This isn't accidental collateral damage either. Markham is going out of his way to hunt down each and every chair A in the game then either blow AI them apart with machine-gun fire, pick them up and smash them against a wall, or use them as a WW2-style weapon by hitting people over the head (enemy or friendly l soldiers, it doesn't seem to matter to him).
This is the same team that was responsible for the controversy magnet that was Kingpin though, so expecting a calm, sober and responsible bunch of people was probably pushing it. On the plus side, these are exactly the right sorts of minds to bring us the sick and twisted sequel to what most people consider to be the first of the rnie first-person shooters.
For the most part, the presentation is a demonstration of Firepower and graphical splendour. From the opening Saving Private Ryan beach-storming scene (in which a body explodes in front of your face within the first five seconds), it's obvious Gray Matter is going to town on every tiny aspect of the first-person shooter. Take grenades for instance. "I've never really been happy with grenades in first-person Shooters," says Markham. "It's always like there's a guy in a window and I'd really like to be able to just blow one up right in his face but you can never do that because you never have control over the timing of the fuse." In Wolf, grenades have a timed fuse that you can set in motion before you throw. "It's like when you were a kid playing with fireworks. You'd always want to throw them just at the last minute as the fuse was about to blow. Depending on how ballsy you are, you can do some pretty cool things," grins Markham, demonstrating the fact by picking up a German grenade and lobbing it back where it came from with a second to spare. "It's a really simple thing but it adds a really big dynamic to the gameplay. We had a lot of developers come up to us at E3 saying they were going to steal that."
And then Markham brings up the flame-thrower. It words: 'holy' and 'shit'. "The nice thing about it is that you can weave it around the room," he explains, doing just that, setting tables, chairs and scattered body parts alight. "You know, around corners and stuff. It's not just a 2D weapon. It really fills up a room."
Waving the thing about really is an incredible feeling. It just feels so... meaty. So alive. A hapless Nazi soldier runs into the room and in an instant is turned into a Reich crispy. Watching him burn you almost feel sorry for him. Well, Markham doesn't: "Mmm, flambe."
There are also some less authentic weapons on hand, and although Markham refused to go into much detail, other than mentioning the word "occult" several times, during a brief unsupervised hands-on experience after the main presentation, an accident while looking for the Crouch key suddenly opened up the game's entire arsenal. The Tesla Gun is essentially the old Lightning Gun from the original Quake, although much more impressive. Blue bolts of lightning fly off in all directions, searching for victims to fry, and bodies jerk about as they're hit, reminiscent of the Chostbusters' proton packs. But remember, you didn't read that here.
"You can also kick someone to death, but it's tricky. One of the late-night games we have here in the office is to try and get through a level by kicking everyone. Kicking and using chairs."
It's Only War
Throughout the demonstration, Markham is keen to stress that the emphasis is not on realism but on entertainment. This is despite such nerve-shatteringly realistic moments as watching Nazi soldiers marching around a street comer in perfect formation, only to spot you and start spreading out as they advance. Enemy AI is extremely advanced (for once seeming to justify the actual term 'intelligence'). Soldiers tend to hunt in packs, watching each others' backs, reacting to your weapons (watching them scatter as you approach with chain gun or flamethrower is hilarious), taking over gun emplacements that have been vacated, even throwing back your own grenades if their reactions are quick enough. It's quite astonishing in practice, giving the impression that you're actually up against other humans throughout.
Despite that, Markham is adamant that realism is only used when necessary. "Head shots are in there, for instance, but we haven't taken things as far as we did in Kingpin. Soldier Of Fortune has kind of taken all that as far as it's ever going to go. There's a kind of retro quality to Wolfenstein and we always have to make decisions based on what's the most fun option in any given situation as opposed to what's the most realistic. The catchphrase here is basically 'run and gun'. That's why we took things like reloads out. There was just no reason to have them in. We want this to be more like a World War II movie than some perfect simulation of war."
The Mind's Eye
I was actually a little disadvantaged to the rest of the journos on the trip, in that I was the only one who hadn't already seen Wolfenstein running in some shape or another. Much like yourselves, all I'd experienced were a couple of impressive screenshots and a lot of hype. Consequently, in my mind I'd done that most damaging of actions - building up a mental picture of what I would want the game to be. Reality rarely comes close to our dream ideals in these situations and the actual result is usually something of a let down. Wolfenstein truly is an exception. Having now witnessed it in action, I can honestly say that when Gray Matter finally decides it's ready, we really will be in for something very special indeed.
It's A Small World
When you want decay, only the very oldest will do...
The graphical quality of Wolf is extremely special. This is because the designers haven't relied on hand-drawn interpretations of existing textures, but have just gone for the real thing. "We went to Europe twice on very long trips, taking thousands of digital photographs to get all the textures," explains Markham. "Typically, when you look at medieval games they're a little cheesy-looking because an artist tries their best to recreate it, but at the end of the day nothing looks like 2000-year-old bricks than 2000-year-old bricks. There's a certain quality to them that you just can't fake." Later, as Markham shows us through some of the photographs they took, I'm stunned to see the church in which I was christened pop up. We then see the textures as used in the game and there is no discernible difference.
