Return to Castle Wolfenstein Review

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Wolfenstein 3D was released in 1992 and is a revolutionary game. It’s often considered the grandfather of first-person shooters and is worthy of that moniker because there was nothing else quite like it at the time. I know Maze War was a first-person shooter that released years prior but it was Wolfenstein 3D that essentially paved the way for every single first-person shooter we know and love today. It is one of the most important titles in video game history. An additional episode called Spear of Destiny was eventually released and then we wouldn’t see another entry in the series until it was rebooted in 2001 with Return to Castle Wolfenstein. It spawned a multiplayer-only spinoff called Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory which was originally supposed to be an expansion but the single player component was never finished so it was removed and Enemy Territory was released for free as a multiplayer-only standalone title.
Developed by Gray Matter Interactive, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was released for PC in November, 2001. The game was ported to Xbox by Nerve Software as Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War and to PlayStation 2 by Raster Productions as Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Operation Resurrection, both released in May, 2003. The console versions include new single player content like additional levels and exclusive to Tides of War is a two-player cooperative mode. For this review, I played each version of the game and teamed up with Jeremy in the coop portion of Tides of War. I did not play any of the online multiplayer modes so this review will only focus on the campaigns. I played the PC version using the iortcw source port which is designed to run the game easily on modern systems, includes numerous enhancements, and many bug fixes.

The story is set in 1943 during World War II where the Nazi SS Paranormal Division, led by Heinrich Himmler, are attempting to resurrect an evil prince who was sealed away in 943 AD. The Office of Secret Actions (OSA) sends William “B.J.” Blazkowicz and British Operative Agent One to Egypt to investigate the Nazis. They are eventually captured and brought to the infamous Castle Wolfenstein. Long story short, B.J. escapes the castle and sets out to stop the Nazis. I do find the actual plot somewhat interesting but it loses steam pretty quickly. The story is conveyed through cut scenes and mission briefings and most of the cut scenes are just boring. Many of them take place at OSA Headquarters where you get to listen a bunch of dudes talk about Nazi projects and where B.J. is going next. The voice acting for the OSA guys and allies isn’t that bad but most of the Nazis sound like cartoon villains. B.J. is actually given several lines of dialogue in the new levels in the console versions. He’s a silent protagonist for the rest of the campaigns and the entirety of the PC version.
The PC version includes three difficulty modes and the console versions include four. You get to play as B.J. and in the coop portion of Tides of War, the second player will be Agent One. Going through the campaign with a buddy is a lot of fun but progress isn’t saved which is kind of a bummer. Only single player progress is saved. The shared levels in all three versions of the game are very similar but more noticeable differences are seen in Operation Resurrection. The campaigns plays out in missions with multiple levels per mission. You can walk, run, crouch, jump, kick, and lean left and right. Unfortunately, you can’t shoot while leaning which renders the mechanic almost useless. At least for me. Sure, peaking around corners may be helpful from time to time but it would have been better if you could shoot around them especially in the later levels. Operation Resurrection has the annoying habit of automatically your centering your view whenever you move and it can’t be disabled. It can really fuck with your aiming. It’s also stupid because the game lets you press a button to do this. You can pick up chairs, break objects, and interact with things. Scattered around the environments are medkits and food which will replenish health and helmets and flak jackets which provide you armor for extra protection. You can store certain items in your inventory like mission items and wine which replenishes some health. In Tides of War, you can acquire a holy cross which will kill any undead enemies in the area instantly upon activation, an EMP Device which temporarily powers down X enemies, and the X-Shield which temporarily provides you a shield, protecting you from damage.
You’ll get your hands on typical World War II weaponry and Tides of War adds a shotgun to the arsenal. You can hold all of the weapons and scrolling through them to find the one you want on console can be a real pain in the ass. The more interesting firepower includes the Venom and Tesla weapons. The Venom gun is one of my favorite weapons in the series. It’s a powerful chaingun capable of turning enemies into gibs. It’s just a very satisfying weapon. The Tesla gun fires arcs of electricity and is great for dealing with multiple foes simultaneously. You’ll start the campaigns with basic weapons like pistols and submachine guns but acquire more as you progress. You can dual wield Colts, silently take out foes with a knife, Sten, or the Luger after acquiring the silencer, and one of the more useful weapons is the Snooper Rifle. It’s a suppressed sniper rifle capable of taking down most lower-tier enemies in one shot. You’ll get to burn enemies alive with the flamethrower and while getting close to them isn’t highly recommended, especially in the later levels, their screams of agony as they burn to death make it all worthwhile. All of the weapons are useful in certain situations and do feel satisfying. There’s usually plenty of ammo lying around and enemies will drop weapons and ammo when killed so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to mess around with the different firepower.
