Thursday, 10 October 2013

Return to Castle Wolfenstein (PC)

Now that's the kind of picture I like to see when I put a video game on.

Today I'm playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein, third in id Software's Wolfenstein franchise, though it was developed by Gray Matter and Nerve. This was actually Grey Matter's only game before they were absorbed by CODBlops devs Treyarch, though they'd made games like Redneck Rampage and Kingpin: Life of Crime in their previous life as Xatrix Entertainment. Perhaps not a very interesting fact, but I just wanted an excuse to type CODBlops.

Here's another potentially underwhelming fact: I've played and finished this game before, so I'm not coming into it even slightly unaware of what to expect. Though I'll make every effort to pretend to be surprised.

(Click the gameplay pictures to expand them into exciting new resolutions.)

The game begins with a CGI intro set in 943 A.D., which honestly did take me by surprise as I'd totally forgotten about it. It's not meant to look like it's been painted by the way, that's just how it turns out when you freeze frame it.

This gentleman is called Heinrich and apparently he's been carrying out a reign of terror of late. This move hasn't pleased everyone though and a number of soldiers have stepped up to raise their objections, only to get sliced up effortlessly by Henry's big-ass axe. But a single wizard strides through the battlefield undeterred, intending to take him down alone.

"You fool, you know as well as I that I cannot be destroyed!" Heinrich responds to the wizard, sounding a lot more like a voice actor in a recording booth than an ancient supernatural king powered by the darkest magicks.

"A prison then." replies the wizard, using a magic rune carved into the stones paving the floor beneath them to trap Heinrich underground for all eternity. Hey, this guy's voiced by the actor who plays Duncan in Dragon Age: Origins! I knew I recognised his voice from somewhere.

Sadly he gets a little cocky afterwards and decides he's earned himself a slow motion action hero 'walk away from the explosion collapsing ruins' moment, and gets caught in the expanding smoke cloud and apparently killed. Ooops.

Meanwhile 1000 years later, in the middle of World War II, an important looking man in an important looking office in England (voiced by the instantly recognisable Tony Jay) is given some bad news: two of their top agents have been captured by the Nazis and taken to Castle Wolfenstein. Tony Jay isn't happy about this and immediately calls a meeting to decide on their next move.

After spending a few minutes on exposition to set up the story Tony Jay eventually decides to just leave the two captured agents to escape on their own. Any secret agent worth rescuing must be skilled enough to break out by themselves, right?

Personally I think the more pressing concern here is why this guy's tie is so much higher resolution than any of the other textures in this scene. It's like it's an artefact from one of their earlier missions where their top agent went forward in time to 2006 and stole it from Hitman: Blood Money or something.

Meanwhile, inside the eponymous Castle Wolfenstein itself, sinister things are afoot as this Nazi doctor tortures one of the captured agents to find out who he works for. It's presumably one of the people you're at war with mate, if that's any help.

The doctor is almost done here (done torturing the agent to death that is), so he sends a soldier down to the cells to bring in the other prisoner: the legendary B.J. Blazkowicz (the protagonist from the original Wolfenstein 3D!)

Fortunately our hero used the classic 'hide above the door and drop on the confused soldier as he enters the seemingly empty cell' trick and now we have an open door and a second hand pistol. Also this knife, which has a ridiculous attack rate of roughly 30 stabs a second.

Okay I'll quickly run through the checklist before I take off.
  • Iron sights? Nope.
  • Auto-map? Hah!
  • Can I at least see my own legs? I'm playing as a floating camera with a hand attached to it.
Well that all seems to be in order for an early 2000s first person shooter. Off I go then.

Wolfenstein 3D (MS-DOS)
Wolfenstein 3D actually starts off the exact same way. Well it starts with Blazkowicz facing a dead guard in an unlocked prison cell anyway. Fortunately the games diverge a bit from here; for one thing Return to Castle Wolfenstein has separate redefinable strafe keys allowing me to side-step and turn simultaneously!

Plus it also has a floor and ceiling.

Oh shit I'm back in Legend of Grimrock! If I find a giant spider waiting for me at the end of this hallway I'm turning the game off.

