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Return to Castle Wolfenstein

As the year has worn on, and more and more big-name PC action games have slipped into 2002, Return to Castle Wolfenstein has emerged as the only triple-A shooter likely to be released in time for the 2001 holiday season. It certainly has a blockbuster pedigree. It's a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D--id Software's first-person shooter that defined the genre--which was itself a follow-up to the beloved Apple II classic Castle Wolfenstein. Return to Castle Wolfenstein's development actually involved two separate teams, both overseen by id Software. The first team, Gray Matter Studios--which, under the name Xatrix, had previously produced Redneck Rampage and Kingpin--was hired to create the single-player campaign, while a new development house, Nerve Software, concentrated its energies on the multiplayer component. All these factors contributed to some perhaps unreasonably heightened expectations. Now that the waiting is over and the game is out, it can be stated for the record that Wolfenstein's single-player mode is good. It's...good. It's pretty good. But with the faint-praise damning out of the way, you'll be happy to hear that the multiplayer game is outstanding.

Wolfenstein borrows much of its structure from No One Live Forever, last year's best shooter. Like NOLF, Wolfenstein is primarily a run-and-gun shooter with some stealth sections mixed in. It also features enemy guards engaged in conversations as you approach them, a largely defensive AI for those guards, and between-level cutscenes that recount meetings between your superiors back at home base. Unfortunately, the dialogue in Wolfenstein is not nearly as sharp as that of NOLF. The overheard conversations never manage to rise to the level of humor displayed in NOLF, and the game fails to create any memorable characters--not even the game's own hero, B.J. Blazkowicz, who never says a word. The between-mission cutscenes are especially tedious; they're long and visually and dramatically uninteresting.

While the execution of the story, which involves your attempt to stop the Nazis from creating biomechanical zombie super soldiers, is a bust, Wolfenstein's graphics are a rousing success. Armed with the Quake III: Team Arena engine, Gray Matter has lived up to the precedent it set for great visuals with Kingpin, the most beautiful and unique-looking of all the Quake II-powered games. Wolfenstein's 27 levels are spread across seven missions and feature a good variety of environments. The levels alternate between expansive outdoor scenes, such as a Nazi camp with a good deal of hilly terrain surrounding it, to interiors that range from cramped tombs to massive, ornate castle chambers. The quality and detail of the levels' textures and lighting are uniformly excellent.

The weapon models, the character models, and the animations are also first-rate. As it did in Kingpin, Gray Matter used a system that permitted it to mix and match pieces of each model, creating a lot of variety among the Nazi soldiers. In what may be a first for the genre, the models actually appear to have lips that operate independently of the teeth behind them. Character movement is especially smooth. Though the conversations between the guards may not be terribly interesting, the guards' idle animations are great. For instance, at one point a guard patrolling the deck of an icebound submarine stretches, lights up a smoke, takes a few puffs, then drops the butt and stubs it out under his heel. You'll often delay your assault on guards just to sit and watch what they do. The game's zombies--who look more like mummies than traditional rotting undead--move with a convincing disjointed shuffle. One particular type of skeleton enemy is especially eerie as it creeps toward you through low-lying fog, its eyes glowing.

Wolfenstein's sound effects are generally good, from the dull "thock-thock-thock" of bullets striking the wooden table you're hiding behind to the appropriately varied noises made by footsteps on different floor materials. The game's soundtrack is understated but effective. However, Wolfenstein traditionalists will be horrified to learn that Gray Matter has replaced Nazis screaming at you in German--a trademark of the series since the original Apple II version--with Nazis screaming at you in German-accented English. The less said about that unfortunate decision, the better.

To reuse a phrase that has appeared in or been implied by every shooter review since November 1998, the AI is not as good as the AI found in Half-Life. However, it's certainly not bad, and for the most part it's impressive. Soldiers exhibit a real capacity for self-preservation. Rather than charge right for you, they'll often find cover and stick to it, waiting for you to come flush them out. They're also smart enough to run away from grenades, and they'll occasionally even kick one back at you. Most of the more annoying AI traits that appear in too many recent games, such as enemies running aimlessly in a circle or not noticing when a buddy two feet away has his head blown off, don't occur in Wolfenstein. On the other hand, enemy soldiers don't give off the appearance of squad coordination, as they did in Half Life.

Ultimately, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a pure shooter. As such, the core of its appeal lies in its gunfights and the variety of different ways that bullets interact with objects in its universe. And it's here that the game stumbles. Though the character models are well animated, their reactions to being hit with gunfire are far too subtle. Often, you'll riddle a soldier with bullets and receive no real visual reaction from him other than the fact that he'll eventually fall over dead. Though "twitch" animations occur, they often don't seem to be completely in sync with or proportional to the physical trauma being visited on a character. The force of your attacks never blows anyone off their feet, for instance. And for an over-the-top game about fighting Nazis, zombies, and reanimated mutant soldiers, there's actually very little blood ever spilled. In virtually every way, the rampant, nonstop violence is oddly muted, which drains the game of the visceral punch offered by the best entries in the genre.


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