I found the PC version to be the most difficult. The console versions include an additional difficulty mode and the new items in Tides of War can be a big help. You’ll have to engage Nazi soldiers, undead types, X-Creatures, and Super Soldiers later in the game. The enemy accuracy in all versions ranges from can’t hit shit to insanely accurate. You really want to get good at headshots. The Elite Guards and Paratroopers prove to be extremely dangerous, often crossing over into cheap territory. Elite Guards are Nazi women and most of them are equipped with stens. They are agile, have more health than standard soldiers, can take away a good chunk of your health with each shot, and you usually encounter them in numbers. The difficulty really starts to spike when you encounter the Paratroopers. Their accuracy is usually crazy accurate more often than not making many of the later levels extremely challenging. You can go from full health and armor to death in a matter of seconds if you don’t approach these guys carefully. You really need to take your time and pay attention because all you need to do is pop your head out and they’ll start shooting you immediately. You will engage some undead types in certain levels but they’re not that hard to deal with. Certain ones can send out ghostly souls that cause damage, others spit fire, and Undead Warriors carry shields which can deflect bullets but none of them are very difficult to take down. Just keep your distance and fire away.
Lopers are one of the more unique enemy types in the game. They are also dangerous, cheap, and annoying. They can leap ridiculous distances and unleash an electric attack that can hit you even if you’re at a higher elevation. The idea is to keep your distance which can be very hard to do since they can move really fast and if they back you into a corner, you’re basically dead. These encounters are just trial and error and luckily, you don’t encounter them often. Then there’s the Proto and Super Soldiers which are just bullet sponges equipped with heavy firepower but it’s when they use their Tesla guns that you really need to be careful. They don’t seem to miss and it almost feels like you’re guaranteed to take damage. I’m pretty sure their Tesla attack is a hitscan attack so it’s almost impossible to avoid. This leads me to the bosses in the game. There’s three bosses and I only found one of them to be difficult and that is the Uber-Soldaten, the second boss. This guy is beyond cheap mainly because of his Tesla gun. Like the Super Soldiers, you need to stay behind cover but the moment you pop your head out, you’re immediately attacked. Plus, other enemies will show up and attack you during the battle. It gets a bit insane. If there’s an exploit, I would love to know what it is. I found it best to attack the Super Soldiers from behind and then run to cover whenever they faced me. And that’s only when I actually could get behind them. Most of the time, the strategy boiled down to pop out, quickly fire, and then quickly get back into cover but if they use a Tesla gun, I was basically guaranteed to take damage. It can be very frustrating.
The console versions add new foes to the enemy roster. Egyptian Mercenaries are encountered in the new levels in both games and exclusive to Tides of War are the Occult Priests and X-Shepherds. The Priests are easy to deal with and the X-Shepherds are basically dogs with turrets on their backs and are best engaged from a distance. They can really suck if you have to deal with more than one at a time. I find the difficulty in all three versions to be somewhat unbalanced. Things do get more challenging as you progress which is fine but the difficulty can spike into the cheap category in several areas throughout the campaigns, mainly because of the enemy accuracy. The later levels are more about taking down enemies quickly than anything else. Some areas will result in you quicksaving and quickloading often, trying again and again until you get it right. Elite Guards and Paratroopers make up many of the encounters in the second to last level and because of that, it’s one of the most brutal levels in the game. It’s actually split into two levels in Operation Resurrection. Another problem is some of the enemy placements. There are certain enemies placed in spots that are just questionable and make progression more frustrating than anything. In the Wulfberg Church level there’s an Elite Guard throwing grenades down a ladder you need to climb and if you don’t take her out before you get up there, she can easily blow you away or drain a significant amount of your health the moment you reach the top. Taking her out beforehand isn’t always easy. In one of the later levels, there’s a Super Soldier placed right on the other side of a wall you have to get over by climbing a ladder. You can stand on it and fire at him and drop down when necessary if you need cover but it’s just an example of terrible enemy placement. Luckily, the game always provides you with the weapons and ammo you need for the threats you’re about to face. I never once felt like I didn’t have the proper firepower for the situation.
As accurate as the enemies can be, and as challenging as the game is at times, it’s certainly not because of intelligent foes. The enemy AI is very simple. They spot you and then they attack. They’ll run around, shoot at you, snipe you, some throw grenades, and they’ll set off alarms if they detect you which you can then turn off and/or destroy. Enemies will often run right out into the open when under fire, they’ll stand around as they take damage, and they will often rush you. The alarms will alert all enemies to your presence and while stealth is an option in many areas, I do find the gameplay to be more enjoyable when you’re running and gunning. There are a couple of levels that force you to be stealthy and will probably result in a lot of quicksaving and quickloading until you get the route down. If an alarm goes off, you fail the mission. And playing through these levels with a buddy in Tides of War can actually make them more tedious. I’m not really a fan of forced stealth sequences but I did enjoy the one where you have to eliminate multiple high ranking Nazi officers.