After stumbling across the doctor's lair I was inspired by his sinister surgical equipment to perform a little amateur brain surgery of my own, with a bullet from across the room. To my surprise I was able to take him down with a single headshot, avenging my fallen buddy with great efficiency. Wolfenstein, I think you and I are going to get along just fine.

I know it's a little bit harsh perhaps to shoot an unarmed man in the back, but it should be noted that he just tortured a man to death and was about to repeat the same procedure on me. Shockingly it turns out that there's no way to hide bodies in this, so when another soldier came by to check up on the doctor I thought I'd better put a bullet in his head too, to displace any thoughts of running away and setting off an alarm.

A little grey icon popped up to inform me that I could smash this nearby radio, so I pulled out my rapid fire knife and stabbed it so fast that it exploded into shrapnel. I can break these message boards too, but I'm starting to wonder if there's any point. I mean there's no score in the game, property damage doesn't get counted in the end level stats if I recall, and there's no 'Smash all of the Third Reich's shit' achievement, so I'm basically just wasting my time here.

In happier news, I found an MP 40 submachine gun in here too! It's also rapid fire.

The crosshair (which is slightly entirely invisible in the small version of these screenshots I'm afraid) expands as I'm firing to indicate where my bullet spray is going to end up. Luckily the thing is actually quite accurate at this range if I can resist the urge to hold the trigger down.

A table covered in gold bars, for me? I knew that my obsessive need to straighten every crooked candlestick on the walls would eventually be validated! I'll just put all these in my bag of infinite holding that I've been using to carry one of every weapon I find (this came out two or three years before the two weapon limit caught on).

It's nice to see that the game hasn't taken itself too seriously and has kept a bit of the retro charm. It's not above including some of Wolfenstein 3D's more video-gamey elements.

I can even nick the Nazis' lunch to raise my health, like in the original game, and after his stay in that prison cell I'm sure our poor hero must be starving.

But this is far less realistic than having Wolverine-style healing powers and being able to recover from gunshot wounds by hiding around a wall for five seconds! It's ruining my immersion! It's far too delicious too.


Not the most exciting screenshot in the world, but this is how I've generally been dealing with groups of enemies so far. I pop my head into a corridor, get their attention, then disappear back around the corner and wait for them to line up to the slaughter.

They're not mindless idiots, they like to ambush me and will run for cover if they're in trouble, but they gotta come around that corner some day if they wanna kill me. Fortunately there is an end to them, they don't respawn.

There you go, I deliberately set up a more exciting screenshot for you. It's got an explosion and everything!

Here I demonstrate how not to clear out a room of enemies. Sure I got one on the way in and two more with the exploding barrels, but now I'm right in the open with one bullet left in my magazine and 14 health. Honestly I'm surprised I ended up winning this fight.

(I ran away and shot them as they chased me around the corner).

Whoa, what are the chances that enemies would start flooding in the very moment I touched the mounted MG 42 turret? Probably similar to the chances of it happening every single other time I come across one I imagine. Still I'm not here to protect anything from the onslaught and I don't have to hold out for five minutes or whatever, so I'm fine with that.

Some turret sequences in games just drive me to despair. I remember one in particular around halfway through the original Call of Duty that nearly made me quit the game right there; shooting down bombers with a flak gun or something like that, over and over again because I kept screwing it up. It's been years now but I still have the nightmares.


Tram ride! It seems that we're not going to be stuck in the castle itself for long in this game.

It's funny just how many first person shooters had cable car levels in them around this time. Just off the top of my head you've got No One Lives Forever released the year before this, then 007 Nightfire and XIII which came out in the years immediately after. Also they all came out in November, how weird is that? Was there a big cable car-based action scene in a movie back then that I'm forgetting?

More importantly, do you think I can get up onto those cables and walk the whole way down?

Agh, so close! It pushed me off just as I was getting to the end! I guess the developers didn't want me leaping across the village rooftops, especially as there's probably nothing past this building but rooftops until I go through the exit door and load up the next level.


KARL, NO! Shit, I can't believe I just killed Karl! Not Karl...

Wait, who the fuck is Karl? And why didn't he think to yell "Warten! Nicht schießen!" before running out into a street full of dead enemies I just gunned down. There hasn't been an over-abundance of friendlies in the game so far, so I'm kind of primed to shoot on sight.