Why are we waiting? Because Gray Matter is insistent that it's not going to rush the update and ruin what could be the best first-person shooter known to man. So says Jeremy Lupyies, the Activision producer who was busy demonstrating the latest build at E3.
We've seen running code, and even played around with it a few times over the past 12 months and we know it looks good. You know it looks good because you've seen the screenshots, although you haven't been privy to the photo-realistic textures the flame-thrower spits out, and the animation of the characters which is, quite simply, superb. What you want to know is why it's taking so long, and if the Ai's going to be any cop. Right?
Well, from what we've seen it's looking damn good. Enemy soldiers, or Nazis, as we like to call them 'hunt' in packs and react intelligently to situations. So, when they run out of ammo they'll duck down to reload before popping back up to spray you with another round of bullets. If they come across a dead body they won't just walk past but will instantly move up to full alert and try to seek you out. They'll also use the interactive scenery as cover. To prove the point, Jeremy moved into a room, where a Nazi kicked a table over and ducked behind it.
The aim is to create a believable level of Al. Of course, no one wants a game that's criminally hard to play, and no one wants to mow down wave after wave of predictable polygons. Instead, and like Half-Life, Wolfenstein is aiming for human responses and we're convinced that Gray Matter has actually got it working properly. Having said that, with running code available for a year, something is obviously keeping die wolf from the door.
Here's one you might like to note down for future reference: the difference between a test and a demo. In real terms there's very little of course, though it means we normally aren't allowed to put tests on coverdiscs, since, officially, they aren't demos.
In Woltys case, we're told this download isn't a true reflection of how the final game will play online, just a test to aid the developers towards tweaking of the final game. What this means is after rigorous examination across the world, Wolfensteirfs multiplayer game will storm the castle rattier than flounder on the beach. We know, because this test is fantastic.
If you have a high-speed Internet connection the download is well worth it. Though a hefty 64Mb in size and offering just one Normandy-style map, it has for a few days gripped not only the PC, but those of sister magazines, technical support and even the underworked and overpaid PC hobgoblins that have their own microwave and work on the airy fifth floor. There are names playing on our lunchtime LAN server we haven't seen since Counter-Strike was struck off in May this year-it's that good.
A Matter Of Class
A cross between Team Fortress and Unreal Tournaments Assault mode, the Wolftest only offers one style of game, where the Allies must storm the beach, breach the castle wall, steal the plans and find the German radio room - all of which the Hun must put a stop to before time runs out.
To make things interesting the game also offers class-based play. Lieutenants can call in air strikes, Medics can resurrect and heal and Engineers are the ones that can plant or diffuse explosives. The final class, the Soldier, is pretty standard, only with a far greater range of , weapons to choose from than the other class's trio of sub-machine guns - with a panzerfaust, chaingun, sniper rifle or flame-thrower to add to the arsenal. And what a fine set of weapons they are - all perfectly balanced. The flame-thrower, apart from being the most graphically impressive, is also the most convincing since Kingpin-toe makers of which are the creators of this fine game.
On the downside, the scoring system needs work, as does the respawning, which can see you sitting out a game for a lengthy period if you happen to die at the wrong moment. Similarly, more work needs to be done of a couple of the classes, but as a test, if you have the speed, download it now. You'd do well to get some practice in, because based on the evidence, Return To Castle Wolfenstein is likely to be the biggest FPS online since Counter-Strike.
If a week is a long time in politics, then what price a decade in gaming? Such are the advances in technology that it's probably akin to a century in other forms of entertainment. Ten long years ago, during the Cro-Magnon age of games, a series of pixels crawled from the primordial soup and hauled itself to its feet. A new species was born that was dubbed by scientists as the first-person shooter. That game was of course Wolfenstein 3D, which in turn begat Doom which begat Quake that begat the audio-visual extravaganzas we know today. So what are we doing returning to the castle, and how is it looking these days? Unrecognisable, clearly. Using a modified version of the Quake III Arena engine, developer Gray Matter has fashioned an impressive looking game, the project taking place under the watchful eye of id software, owners of both the technology and the license.
Games Will Eat Themselves
It could be argued that Return To Castle Wolfenstein signals the first-person genre coming full circle, particularly in light of the forthcoming Doom game. It could also be suggested that the rehashing of the past represents a dearth of ideas. And if you want to start rubbing your chin, you could even draw parallels with Tim Burton's Planer Of The Apes, a pseudo remake that was loftily described as a re-imagining of the original vision. Or is it simply an opportunity to use today's technology on yesterday's games? What do we know? Let's ask id CEO, Todd Hollenshead. Hey Todd, has the industry run out if ideas? "Ha, ha, ha. Well first of all, Return To Castle Wolfenstein isn't a remake, it actually is a new game that's in the Wolfenstein era. I mean, what you're able to do from a technology standpoint today, there's no comparison to the movie aspect of it. Wolfenstein 3D was a simple game, simple and fun, and I think Return To Castle Wolfenstein in terms of comparison to the original one, in terms of depth of the game, there is really no comparison at all."
