Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001, FPS): The Netbook Gamer

Every now and then we come across something that brings us back to the origins of our love for a hobby. For me and computer games, my first real love was Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple ][ in 1981. I have related that story more than once now, since I have reviewed the iPhone version of Wolf 3D, the iPhone game Wolfenstein RPG, and last fall’s franchise reboot Wolfenstein for PC, X360 and PS3. In between all of that, Activision released Return to Castle Wolfenstein in late 2001. In this episode of The Netbook Gamer I see how the game has aged and how it plays on the netbook

The Wolfenstein franchise is about as fundamental to hardcore gaming as could be possible, being a major game on one of the earliest home PC game systems, then the first true 3D shooter, and being at the center of the whole ‘World War II Nazi Killing’ game craze. Just to visualize once again the origins of the franchise, here is some stealth gameplay from the original:

(Image courtesy Wikipedia)

And here is an image from the seminal id Software first person shooter Wolfenstein 3D nearly a dozen years later:

Now fast-forward eight years to late November 2001, and this is how Grey Matter studios brought Castle Wolfenstein to life … as seen on my Lenovo s10 netbook:

Just a quick look at that screenshot shows amazing attention to detail in terms of the walls, environments, weapons, and some really cool lighting. This is before Medal of Honor made its ‘Allied Assault’ on the PC, and two years before we first answered the Call of Duty, so the Quake 3 graphics engine still had a long way to go before running out of steam.

When Return to Castle Wolfenstein (hereafter called RtCW) came out, I was too busy with two toddlers running around the house to be dealing with much in terms of tracking new game releases. So I didn’t find out it was coming until just before it was released and was able to wait for my wife to buy it for me for Christmas.

While the visuals look very nice, the system requirements were pretty modest for the game. It only needed a 400MHz processor for the PC version (500MHz for the Mac release) and a 16MB graphics card, both of which were very attainable at the time. I was easily able to install and play immediately, and move the settings to ‘maximum’ on my laptop.

The game starts with you as BJ Blaskowicz, once again escaping from your cell at Castle Wolfenstein and needing to work your way out of the castle while simultaneously learning that something just isn’t right with the experiments going on there.

From the outset RtCW is a pretty standard World War II first-person shooter, with a standard WASD key & mouse configuration also featuring the ability to lean around corners and other things. You get a visual cue when you can interact with an object, in this case a hand icon. This is commonplace now but was rare in 2001.

The sounds and music are simply fantastic; they bridge the nostalgic view back to the music of Wolf 3D with a thoroughly modern WWII shooter. The first time you are spotted by a German soldier you hear the ever-familiar ‘Halt!’, at which point the alarm is raised and you are actively hunted down. Grey Matter took extra care to simultaneously pay homage to both actual history and game history, and it worked very well.

While the game begins as a standard WWII FPS, since Wolf 3D the Wolfenstein franchise has always had a twist of the occult and supernatural, and RtCW really delivers a more intensive experience in that direction in a cohesive fashion. After escaping the castle (c’mon, you knew that from the title!), your investigations will have you encountering zombies and other undead and unnatural creatures.

As you progress through the game you have a variety of weapons from the era specific to each army at your disposal, and there is no limit to the weapons you can carry. Most of the weaponry, from the Mauser to the Sten to the Tommy gun, are realistically modeled based on the actual weapons. However, as you progress through the game you will uncover a weapons research facility and unlock a couple of high powered experimental weapons that are absolutely devastating.

The problem I had with the gameplay this time around was that the shooter elements felt fairly ‘loose’: the hit detection was sloppy in terms of locational damage mattering much at all(remember this came out well after Raven showed us with the original Soldier of Fortune how to do locational damage correctly), enemies became more difficult simply by becoming better bullet sponges – to the point that it felt simple Nazi soldiers at the end game were almost as hard to take down as early boss creatures!

While the game played well I remember having these thoughts when I replayed RtCW in mid-2002. By then Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Jedi Knight II and Soldier of Fortune II had all arrived and offered much tighter and responsive gameplay and made RtCW feel somewhat dated as a shooter.

While the single player game was popular, the real lifeblood came from a very popular multiplayer mode that offered many ‘career’ type options that were new when RtCW was released but that we now expect in a multiplayer shooter. The multiplayer, developed by Nerve Software, was eventually superseded by the free Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, so when I tried to find a match online the servers were pretty empty.

Many folks quickly abandoned Return to Castle Wolfenstein once Medal of Honor came along and ushered in the sort of ‘short war-based campaign with extensive multiplayer’ game that remains extremely popular to the present moment (i.e. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2). Yet what RtCW offered was different – it was based in the war, but was a story-driven shooter that delivered equally on both single player and multiplayer.

RetroGamer Perspective: While it is hard to find something as core to the retro-gamer as an Apple ][ franchise (I’ll be drooling over Wizardry, Ultima and Might & Magic games soon enough), Return to Castle Wolfenstein clearly belongs to the modern shooter era. I have found that the recent ‘franchise reboot’ has also stirred new interest in this game, making this a game that has appeal to classic and modern gamers alike.

Netbook Gamer Perspective:

– Digital Download / CD version? – Return to Castle Wolfenstein never got a digital release – though I was hoping it would get one during Good Old Games ‘Month of Activision’ in February. The CD version is out of print but widely available on used game and trading sites.

– Installation Notes: The game is on a single CD and installs fairly quickly. There is a serial number on your CD case to enter during installation.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~700MB.

– CD Required to Play? No. Pretty amazing, but once authenticated by registering you never need the CD again. So while there is no digital version available, once installed it is nice to not have to worry about the disk!

– Control Considerations? Return to Castle Wolfenstein is very much a modern WASD-based shooter with every control detailed during the tutorial and also available for customization.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? RtCW included Windows XP in the release compatibility lists and works great on all modern operating systems.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? There was a Mac version of RtCW released in April of 2002 which was built for OS X and runs pretty well under the Rosetta emulation system on Intel hardware.

– Notes on the Digital Version: As noted, none available.

Conclusion: I was amazed at how well Return to Castle Wolfenstein held up over the years in terms of look and feel. I was also impressed by how much fun it still was to play, and how quickly I found myself immersed back into an old favorite game and character. The issues I had with gameplay remain, but overall time has been better to RtCW than to many war-based shooters (such as the aforementioned Medal of Honor: Allied Assault). Having recently played and reviewed the ‘franchise reboot’ Wolfenstein, my memory that Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a much better game was validated. RtCW remains a solid shooter playable on just about any computer available, and still looks and plays great!

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!