id Software released Wolfenstein 3D for DOS in 1992 and it revolutionized the gaming industry. The violence, the bloodshed, the action, it was all so new and exciting back then. id Software would later release an additional episode for Wolfenstein 3D, titled Spear of Destiny but after that, they would never return to the series that launched them into stardom. But as we know, Wolfenstein did turn into a franchise, and a pretty damn good one, if you ask me. Developed by Grey Matter Interactive with additional assistance from Nerve Software and published by Activision, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was released in November, 2001. This game is definitely better known for its multiplayer but there is a full blown campaign here which is what I’ll be covering in this review. Splash Damage originally planned to release an expansion pack but apparently there were problems with the single player portion so they decided to release the multiplayer portion as a free standalone game titled Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. From what I understand, most players would move away from the original multiplayer to Wolf ET and I think some dedicated fans are still playing this today. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was ported to Xbox and PlayStation 2 in 2003 and both include an extra single player prequel mission, among other differences. For this review I played the PC version and I’ll also be covering a the RealRTCW 2.1 – Realism Mod along with the HD Textures Pack designed for this mod. RealRTCW runs on the iortcw engine, a community-made engine based on the original source code with all kinds of fancy new features. But the mod actually aims to rebalance gameplay, it adds new weapons, there’s new textures, and even new sound effects. It seems that many people overlook the single player in this game in favor of the multiplayer.
The story takes place in 1943 and you play as William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the same protagonist from Wolfenstein 3D. B.J. reports to the Office of Secret Actions, abbreviated OSA. At the start of the game, B.J. and British operative Agent One, are imprisoned in Castle Wolfenstein. If you play the console versions, the story goes B.J. and Agent One were sent into Egypt to investigate the activity of the Nazi SS Paranormal Division. Obviously something goes wrong, they get captured, and shortly after being imprisoned, Agent One is interrogated, tortured, and killed. As we all know, B.J. is quite resilient and manages to escape. From this point forward, the OSA sends B.J. on several missions to thwart Nazi projects including stopping a leading scientific researcher, Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse. We all know Deathshead becomes the main antagonist in the sequels but he actually takes somewhat of a backseat here to Heinrich Himmer, an actual real life sadistic Nazi, although B.J. doesn’t really have any interaction with him. Eventually B.J. and the OSA discover a Nazi scheme codenamed “Operation: Resurrection”, a plan to resurrect Heinrich I, a saxon king from 943 AD. Throughout the environments are clipboards, documents, and notes you can read for some lore and backstory on events. There’s several cut scenes and the only ones that really drive the story take place at OSA HQ. If you don’t care about the cut scenes these can be rather boring since they usually involve a bunch of dudes just talking. B.J. is actually a silent protagonist and just does what he’s told. The voice acting for the OSA cut scenes are okay at best. The voice acting ranges from bad to mediocre during any level cut scenes with English-speaking Germans, many of which spout cliche lines. Regardless, I found the story to be somewhat interesting, at least more interesting than any standard historical World War II shooter. I guess you could say Return to Castle Wolfenstein is the start of a trilogy if you actually pay attention to the stories in these games. And if you’ve played the sequels, then references, characters, and other nods to this game can be found in those. Although, each game’s story is also self-contained so it doesn’t really matter which one you play first.
As you progress through the campaign you’ll acquire all kinds of weapons. You’re always equipped with a knife, you can also kick shit, and you can even man the many mounted MG42’s scattered throughout the environments. Much of the arsenal consists of your standard World War II weaponry including a Luger and even Colt pistol that can be dual wielded. You’ve got your MP40, Thompson submachine gun, silenced Sten submachine gun, grenades, and even dynamite which basically obliterates anything in the blast radius. Dynamite isn’t exactly easy to come by so using it when you’re in a tight spot is highly recommended. There’s an FG42, Panzerfaust, a Flamethrower, and you can even find attachments for some weapons. The Mauser rifle basically becomes a sniper rifle once you acquire the scope and you can attach a silencer to the Luger. At one point you acquire a Snooper Rifle with an IR scope. This an experimental sniper rifle created by the American army for the OSA. The only thing I don’t like about any weapons with scopes is that you can’t really move when looking through the scopes. If you decide to strafe, you’ll immediately stop looking through the scope which becomes annoying. You can move a little bit but it just seems like an odd design choice. Now the two most interesting and unique weapons appear late in the game. The Venom gun has to be one of the coolest variants of a chain gun I’ve ever seen in a video game. This thing is also very deadly and able to turn most enemies into a steaming pile of gibs. Finally, there’s the Tesla gun which can electrocute multiple enemies at once. The RealRTCW mod adds an additional set of weapons that perfectly fit in with the rest of the arsenal. These include an MG42 you can carry, a Winchester M97 shotgun, Gewegr 43, M1 Garand, MP34, MP-44, and even a BAR M1918. Every time you start a new mission the first level of that mission usually provides with new weapons to start with and you acquire the others as you play. This is still the case in RealRTCW but the new weapons and ammo for the said weapons are scattered throughout the environments and even enemies will carry them so it always feels like these new weapons are seamlessly integrated into the game and they’re a real joy to fire. The added weapons give the arsenal some excellent variety.
