Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) – Review

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Lately, I have been feeling nostalgic and desirous of black-and-white morality. Naturally, I have gravitated towards media involving occult Nazis.

Occult Nazis have a long and storied history as enemies in video games, and the Wolfenstein series is definitely at the forefront of that. Not having played the series before, I went back to the first one that could be described as vaguely modern: Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

You play as William J. Blazkowicz, an American special operative under the command of a joint British/American agency. It’s always nice when American games allow other country’s to have a visible role in the war. The war in question, of course, is WWII, and Blazkowicz is tasked with uncovering exactly what dark and evil plans General Deathshead is concocting in his various secret bases.

I don’t normally like starting several steps into a series, but I was content to make an exception here. The games all follow the same essential plot (fight Nazis, discover the dark secret of their latest research, fight super-powered Nazis), and so continuity is generally less of an issue, at least in the early games.

There’s a lot to like about Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but one of the main things is definitely the moral landscape. Occult Nazis are frequent game antagonists because they fulfill that role very well; for one thing, their particular blend of technological and supernatural interests means that it’s possible to justify the most ridiculous settings and mechanics without losing the willing suspension of disbelief. Perhaps more importantly, their utter and unrepentant evil means that you can oppose them without guilt. The modern fashion in games is to point out the moral greys, and it’s nice occasionally to play something that has a simpler moral code.

I’m also a big fan of the aesthetic. That pulpy, b-movie style and concept is something I adore. I will read/watch/play anything that involves secret research bases, over-the-top weaponry, meddling with the occult, and overly-dramatic speeches. Return to Castle Wolfenstein is over-the-top in the best way. Everywhere you go is decorated with skulls, because that’s apparently what happens spontaneously to any area that Nazis frequent. Your opponents range from normal soldiers through fetish-wear female commandos and ancient zombies to cybernetic knights and sludge demons. Of particular note are the locations, which come in three flavours: standard military, opulent mansions, and endless catacombs beneath the surface of the earth. Yes, suspension of disbelief/subtlety is required, but it’s definitely always exciting.

The graphics are outdated now, but not to the point of ruining the game. Yes, they’re blocky and crude, but everything is clear enough that you can understand it, and the art style consistently creates immersive locations and atmospheres. Playing any old game means that you have to deal with previous decades’ cutting edges, and often that’s an unpleasant or unplayable experience. Return to Castle Wolfenstein has aged as gracefully as possible.

My preference in gaming over the last few years has been decidedly towards strategy, and turn-based strategy in particular. I haven’t played much of any shooters in a while. As a result, I was initially worried that I would struggle to keep up with the fast-paced gunplay as my reflexes slow with my advancing age. Luckily, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is varied and well-designed enough to allow a variety of tactics. Unlike a depressing number of shooters, in which “run-and-gun” is the only viable option, Return to Castle Wolfenstein (a title I am increasingly regretting not shortening at the start) has a range of distinct weaponry available, as well as maps complex enough to reward exploration and strategy.

I enjoyed the lack of hand-holding, with puzzles and objectives often hidden from easy sight. That’s partly a feature of older games, rather than an overt design choice, but it’s refreshing to have to think and explore, if occasionally frustrating. Not having a live minimap bustling with updates forces you to explore, and plan, and sometimes fail. I rather like that. There are optional objectives and treasure troves hidden all over the game, and being challenged but not expected to find things gives the discovery a greater kick.

I would have liked a little more environmental interaction, and a more complex set of stealth mechanics. However, both of those things did feature, and impressively so, given the age of the game. Even inessential items were destructible, for example, which shows the effort that went into level/setting design. I was particularly pleased to find that destroying radios did in fact turn off the music.

Overall, I was extremely pleasantly surprised by the game. Its age was not an impediment to engagement, and in every area I found myself impressed with the care and thought that had gone into things. It’s pulp, but that’s by design – you have to engage with the aesthetic. Once you do though, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is an exceptional game for its age, and one that still holds up well.

Buy it here.

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