Each mission is set in a different location. The console versions include an additional mission set in Egypt but in all versions of the game you’ll navigate through Castle Wolfenstein, engage the undead in the Catacombs, move swiftly and silently through Paderborn Village, and blow away the Nazi abominations in the X-labs. All of the levels are well designed for the most part and there are some differences between the versions. The differences between the PC version and Tides of War are minor and many of the differences in Operation Resurrection are quite noticeable. Some levels contain entirely different areas. It can be easy to get lost or turned around from time to time since many areas within a level can look similar. The X-labs is a good example. Some levels contain hazards you need to watch out for like traps and explosive barrels. You can read the many documents scattered around which contain some backstory and information. Levels will include numerous branching paths and areas and rooms to explore and there’s plenty of secrets to discover. Secrets will house goodies like weapons, ammo, health, armor, and treasure. The console versions give you more of an incentive to find secrets. In Tides of War, if you find all the secrets in a level, you’ll be rewarded with resources and items. In Operation Resurrection, finding secrets rewards you with points. At the end of a level, you can spend points on upgrades like increased health, armor, and ammo capacity, among other things. These reward systems can help to alleviate some of the challenge.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein looks very much like an early 2000’s game. And that’s because it is. It didn’t look too bad for its time but it has certainly aged. Character animations are stiff, death animations are scripted, and textures look better from a distance. You can tweak the original PC version so it looks better and runs in a proper widescreen resolution but you’re stuck with the 4:3 aspect ratio in the console versions unless you stretch the display like a monster. The console versions do actually look better in some respects. For example, all of the OSA cut scenes look a lot better. The character models look better, the animations are better, the lighting is better, you can see reflections, and the characters’ lips are in sync with what they’re saying. Even to this day, the game still showcases some neat effects. I’ve always liked the explosions, they result in smoke shooting out in different directions. When walls or structures explode, rocks and debris will go flying through the air. Muzzle flashes look pretty good, blood will splatter when enemies get hit, enemies will explode into bloody chunks, and watching enemies jump around and scream in agony when they’re on fire is always humorous. The music is repetitive as fuck in all versions. You’re going to hear the same few tunes over and over again. There’s very little variety to the soundtrack. The sound effects, on the other hand, are well done. Nazis will speak and shout in German and English, explosions sound satisfying, and I think the weapons fire sounds better in the console versions. Although, the audio in Operation Resurrection doesn’t sound like it’s of the same quality as the other versions. On the technical side, the PC version was the smoothest. The frame rate in the Xbox and PS2 versions dipped frequently and in the coop campaign on Xbox, it gets worse. Luckily, the dips don’t really hinder the experience but they can be a minor nuisance. I played through a few levels of the Xbox version on an Xbox 360 first and the frame rate dips are actually worse than when playing on the original hardware. Besides the frame rate dips on console, I didn’t encounter any serious bugs in any version.
Normally with a PC game that’s ported over to consoles, I tend to enjoy the PC version more. Return to Castle Wolfenstein is one of the few games I prefer on console. I’m strictly talking about the vanilla single player experience. The PC version runs better and supports mods which is what helps it stay alive but the console versions are essentially expanded versions of the game. I’m actually surprised that the additional content from the console versions hasn’t been modded into the PC version. I would think fans should be all over it. Unless it would result in legal ramifictions, of course. If there are mods that do this, maybe we just haven’t found them. The new content is certainly welcome. Furthermore, when you beat the campaign in Tides of War, you unlock Wolfenstein 3D. I really enjoy the upgrade system in Operation Resurrection. Not only does it help alleviate the challenge but it also encourages you to explore the levels. And I prefer it to the system in Tides of War just because you can pick and choose the rewards or upgrades. Unfortunately, Operation Resurrection doesn’t include any multiplayer component so the single player campaign is all there is. Overall, I would say Tides of War wins in terms of the console versions. It has more content and multiplayer including local coop which is a fantastic way to experience the game. Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a challenging game but despite the high difficulty which sometimes crosses over to cheap, I had fun with each version. Thankfully, all of them support quick saving and the Xbox version auto saves during levels in the form of checkpoints. There’s no denying the game could use some tweaking but there’s plenty of fun to be had here.
I would absolutely recommend Return to Castle Wolfenstein to fans of the series and shooters. You get a lengthy and challenging campaign and the gameplay can feel rewarding. I may have enjoyed the console versions more because of the additional content but the PC version does support mods which gives it quite an edge. You can find the digital version and the console versions for pretty cheap nowadays and I would recommend you play Tides of War on an original Xbox instead of on 360 because of the performance issues. Return to Castle Wolfenstein may not be as legendary as its predecessor but it’s an excellent entry in the series. Definitely check it out.

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