The game plays out in missions with multiple levels per mission. There’s seven main missions with approximately three to five levels each. There’s quite a bit of environmental variety with each mission taking place in a different location. You’ll traverse through the infamous Castle Wolfenstein, Paderborn Village, Catacombs, a Forest Compound, Air Base, and even Deathshead’s X-Labs where he oversees the creation of horrible mutant creatures. The loading screens in between levels show you a briefing of what your ultimate goal is along with your objectives. At the end of each level you can view your mission stats which include the time it took you to complete the level, objectives completed, how many secret areas you found, how much treasure you collected, and attempts which basically means how many times you died. Now most levels are fairly linear but do include plenty of branching paths and secret areas, many of which house treasures. However, other than bragging rights, there’s no real benefit to collecting treasure. From what I understand, in the PS2 version, you can actually purchase new items at the end of levels which would give you some motivation to look for secrets but that’s not the case here. Most secrets are rather well hidden. You may have to blow up a wall or find a lever that reveals a hidden doorway. There’s actually quite a bit of interactivity within the levels. You can destroy posters and flags, blow up radios, and even destroy obstacles to gain access to new areas. Scattered throughout the levels are health items, ammo, and armor and if there’s any reason to look for secret areas, it’s for these things. Many secret areas contain a good amount of health and armor which you’ll probably need on higher difficulties. Eating food will also grant you health and there’s even drinks that can provide you with extra stamina. Sprinting drains your stamina meter which does regenerate over time but having the extra stamina can’t hurt. There are two levels that force you to use stealth. Yes, force, as in if you’re detected, you automatically fail and have to restart from your last save. Luckily, I’ve played through this game before, so I knew where to go and what paths to take but these are the kind of levels where quicksaving becomes your best friend. In many levels, when an enemy spots you, he’ll run to an alarm and set it off, alerting all other enemies to your presence. You can always turn it off but you’re better off destroying the alarm, itself. I really wouldn’t say there’s a lot of stealth in this game but these two levels are the weakest of them all just because they force stealth. They’re not really hard to get through but if it’s you’re first run through the game, these levels can turn into frustrating cases of trial and error.
The vanilla game includes three difficulty modes – Don’t hurt me!, Bring’em on!, and I am Death incarnate! and RealRTCW adds an additional fourth difficulty, Can I play, Daddy?, which becomes the new easiest difficulty mode. The difficulty, in general, is where things get interesting. I think the difficulty is very unbalanced with specific levels being outrageously frustrating, especially when playing RealRTCW. I played on the Bring’em on! difficulty in the vanilla game and the enemy AI can range from can’t hit shit to ridiculously accurate. Nazis and standard German soldiers make up much of the enemy types but as you progress, you start encountering more dangerous variants of these enemies, like Paratroopers that can destroy you with FG42’s. There’s soldiers that wield flamethrowers, enemy snipers may be firing at you, and every now and then you may take a rocket to the face. You’ll encounter undead enemies for the first time in the second mission. These include various types of zombies, mummies, and even Undead Warriors that wield axes, swords, and they also carry shields that can reflect bullets back at you. Yeah, they can be annoying. Elite Guards, who I always refer to as “Sexy Nazi ladies”, are acrobatic, can move fast, roll around, and wield silenced Sten submachine guns. They seem to have pinpoint accuracy when you first encounter them in the beginning of the game which can really throw you off because this is one of the several sections where the difficulty spikes. And it’s ridiculous. But the real issue is that the difficulty spike here is experienced again in several areas scattered throughout the campaign. You turn a corner and you’re getting pummeled in the face with bullets. You climb a ladder and there’s an enemy at the top or bottom ready to blow away and will do so the moment you’re exposed. When you get to the X-Labs, you’ll encounter Super Soldiers that are armed with a Venom gun, Tesla gun, and even a Panzerfaust. These guys are also heavily armored and are basically bullet sponges. This is another enemy type that can really ruin your day and force you to mash the quicksave button. Lopers are also encountered in the X-Labs and these fuckers are just a nuisance. They can leap ridiculous distances and electrocute you if they get close, draining your health at a rapid rate. Now there’s three bosses, and surprisingly, two of the bosses are rather easy to kill. The second boss battle is just a pain in the dick, especially if you’re low on health when it starts. You have to take down the Uber Soldat and I happened to be low on health and could barely make it five feet before getting blown to bits. But it’s the kind of battle where you pop your head out and you’re getting hit before you can even take a shot.
