If you ask someone who loves Return to Castle Wolfenstein (henceforth known as RtCW) what makes the game so great, then there's an above-average chance that he or she will go on and on about the amazing and inventive multi-player experience without even mentioning its single-player campaign. While I agree that RtCW was multi-player bliss back in the day, it's largely been abandoned in that respect in favor of the game's free sequel, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory.
Rather than weep for the sorry state of RtCW's current online multi-player presence, however, I'll instead choose to focus on the strengths of its single-player campaign when considering just why this game continues to entertain and surprise me to this day. While heavy hitters like DOOM and Quake certainly rank high on my list of all-time favorite PC games, none of them hold a candle to RtCW in my eyes.
Most people tend to feel that RtCW doesn't hold up well from a single-player perspective, but I disagree. While the game's single-player mode certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, I'd say that it does a lot more than people give it credit for. Despite being a pretty linear experience, RtCW is full of surprises, as well as considerable challenge.
As in any other Wolfenstein game that happens to feature a single-player campaign, RtCW casts you into the role of B.J. Blazkowicz, an Allied soldier with a penchant for taking down the Nazi forces time and time again. In RtCW, he and another fellow soldier, Agent One, are being held captive inside of Castle Wolfenstein. While the first few levels chronicle B.J.'s escape from Castle Wolfenstein, the game's remaining levels consist of villages, crypts, forests and factories, to name a few.
Left: The cutscenes do an excellent job of setting the tone for levels to come. Right: Don't let B.J. suffer Agent One's fate. Thankfully, this scientist doesn't put up much of a fight.
The most important aspect of any game is its controls. After all, what good is a game if you can't control it? In terms of response, RtCW's controls are every bit as good as those of any other game running on the id Tech 3 engine. Furthermore, at a glance, RtCW's controls look to be pretty standard fare as far as first-person shooter controls go. Now, if you really think that way, though, then you probably need to pay a little more attention to a little something called the Kick button. Oh, the Kick button.
I can't stress enough just how bad-ass RtCW's Kick button is. In fact, it's so awesome that I'm devoting several paragraphs to it. Haha. On paper, the Kick button really doesn't seem like it's anything special. I mean, Duke Nukem attacks with a kick in most of his games. Furthermore, plenty of other games have dedicated melee buttons. What's so special about RtCW's Kick button?
Well, for one, RtCW doesn't treat a kick as just another attack. It's not rolled into the same cyclic access system that all of your other weapons are. (Duke's kick, on the other hand, is.) Also, this kick acts completely independently from whatever weapon you currently have selected in said cyclic access system. (Other games' dedicated melee buttons aren't like that, to the best of my knowledge.) As such, whether you're perforating enemies with a knife or with guns, you can still kick them at the same time. This sounds like a minor thing, but having access to a kick all of the time can really give you an edge in combat, especially if you find yourself rushing at enemies out of necessity.
Really, the Kick button is one of the buttons that I use most in RtCW. Alas, it's difficult to capture in action in screenshots, even with Fraps taking screenshots in one-second intervals. (Yeah, I had well over 25,000 screenshots prepared for this feature, in case you're wondering.) Still, if you happen to play the game at some point, then do yourself a huge favor and put that Kick button to use in combat more often. I map it to my right mouse button, personally, so that should give you an idea just how often I use it.
Now, as much as I love the Kick button for combat, it does have a secondary function in that it can be used to kick doors open. As such, you essentially have three ways of opening doors in RtCW:
First off, you can just press the Activate button to open a door regularly. This can be noisy enough to alert enemies to your presence, though. Bear in mind that this is the only way to open sliding doors.
Secondly, you can hold the Walk button, then press the Activate button to open a door slowly. This results in B.J. opening the door completely silently. This can be very useful if no enemies are facing in your direction, but enemies who see you opening the door will still be alerted. Since there's one level in which you absolutely must be stealthy, you'll probably find yourself using this a bit.
Thirdly, you can press the Kick button to open a door quickly. Yes, this is very noisy, but this is probably one of the most useful methods of opening doors, since it tends to catch enemies off-guard. Furthermore, if you're under fire and need to escape through a nearby door quickly, then do it this way.
