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Review by: Bob Mandel
Published: January 29, 2002
I am one of the many gamers for whom Wolfenstein is a magic name, for id’s Wolfenstein 3-D literally defined my introduction to 3D action shooters around ten years ago. What with groundbreaking action and sound level design, the idea of navigating around full three-dimensional environments seemed too good to be true, especially after years of just being able to view action on 2D scrolling screens. So when I heard that Gray Matter Studios was making a Wolfenstein sequel (Nerve Software developed the multiplayer component) for Activision, my excitement skyrocketed.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein incorporates as many elements from the Apple II classic Castle Wolfenstein — more known for stealth than for shooting — as from the later Wolfenstein 3-D. This new release also shows signs of heavy influence from more modern offerings, as right from the beginning there are a lot of similarities to Monolith’s No One Lives Forever in terms of the presence of particular kinds of cinematic sequences depicting your superiors discussing strategy. However, ultimately Return to Castle Wolfenstein does not attempt novel breakthroughs or deviations from the established first-person shooter traditions in any of its facets; instead, it simply tries to synthesize the best elements of what came before.
The story combines the traditional combat with Nazi soldiers during World War II with a supernatural element involving zombies and mutant horrors. In 1943, when the Nazis were threatening to take over the world, its fate rested in the hands of the Office of Secret Action. You play the role of Army Ranger William “B.J.” Blazkowicz (the much beloved hero from Wolfenstein 3-D), sent to Germany to investigate strange rumors of occult activity, genetic engineering, and the breeding of super-soldiers. The action begins with Blazkowicz being taken prisoner in Castle Wolfenstein. You learn about the plot through a nifty introductory video, between-mission cutscenes, conversations with characters, and mission briefings. The plot is nowhere near as complex or immersive as that in Valve’s Half-Life, and the horror-zombie element seems in many ways just a distraction from the straightforward earthly hatred for Nazi soldiers. But although the story never really surprises you with unexpected twists and turns, it fits perfectly with the overall theme and legacy of the title.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein has seven missions encompassing 27 levels. There is a wide range of different kinds of activity necessitated, including assassination of high-ranking officers, demolition of enemy strongholds, and escort missions. You always have a clear sense of your objectives right from the outset, as there is no pattern of injecting new goals mid-mission to change the course of your action, and the sequences of steps are all linear. Often your progress is blocked because you have to find a key switch to activate to get through a barrier. While you do expend most of your time mowing down opponents, your progress is not completely mindless, and I never developed a sense of boring tediousness as I made it from level to level.
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