Not that the game doesn't give me a second to react when an enemy walks on screen, as if I catch them by surprise it often takes them a moment to realise who I am and that they should be shooting me. It definitely helps to give me a fighting chance, especially as I apparently have to take a second to identify them as a threat now as well.

Of course when the shooting goes down the soldiers seem to develop a supernatural awareness of my current location wherever I'm hiding. But that's what corners are for, right?

Holy shit, Karl's so tiny! Or maybe German houses are just huge, I don't know. Shame he doesn't own any furniture I could use to compare him against.

You know, I never quite realised just how out of scale things were in this game until now. I realise that level designers have to exaggerate the size of buildings in games like this to give me room to move, but man this room just does not look right at all.

Oh that's funny, the game's led me into a cul-de-sac with a sniper shooting at me from behind. It's always doing stuff like this; the game's favourite trick is to stick me in a level with locked doors and a single path to follow. But when I go down there I find that it's either a dead end or it circles around to the place where I started. This gives enemies their cue to suddenly burst out of one of the locked doors, providing me a new route to take.

Anyway it turns out that snipers have a natural vulnerability to explosions, so a single grenade sorted this situation out. Alas this was made before the invention of the separate grenade key (and on-screen grenade throwing arc guides for that matter) to it took me a bit more effort than it needed to.

I assumed I'd be trying to leave the country, but it seems that now that Blazkowicz has escaped incarceration at Castle Wolfenstein he's gone right back to his original mission: locating the SS Paranormal Division's archaelogical dig site and investigating the situation. Apparently this investigation requires me to break into that old crypt yonder. It might look fairly harmless but if I remember right one of the most awkward levels in the game lies underneath.

The game's been entirely true to its World War II setting so far (for a 2001 first person shooter anyway), but things are about to get a little... Diablo.


Nazis versus Viking zombies, man I'm not sure which side I should be shooting first. I guess I'll just lob a few grenades down there and let my righteous shrapnel sort things out. Should help make things less crowded down there at least.

These Viking guys are a pain in the ass for two reasons. For one thing they're carrying bulletproof shields that seem to reflect my shots back at me; but worse they don't give me any ammo back afterwards! Say what you like about Nazis, but at least they're always considerate enough to carry a gun for me to take.

Things are getting a bit old school now against these melee enemies, with more strafing and less ducking behind walls, but cruelly the game hasn't given me a shotgun. Where's the fun in circle strafing around a zombie if I can't blast them in the back with buckshot at point-blank range?


Alright, I'm calling bullshit on that. How am I supposed to react to a flame monster appearing out of nowhere and filling the room with fire? The game's been very good so far at giving me challenges I could reasonably be expected to beat on my first attempt, but this is definitely a quickload situation.

Oh the game has quicksaves by the way, though that should go without saying really for a PC shooter of this era, and I have been abusing the hell out of them. Though fortunately I haven't had to abuse the quickloads quite so much, as besides the odd cable car and flame demon incident I've been quite successful at keeping Blazkowicz on the mortal coil.

Not so tough from across the room are you? This flame zombie is absolutely pathetic if you know that he's coming. Of course it helps that this sniper rifle is amazing, with barely any sway. The Inhuman Torch here takes a few shots to put down, but regular humans can be downed in one... from the other side of the map.


This bit is total bullshit as well, but it made me smile (and I've got quicksaves) so I'll let them off.

You see that passageway up ahead? I don't suppose you can see the instant kill spike pit in the middle of it though can you? I definitely didn't first time around. Then, once I loaded my save and jumped over the hidden death trap, I flicked the switch at the end... and was crushed by the walls! The other traps down here are pretty easy to spot, but this hallway man, whoever built it has a dark sense of humour.


The crypt led out into a church guarded by an elite all-female coven of Nazi special-forces witches in sexy skin-tight low cut leather catsuits. Man it took a whole lot of corners to take all of them down I can tell you.

But I'm sure you wouldn't be interested a screenshot of any of that, so here's a picture of the church instead. It's a shame that the graphics engine isn't quite up to having light refracting through the stained glass windows, but I think it does alright for it's time.


Meanwhile the Nazis in charge of this particular occult project are having a bit of a row outside. The leader of the crack all-female (and now all-dead) special forces team is determined to take a mystical knife they've recently discovered, whereas this guy is a little concerned that it'll break a seal and unleash even more supernatural nastiness upon them.