As you can see, the Kick button increases your door-opening options by 50% as compared to the respective options that you have in most other games. Furthermore, even if other games do allow you to open doors with melee attacks, then I can still almost guarantee you that you can't use other attacks at the same time as said melee attacks. Also, while some other games feature dual-wielding, bear in mind that RtCW allows for dual-wielding while also kicking. Quite the advantage, I must say.
Also, it should be noted that RtCW's multi-player mode doesn't allow you to utilize the Kick button at all. It would, however, make an already incredible online multi-player experience a billion times better if it did. Now, with that said, I'll stop talking about the Kick button.
Left: Use B.J.'s kick to open doors more quickly, albeit more noisily. Right: In this forest level, stealth is an absolute necessity. Be very careful when using quick saves.
Now, if the Kick button isn't your cup of tea, then rest assured that RtCW gives you plenty of more interesting attack options. Since it, along with the other Wolfenstein games, takes place during World War II, you'll find no shortage of weaponry from that era. You'll start off with a knife and a Luger, with an MP40 not being far behind. Also, while the knife works very well for stealth kills early in the game, you'll find that the Sten, which uses the same ammunition as the MP40, is far more versatile in that it's far less noisy and produces no muzzle flash. Be sure to only fire it in small bursts, though, because it has a tendency to overheat. You'll also pick up a Mauser early on.
The game also gives you a means of upgrading your weapons, although it's limited to finding a suppressor for your Luger or finding a scope for your Mauser. Still, it's nice in that it extends to longevity of these weapons and allows you to more naturally understand the pros and cons of each weapon as the game progresses.
Once you're reunited with your American buddies, you'll also find yourself entering certain levels with a decent selection of American weapons. These include a Colt (or two, since you can dual-wield them), a Thompson and a "Snooper" rifle. Of these, I generally get the most use out of the "Snooper" rifle, since it's easily the best stealth weapon in the game. Problem is, the "Snooper" rifle, along with all other American weapons in the game, isn't something that you can find yourself relying on much, due to the shortage of available ammunition for it.
Given the shortage of ammunition for the American weapons in the game, it only seems natural that you find yourself putting much more emphasis on familiarizing yourself with the German weapons in the game (or the Sten, which is a British weapon, but uses readily available ammunition, as mentioned before). While many of these weapons are very versatile, you'll obviously stumble upon some much more potent and weaponry later in the game. The only problem with these later weapons, of course, is that it's generally more difficult to locate ammo with them, since they're more specialized weapons in many senses.
Left: The MP40's one of the first weapons that you get, and it's very useful throughout the game. Right: Use the Sten whenever you need an excellent balance of stealth and stopping power at close to medium range.
One of my personal favorites of the "realistic" weapons in RtCW is the FG-42, otherwise known as a Paratrooper rifle within the game. It's nice in that it's probably the best weapon in the game in relation to how difficult it is to actually acquire it. You'll generally find yourself having to kill Paratroopers in order to get your hands on ammunition for them, and Paratroopers, in my opinion, are probably some of the most daunting human enemies in the game. This shouldn't be too surprising, though, given the weapons that they're carrying.
That isn't to say that better weapons necessarily make for more difficult enemies, though. As I mentioned before, the Sten is a very versatile weapon that you get fairly early on. Thing is, the enemies who utilize them don't appear until much later (although they still appear before the Paratroopers do). I'm referring, of course, to the Elite Guards. These women are vicious, and they hunt in packs. Some of the Elite Guards later in the game carry scoped Mausers, but most of them carry Stens.
Also, to further drive home the fact that weapons don't make the man (or woman), you'll actually find a lot of lower-level enemies who carry Panzerfausts. Sure, on their own, they're not really too difficult to take out, but you'll generally find yourself distracted with other enemies to the point that you won't necessarily realize the rocket that's coming straight at you.
At the top of the food chain (as far as human enemy soldiers go, anyway) are the Venom Soldiers. These guys carry one of two weapons, those being the flame-thrower and the Venom Gun. The flame-thrower is pretty much self-explanatory and is arguably one of the best crowd control weapons that you have access to in RtCW. The Venom Gun, however isn't really self-explanatory in terms of its name, so it's probably best to just call it something along the lines of a more portable minigun. It has ridiculous stopping power, although its ammo is scarce. You can literally rip enemies apart with it.
