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SummaryA great Wolfenstein game, but a very dated game in general
The Good+ Extensive in length and diverse with environment variety
+ Great horror/sci-fi/fantasy atmosphere
+ Excellent audio
+ Lots of extra content and replay value
The Bad- Utterly dated in terms of gameplay
- Empty combat and emptier weapons
- Shoddy hit detection
- Linear, broken level design
- Poor controls
The Bottom LineMany FPS purists, fans and even just gamers in general herald Return to Castle Wolfenstein as one of the greatest FPS games of all time, and I can see why. RTCW was a well-developed game with a unique horror atmosphere not seen in other fast paced FPS games at the time, as well as boasting the best multiplayer experience at the time before games like Call of Duty came along. Then when you have other games like the 2009 Wolfenstein game, The New Order, and most recently The New Colossus; many that see in red-tinted nostalgia glasses will somehow condemn the games for being linear, having a poor story, and having bad gameplay elements and flock back to the warm, loving arms of RTCW. Funny enough, RTCW has many of those problems when you play it today. Don't get me wrong, it's a great FPS, but RTCW has aged very poorly and games like The New Order and The New Colossus, no matter how you look at them, are actually pretty superior games in contrast.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein's plot is that you're OSS agent William "B.J" Blazkovicz (as expected). Your mission? Those wacky Nazis are playing with supernatural fire, and it's up to B.J. to stop them or else. For the most part, the story is pretty straightforward and takes a backseat. The cutscenes that preface each level highlight the story and development of characters; but usually it doesn't get in the way and you're free to murder Nazis, monsters and genetically modified creatures as you wish. RTCW is pure FPS action at best - shoot everything that moves with a variety of weapons and gadgets from MP40 SMGs to flamethrowers to robot chainguns. The Xbox/PS2 versions include a new shotgun weapon as well.
The combat seems fun, but that's not the case. The game has aged terribly. Whenever I play RTCW, I feel like the weapons lack a lot of depth and impact when used against the bullet sponge enemies (RTCW was developed by Grey Matter, who was built on the ruins of Xatrix Entertainment and they made games full of bullet sponge baddies). The impact against enemies is so empty to the point where when you get hit by a hitscan type enemy has more impact and awareness than shooting a Nazi in the face. The combat is just so empty and clunky to the point where I got bored shooting enemies. Compare that to a game like The New Colossus. As flawed as it is; the combat has more impact and it feels fun shooting or eviscerating Nazis. Hell, you're more likely to be torn apart by enemies than you tearing them apart, especially on harder difficulties - that's how aged the hit detection and combat is.
The level design is also something to raise eyebrows at. Some of the levels, while having great atmosphere, are often clunky, linear and confusing. The most open levels are the ones set in a forest, military base or even villages (the Xbox/PS2 exclusive levels are pretty open too). While the game is straight up action and madness, there are stealth segments to break up the tedium. They suck absolute balls to the point where I think The New Order and The New Colossus had better stealth elements. The stealth segments in RTCW are so scripted, linear and obtuse. What's worse is that the console versions lack the quick saving features present on the PC version, using this checkpoint system that is just as obtuse, and when you fail these segments - you have to restart the entire level over again. That's absolute BS.
On the technical aspects of RTCW, for a 2001 game, it looks pretty good. The lighting and textures in some of the levels are atmospheric, and even quite spooky at times. When ported over to the PS2 and Xbox in 2003; the game looks a little dated on the consoles, especially the Xbox, but it is what it is. The audio aspect is solid; with great voice acting (even if the German voices are cheesy and campy), meaty weapon and explosion sound effects (which is ironic given the empty weapons) and a well-composed orchestra that borders from traditional military fare to horror. The controls are a bit iffy and unresponsive at times, sometimes even confusing, and they can mean the difference between life and death. Least it's better than any Dreamcast FPS game (at least that had a keyboard)
I seem so negative about RTCW, but there are some great features that stick out. The atmosphere in some levels is so spot on that they add to the tensity and horror of some levels, whether it's underground catacombs laden with the undead or freak show laboratories, tranquil spots in snowy villages and green pastures, or military bases full of warplanes, Nazis and tanks. The audio is great, and there's quite a wealth of bonus content for the Xbox version. When you beat the game you can unlock the original Wolfenstein 3D game, as well as gaining new items when you find all secrets in a level. The Xbox version also had the closest thing to a console version of Enemy Territory, although I'm not sure anyone's playing that by now.
So...RTCW. What a doozy. It's a dated, horribly aged game. But it's not terrible, far from it. It's a well done FPS game, but much like Wolf 3D, it's a product of its time despite the influence it has had on the gaming industry. You can play much worse games out there that are more broken, shoddy and glitchy than RTCW, where the best gameplay elements are dragged down by horrible aging. If you're not super huge on FPS games, but want to play a Wolfenstein game, I'd probably pick up The New Colossus or The New Order.