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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 17:31 GMT
Keeping Wolfenstein alive
Screen shot from Return to Castle Wolfenstein
The original first-person shooter has returned
The name Wolfenstein occupies a special place in the hearts of many ageing computer gamers.

Originally written for the Apple II in 1981, it was only when the title was recreated for the PC in 1992 that it won real recognition and began to influence the gaming industry.

Wolfenstein 3D was the most influential of the early first person shooters.

It stunned gamers with its fluid portrayal of the corridors of the Wolfenstein keep, the people and creatures who inhabited it and their reactions fo the attempts of the game's hero, Captain BJ Blazkowicz, to escape.

Shoot to thrill

There was little finesse to Wolfenstein. It was simply a matter of shooting before you were shot using progressively larger and more destructive weapons.

But this simplicity was part of its huge success.

A screen shot from Return to Castle Wolfenstein
Undead opponents can be tricky to defeat
Without Wolfenstein 3D there would have been be no Doom or Quake, no Half-Life, Counterstrike, Unreal Tournament, or Duke Nukem. It is fair to say that it inspired a whole genre.

And now it is back.

As the name implies, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a reprise of the old game, this time created by Gray Matter Studios rather than id Software.

Again it lets the player take on the role of Blazkowicz who again has to escape from the clutches of the Nazis who have imprisoned him in Wolfenstein keep.

After escaping Blazkowicz is given the job of investigating, and stopping, Himmler's continuing experiments with the paranormal and the occult.

The game stretches out over 27 levels and seven missions, far more than the original eight.

But is it as good or as ground-breaking?

Stealth shooter

Well, for a start it looks gorgeous.

In 1992 Wolfenstein 3D set a new standard for smooth graphics. Almost 10 years later Return to Castle Wolfenstein has raised the bar again.

All the game's locations, which include gloomy castle corridors, baronial halls, catacombs, tombs and forests are well detailed, atmospheric and often stunning to behold.

The animation of the various enemies, which includes leather-clad female assassins, fire-spitting zombies, and armoured cyborg soldiers and lots of Nazi guards, is good too.

A screen shot from the PC version of Wolfenstein
Bloody and brilliant: Wolfenstein circa 1992
On the missions that emphasise stealth and subtlety over brute force and firepower, you might find yourself just watching a guard for a few moments just to see what they do before you sneak up and stab them.

Those that you can't sneak up on do a good job of defending themselves.

Some will kick back grenades thrown at them others will wait for you to come to them rather than charge blindly round a corner into withering fire from your machine gun.

Also welcome is the way that creatures in the game demand different tactics or weapons to kill them. It's not a simple update of the original gun-fest.

The missions themselves are varied too. Most test your trigger finger, but others your ability to move quietly or whether you can think faster than the Nazis and their undead helpers.

Top team title

But, in a market awash with first person shooters Return to Castle Wolfenstein struggles to stand out.

Wolfenstein requirements
Pentium II 400MHz
128MB RAM
800MB of hard disk space
DirectX 8.0a
16 MB 3D video card with full OpenGL support
It looks great, but the action in the game is strangely muted. The bloody destruction of the original has been toned down too much. It can be difficult to work out if you shot a guard because they barely react when hit by a bullet.

It's engaging enough for a while, and an essential purchase for nostalgics, but it doesn't have the trail-blazing style of its eaerlier incarnations.

In the later levels Wolfenstein gets repetitive, and the scenes between missions start to drag.

Wolfenstein doesn't have the inventiveness of Half-Life and that game's ability to maintain a player's interest.

Having said this the multi-player version of the game, which was developed by Nerve Software, is up there with the best.

Currently, Wolfenstein multiplayer games only allow all-human teams to take each other on. There are no computer controlled opponents or bots available.

Team members take on the role of one of four specialists; soldier, lieutenant, medic or engineer. Each role needs to be filled because each has different skills, for instance, medics can drop health packs and revive dead team-mates.

Tweaks to communication between team members encourage co-operation and make the task of working together much easier.

The missions give rival teams a set of goals to complete giving them an impetus that some other multiplayer games can lack.

A screen shot from the original Wolfenstein computer game
Opening screen of the original Apple Wolfenstein game
See also:

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30 Jul 01 | dot life
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29 Oct 01 | dot life
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