Left: Expect to die a lot whenever Elite Guards are around, especially since they hunt in packs. Right: Don't underestimate the range of enemy flame-throwers.
In addition to the standard human enemies, you'll also encounter the undead and various Tesla-powered robotic anomalies. The undead appear rather earlier in the game, once you've made your way into the crypt. The robotic anomalies, which tend to be half-human and half-robot, show up much later. There are three bosses, as well, and each of these more or less fit into the same groups as these...less human enemies.
The undead enemies, for the most part, are rather tame in overall behavior compared to the robotic enemies. Undead enemies come in several forms, with some of them being almost completely unarmored and relatively simple to destroy, while others are well-armored and take a bit more skill to take down. Some of them even have projectile attacks, while others breathe fire. While they're all a bit dangerous in their own ways, the armored ones are the most interesting in that they generally carry shields that - when shot - send your bullets back at you, discouraging bullet spam. Undead enemies even attack Nazis, making them quite useful in your own survival.
Robotic enemies are easily the most dangerous enemies that you'll encounter in RtCW. Despite having no projectile attacks, Lopers are definitely among the most troublesome enemies in the game, because their leap attacks allow them to cover long distances quickly. To make matters worse, they're able to utilize Tesla-powered attacks to kill you very, very quickly. Thankfully, they're usually too distracted by other enemies to pay much attention to you initially, giving you an opportunity to take them down with little effort.
Next, we have the Uber Soldat, as well as its various prototypes. These generally utilize a combination of Panzerfausts, Tesla Guns and Venom Guns. They're by far the worst enemies to encounter, since they can take a lot of hits prior to dying. Still, the ones equipped with Tesla Guns drop their Tesla Guns whenever they're destroyed, so it's generally a good idea to kill them, anyway. (To be honest, I think it's required that you kill them.)
Left: Deal as much damage as possible to enemies who are distracted by other enemies. Right: Using the Venom Gun on humans may be overkill, but it's very satisfying.
Now, if it more or less sounds like I just rattled off all of the weapons and enemies, then that's because I more or less did. Thing is, though, while some of these may seem typical of other games in the first-person shooter genre, they're used to maximal effect in RtCW. Furthermore, the environmental changes and general atmosphere in RtCW were second to none in 2001.
As mentioned before, your campaign begins in the dungeon of Castle Wolfenstein. It's a suitably dank- and spooky-looking area, especially given the signs of death and torture that litter your surroundings. As you make your way up through the castle, you're treated to elegant hallways and large banquet halls, among other staples that you'd expect to see in a castle of this nature.
Once you've escaped the castle, you'll make your way to a village, where you're tasked with meeting up with a contact from the Kreisau Circle. Inside this village, you'll find the entrance to the crypt, where environmental hazards such as crushing walls and spike pits await. Once you've made your way through the crypt, you'll pass through a ruined church, the interior of which gives the Elite Guards whom you'll encounter plenty of hiding places to kill you from. This is also where you fight the first boss.
Without going into too much detail, the remaining areas consist of an airfield, a bombed city, a forest, an underground research complex, a lab, a damn, another village, a manor, another crypt and - finally - a burial site where the final confrontation will take place. This game just has so much variety from an environmental standpoint, and the atmosphere changes suitably with each environmental change, with music to go along with it much of the time. Better still, the level designs are believable, and the human enemies are actually pretty likable (aside from the whole trying-to-kill-you part) and can often be heard having amusing conversations with one another. (You need to be stealthy to hear some of them.)
Left: In case it wasn't obvious, let it be known that standing out in the open when fighting an Uber Soldat is a really bad idea. Right: The Tesla Gun is great for taking out groups of weaker enemies, such as scientists. Don't bother using it against heavily-armored enemies, though.
If you've never played RtCW, then I'd highly recommend that you give it a shot. It's a great game with plenty of personality and challenge. If you'd like to jump right into the full experience, then you can get the full game for a pretty respectable price on Steam, but those of you who'd rather try a demo beforehand can get it here.
Those of you who are interested in the multi-player modes should probably check out Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. While I prefer RtCW's multi-player to that of Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, RtCW just isn't popular enough from a multi-player perspective for me to wholeheartedly recommend it. Furthermore, assuming that you end up liking RtCW's or Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory's multi-player style, you may want to keep an eye on Brink.