Lots of phrases like "if you persist in this madness", "cowering bookworm and his pointless fears" and "your feeble threats won't stop me" are thrown around, so you can imagine the tone of the conversation. It's all terrible cheesy over the top comic book dialogue delivered exactly how you'd expect it to be.   

Oh, plus the other character looks like this, with an scar across the eye just to make sure you know she's evil (if all the other clues somehow didn't quite get the job done.)

She ends up actually shooting the other guy dead to get him out of the way, which seems a bit like overkill to me. I mean there's no way on Earth a skinny guy like that could've been a real obstacle to her, the woman's built like a tank.

Anyway she breaks the seal, unleashes unspeakable evil, and dies screaming. So I guess it's up to me to clean up this mess then and that means a... hnng... boss fight.


You know this is actually working out alright so far. As long he stays behind that pillar and my ammo lasts just a little longer I think I can actually win this. I don't even know what I'm fighting as all I can see is an arm, but it seems like a pretty fierce arm. Not something I'd want around my neck, that's for sure.

I honestly haven't been spending as much time cowering behind corners during the game as I've made it seem, but I'll sure as hell use any low down despicable trick I can short of outright cheating to make fights like this less tedious. Maybe he's not actually so bad to fight, I don't know. But I've been burned by too many other games to play fair here and risk having to repeat it.


The chaps back at HQ are all very happy with the outcome and are sending me right back out on another mission. This would probably be a really good point to stop playing, but I know what's coming next and I'll like to whine about it a little if that's okay with you.


Surprise, it's a stealth level! I have to make it through the forest to a supply compound without anyone spotting me and setting off the alarm. I do like a bit of variety in games, but for some reason I've never been that keen on mandatory sneaking levels. Possibly because I'm not a huge fan of stealth games in general, which is why I'm playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein right now instead of Splinter Cell.

At least they've given me a map showing the best way to avoid all contact with enemies. Maps are awesome, it's a real shame that they went out of fashion when first person shooters went full 3D.

By the way I can click on those tabs on the left to review the events of the previous chapters and remind myself of the story so far. It's a small feature, but it's appreciated.

Alright then, time to do this. Soldiers are everywhere and I have to make absolutely certain that not one of them triggers the alarm. I have to be like a ghost.


Hey this level's not so bad... oh shit, someone else pressed the alarm? Don't tell me that the guys in the watch towers have alarm buttons too! I'm so crap at this.

I suppose I'd better share some final thoughts about Return to Castle Wolfenstein then. The game lies somewhere between 90s FPS games and the set piece driven WWII shooters of the mid 2000s, closer to something like GoldenEye than it is to Call of Duty. I like how it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it still remains surprisingly grounded in a comic book kind of way and it respects its setting. It feels more like a World War 2 game with supernatural and sci-fi elements than a fantasy game with World War 2 elements, and that made it pretty unique back in the day when there weren't a great deal of WW2 shooters on PC.

The story... exists to string the levels together without being very interesting in its own right, but it does all it needs to do. This is all about the gameplay rather than the characters and plot twists and on that level it works just fine, so I'll give it my 'gold star for not being crap', for showing up to the party with its fly zipped up and not embarrassing itself.

I'm tempted to present it with my highest award as well, as it's a solid game and I enjoyed it a lot at times. But on the other hand it's nothing really amazing, the boss fights are irritating (to me), and it's a little clunky compared to some of its contemporaries. Plus I'm incredibly (and obviously) biased towards the genre and I can't just give every first person shooter I play my highest rating or else I'd end up devaluing it. Or can I?

I know, I'll totally cop out and award Return to Castle Wolfenstein with... Schrödinger's Prize:

The game simultaneously does and does not win the prize. Only by opening the box and observing the contents can the result be resolved either way. Though of course if you're a proponent of the many worlds theory then you'd believe that each result is true only in its own branching dimension, in which case... I dunno, flip a coin.

Well that's all I've got to say about Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but if you'd like to say anything about the game yourself now would be a good time. The comment box stands ready to convey your opinions and feedback to the world.


  1. And it only took five screenshots before the word "ACHTUNG" appeared, nice (also, a good read, as always).

  2. That was the level I always had trouble with too.


Semi-Random Game Box