For the most part, the unbalanced difficulty is tolerable in the vanilla game, although, I have yet to play on the I am Death incarnate! difficulty mode. From what I can tell, one of the ways the RealRTCW mod rebalances the gameplay is by making the enemies deadlier. Do you have any idea what this means? Well, I do. It means get ready to type the “give health” command because the difficulty is outrageous. Now I knew going into this mod that the enemies would be more aggressive so I played through this on the Don’t hurt me! difficulty mode and I’m glad I did because I could only imagine my frustration on anything more challenging. RealRTCW makes the vanilla game feel like a cakewalk. Basically, if you’re exposed at all, you’re going to die. Enemies can hit you from ludicrous distances in rapid succession, usually dropping you in seconds, with almost any weapon. The enemies you should be looking out for are Elite Guards and Paratroopers because encounters with these baddies will surely put you down if you don’t tread lightly. The Trainyard level in particular is just the worst. Paratroopers, snipers, and enemies with Panzerfausts, populate the level and it’s just a slog to get through. Every time I would pop my head out I was getting assaulted by gunfire. In two instances, I loaded a quicksave and was immediately a bullet magnet. I mean it really is ridiculous. Encounters with other enemy types can end up like this as well, so it seems, but not as often. I understand the creator is trying for this more balanced gameplay style, but even with the new weapons, the enemies just seem to be more accurate which just seems unecessary and this mod is a good reason why. It seems that many enemies can literally shoot the wings off a fly, even if that fly is barely visible and a good distance away. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a challenge but I mean sometimes you can’t even turn a corner, even if you’re careful, without getting shot to death. Enemies seem to shoot you before you can even see them. I don’t mind a hard but fair challenge but this is just unfair. It’s a shame, too, because everything else about this mod is truly excellent. You can actually lean in this game but you can’t shoot when leaning which would have been a big help. I don’t know if it’s possible to mod something like that in but I think it would be a great addition to RealRTCW.
From a technical standpoint, the game ran very smoothly. I did play using the Unofficial Patch which adds widescreen resolutions and fixes various crashes, although the game did crash on me once when attempting to load a quicksave. The RealRTCW mod includes widescreen resolutions and even some new graphical options. It includes new load screens, or briefings, which are now in widescreen, new menus, and even a new HUD. The texture work in the vanilla game is dated but everything looks crisp from a distance. When you get close, you can see how blurry the textures are. Although, I do think the character models look pretty good for a 2001 game. The weapons are modeled well, enemies have death animations which look alright but it’s more satisfying to turn them into gibs, and I do think the explosions look pretty cool. The RealRTCW mod includes new weapon models which look amazing, the HD textures look incredible, and the new character uniforms and slightly altered designs look good. There’s a lot of nice little subtle improvements to the visuals. There’s new blood splatter effects which make the gunplay even more satisfying. I did have to download and install a vsync hotfix, specifically for this mod, so everything would display correctly but you may be able to fix it with the right commands. I’m just lazy. Now the audio design in the vanilla game is actually pretty good. All of the weapons are loud, powerful, and feel satisfying to shoot. However, the RealRTCW mod improves the sound effects tenfold. The mod basically doubles as a sound effects overhaul. The new weapon sounds, including gunfire and reload sound effects, are all excellent. All of the sound effects are clearer, crisp, and of the highest quality. Even things like footsteps and doors opening sound better. There’s even new ambient sound effects thrown in here. The sound effects alone are worth checking this mod out. Now the music is actually quite catchy with what sounds like heroic tunes kicking in during combat. But the music does get repetitive since you’ll be hearing the same few songs over and over again.
I think had an equal amount of fun with both the vanilla game and the RealRTCW mod, despite the ludicrous difficulty. And that’s because with all of the new weapons and the sound effects overhaul, I still kept coming back to the RealRTCW mod. Pulling off a well placed head shot to kill an enemy instantly is very satisfying, shooting barrels so they explode, killing enemies nearby is extremely fun to watch, and there’s a decent amount of exploration thanks to the many secret areas in the levels. It’s just a shame there’s no better reason to even look for secrets unless you need health, armor, or ammo, or are just a completionist. Now I’ve beaten this game several times over the years and out of all the Wolfenstein games, I would say this one has the best sense of adventure. Mainly because of the various locations. The Wolfenstein games are not really historically accurate and back in the day, I would say that’s what made Wolfenstein 3D, and even this game, stand out among the rest.
In the end, I would recommend Return to Castle Wolfenstein. If you’ve never played this before, definitely play the vanilla game before installing the RealRTCW mod. If it is your first time playing through this you should play through the vanilla game first anyway but the RealRTCW difficulty increase does not represent the vanilla game and just makes many parts of the experience feel cheap. As a Wolfenstein fan, I enjoyed the story for what it is, especially since it’s unique and doesn’t follow in the steps of other World War II shooters of the time. Now don’t get me wrong, Return to Castle Wolfenstein does have issues, but they can be overlooked and there’s a lot of fun to be had here. If you’re a fan of the stories in the sequels, or at least The New Order, you may want to give this a shot just to see how certain things got started. As for the RealRTCW mod, the difficulty or just the enemy accuracy really needs to be toned down. I guess I would recommend it because the rest of it is pure excellence. The new weapons, redesigned weapon models, the sound overhaul, you can just see a ton of care went into this. Considering you can get this game for pretty cheap now, there’s really no reason not to check this out if you’re a fan of shooters or action games. And if you only care about the multiplayer, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory is free.