What there is a comparison with is Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault, at least in so much as both are forthcoming World War II first-person shooters. That's where the similarity ends though, as while Spielberg's emphatic eye for authenticity has heavily informed MOH, the new Wolfenstein resolutely remains a work of fantasy. It's not so much historical revisionism as the stuff of a madman's dream. That madman is Nazi general, Heimlich Himmler, and he's opened up a whole can of worms.
It Was A Dark Knight...
It's hard to know where to start with a plot like this. Let's try the ninth century, where the pre-Christian Saxon prince Heinrich sought to forge an independent Germanic state by rising up a vast army of the evil undead, led by the Dark Knights, no less.
A nasty piece of work, Heinrich was finally foiled by a mysterious monk in 943 AD, and enshrined in a living tomb on top of a remote mountain peak. Fast forward 1,000 years, and Himmler is looking into the possibility of raising him from the dead and commanding his army of zombies against the Allies.
It's not a documentary by any means, as Hollenshead explains: "Although every single element in the game may be over the top, based on the research we've done, and the Gray Matter guys have done, a lot of this stuff is actually based on crazy stuff that was going on. In fact, there's a History Channel videocassette we have in our archives at the office that is titled Hitler And The Occult, and we have a four videocassette series that is titled The Occult History Of The Third Reich. So a lot of the elements, the Teutonic Knights and all these sorts of things, these guys actually believed in. Now, were they re-animating corpses?"
Killing Nazi Punks
It seems unlikely, but either way, you once more assume the role of BJ Blazkowicz, an Allied supersoldier charged with the task of saving the world. So let's do just that with an extended playtest of the finished code, sealed deep in a bunker inside id's headquarters in the US of A. Regaining consciousness deep within the bowels of the castle, the first thought is to get the hell out of there; Escape From Castle Wolfenstein, if you like. This becomes all the more pressing when you are witness to a macabre experiment being carried out on one of your colleagues. About now is a good rime to start slaughtering Nazis, and there are a number of ways you can do this, be it slitting their throats with a knife or shooting them squarely between the eyes with a gun. The weaponry on offer is a mix of the actual and the theoretical, and among the usual FPS fare are treats such as the flamethrower, as popularised in Kingpin from the same developer. As for gore, there is the odd drop of blood, but it is fairly tame compared to more gratuitous examples of the genre.
It is possible to attempt the game using stealth, but it's clearly more enjoyable to adopt a gung-ho approach and burst into rooms with machine gun blazing. This choice of styles is perfectly demonstrated by something as simple as opening a door. The orthodox method is to open it in the time-honoured fashion, using the handle. However, if you're in a hurry, you can simply give it a kick, speeding up your egress, albeit with the pay-off of being more likely to alert the guards. And while we're at it, we should mention that the doors open both ways, a miracle of German engineering.
Lay A Cable
The flexibility of the Quake III engine is ably demonstrated, with the ability to lean round comers proving useful, although you can't actually shoot while leaning. Faces are reasonably detailed, and nice touches such as cobwebs add to the atmosphere. Outdoor environments are tossed around with gay abandon, particularly once you get out of the castle, with a cable car sequence in particular almost causing vertigo. As for gameplay, while not exactly breaking the mould of shoot the enemy, press the button, it kicks along at a fair old pace. You can't simply shoot anything that moves though, as injuring a civilian can bring a mission to a close.
The plot is advanced with numerous cut scenes, and takes you through a variety of disparate locations, lurching from the claustrophobic catacombs of Heinrich's tomb to wide open spaces such as a fully functioning airfield. The twists and turns of the story are enough to keep you playing for hours, simply to see what happens, the experience made all the more enjoyable by the opportunity to mete out severe punishment to Nazis and their undead brethren.
As a single-player game, Return To Castle Wolfenstein is an absorbing experience, and will be meat and drink to FPS veterans raised on the 'defeat the boss, complete the level' ethos. World War II games may be all the rage at the moment, but not many can boast authentic enemies fighting alongside the results of supernatural experimentation. Saving Private Ryan it isn't, but it is a right old laugh, and very scary to boot.
As for the multiplayer aspect, we've dabbled with a few more levels, and it's definitely more of a military simulation than the single player game. Opting to fight for either the Axis or the Allies, various classes are available such as soldier, lieutenant and engineer. There are clear objectives to achieve, and those we attempted included blowing up a submarine and breaching a beach wall, each requiring a reasonable degree of teamwork and strategy. None of your DeathMatch or Capture The Flag here.
That's pretty much your Return To Castle Wolfenstein, and having recently replayed the original we have to concede the ten-year interim has brought about a marked improvement. We're not going to go mad on the basis of a five-hour play though, and won't be giving you a full review until we have played through the entire game. Suffice to say though, the first-person shooter genre is about to get a shot in the arm, and we have a very strong hunch there could soon be a new entry at the top of the Shooters Top Ten. Happy Chrisunas (or so they have promised).
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode
Return to Castle Wolfenstein Screenshots
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