Return To Castle Wolfenstein: Tides Of War
I love my first person shooters. There’s nothing better than blasting the crap out of some zombie or Nazi, or in fact, a combination of both. Wolfenstein 3D was the game that started the whole thing off, it was the game that spawned a genre packed full of great, and not so great games. Back in 2001, id resurrected the series on PC with Return to Castle Wolfenstein and it earned critical acclaim. After two years, we’ve finally got the chance to do the same on Xbox, and it’s definitely been worth the wait.
Return To Castle Wolfenstein: Tides Of War – like soccer – is ‘a game of two halves’. There’s the single player, and then the Xbox LIVE and offline multiplayer. Although technically the same game, they differ greatly in gameplay and replay value.
The single player campaign revolves around the story of Captain B.J. Blazkowicz – his mission to infiltrate the Third Reich and thwart Himmler’s attempt to augment the Nazi war machine with an army of the undead. You start off in Africa, investigating the newly-formed ‘SS Paranormal division’ in a small village in Northern Egypt. The plot is pretty straightforward and is revealed in cutscenes between levels. To learn even more about just what the Nazis goons are up to, there are several documents scattered around each level for you to read. At first the top brass really doesn’t know what they’re up to, but after each mission more information is revealed and you soon realize the Nazis are pretty close to successfully completing their diabolical plans.
Right from the start, you’ll notice how smooth the game runs, and the detail put into the levels. You start the first mission with only a knife, firmly establishing stealth as a key element. After killing your first enemy, you’re given a pistol and from there on in, you can, like I did, just blast your way through. On a side note, I don’t think FPSs are suited to any sort of sneaking about, apart from the odd flanking maneuver in a pitched battle. Back to RTCW. Although most of the levels are well thought out, it’s easy to get lost in a few of them. This is because there aren’t always distinct landmarks to orientate yourself round, plus the lack of variety in the levels.
The single player isn’t really as good as it should be. I wish they’d made it like Medal Of Honor: Frontline with more action and decent levels. Like the original TimeSplitters, the story mode feels like an afterthought, with more emphasis put on the multiplayer modes. Now that’s where RTCW:TOW really shines, when you’re playing with other people. It’s the real meat of the game, the reason why you bought it or will buy it.
Multiplayer consists of three parts – split-screen, system link and Xbox LIVE. Cooperative allows two players to go through the entire single player campaign together, which while fun for a few hours, won’t make the lifespan much longer. Sixteen people can play using system link over four Xboxes, set up on a LAN like you would for Halo. If you manage to organize all these people then system link play is great fun. It’s very similar to playing it online, but without any lag. It’s even, dare I say it, better than playing Halo on a LAN. So if you live in a dorm or where there’s enough people, it’s worth investing in the hardware to play it. Last, but definitely not least, there’s Xbox LIVE play. Put simply, it’s the best use of the network out there.
Id (the developer) have used every conceivable feature in Xbox LIVE to offer an excellent online experience. It’s easy to find games using the Quick Match and Optimatch, and also fast. You’re given a lot of information on the server, and you can cancel a connection to one at any time. You can search for hosts that are using their optimum settings and see which ones are running at an acceptable speed and there’s also an option to only let in players with a decent connection. Scoreboards show rankings for all players, as well as your friends list. Now the friends list, unlike many titles, shows what game your mates are playing, so you can quickly decide whether to join them or not. Server-side, you’re given a wealth of options when you host a game, including respawn times and warmup times. All this, and I haven’t even covered the in-game elements!
Online play (and system link) consists of Allies vs. Axis battles, in four different game modes. Objective sees one team attempting to complete tasks while the opposition defends. Stopwatch is the same as Objective, but after every round, the teams switch sides and have to beat each other’s time from the previous round. Checkpoint has both teams fighting for control of flags, with the winner being the first to simultaneously control all of them. Finally, Elimination is basically a team deathmatch scenario like in most other FPSs. Players choose from four character classes, each with it’s own pros and cons. The Soldier class is the standard infantry for both teams and they can carry the heavier weapons – more on them later. Engineers are the demolitions experts, used to destroy objects with dynamite and repair gun emplacements. They’re rarely used, apart from on some levels, where they’re needed to complete objectives. Medics are the only way of healing troops, since there are no ‘health packs’ in the levels. They can drop these ‘health packs’ though and also revive fallen comrades with a syringe. Lieutenants another support class, crucial to victory. They can drop ammunition, observe enemy movement with binoculars, and call in air and artillery strikes. Teams with a good balance of classes will always win, as long as the players are any good!
Each class is balanced so that there isn’t an overwhelming number of one type and the weapons have also been designed with this in mind. Medics, although valuable, are given less ammo than the other classes and need to be re-supplied by Lieutenants. On the other hand, Soldiers are the only class capable of using the heavier weapons. This has been adjusted so that when you have a heavy weapon, you move around slowly, stopping any build up of superior firepower in games. There is a risk of snipers dominating some maps, but the rifles sway when you use the scope, making it hard to get kills. A skilled marksmen will prevail, although I haven’t seen many myself. It has to be said, the weapons themselves are pretty cool. Every class gets a pistol, a kinfe and grenades, with all but Soldiers having a machine gun as well. There is an advantage to being a Soldier though – you get access to the shotgun, sniper rifle, panzerfaust (a rocket launcher), venom chaingun and flamethrower. There’s also a couple of others only available in the campaign, as they would dominate multiplayer.
Like all LIVE games, voice communication is included, and is extremely useful when playing. Attacks can be coordinated and reports of enemy activity given. It’s also great for just chatting amongst yourselves, getting to know each other. When someone talks, a small, white, speaker icon appears above their head, and on the on-screen compass, which is another handy addition to the game. There are two commands – ‘I need ammo’ and ‘I need a medic’ – accessible using the D-pad which send a pre-recorded in-game message to all the players on your team. Again, a little icon appears above the character’s head and on the compass to indicate where help is needed. The on-screen HUD also shows small icons when you are near an object with is interactive, e.g. a wall which needs to be blown up or a gun which can be operated. There’s a vote feature which allows players to call for the map to be changed, a player to be kicked or the game to be restarted – another constructive addition to online play. Before every match, there’s a short warmup period, allowing you to run around or change class. I’ve mainly seen it used to kill everyone else on your own team, although this doesn’t count toward the final score. During matches (not warmups), if someone kills you and they’re on your own team, a small box appears asking you if you’d like to file a complaint against them. This is great for keeping team-killing from ruining the online experience.
Online play is basically a whole load of fun, from the minute you start playing. Once you’ve found a good server (made easy by the Optimatch), you’ll be gripped. People work as a team, especially in objective mode, to secure areas and support each other. Lieutenants call in artillery and supply others with ammo, Medics heal others and revive teammates, Engineers blow up objectives and Soldiers lay down covering fire and spearhead the assaults. It’s refreshing to see people, even on public servers, working as a team even though they’ve never met before.
The game’s visuals also stand out. The graphics are accomplished and crisp, the frame rate is solid and I’ve never noticed any slowdown. Explosions and flames are excellent, player models are good and animations are ok. The levels are also of a high quality. Prior to beginning work on RTCW, members of the team travelled through Europe for research. Many of the textures are based on photographs of real castle walls, doors and environments. Many of the levels are based on real towns and castles, and it shows. Streets are realistically set out, and look convincing. What makes them stand out though, is the lighting – it casts believable shadows and generally looks fine.
The sound in the game is adequate. Most of the weapon sounds are nicely done and the music is good, but it can get a little repetitive. The music score does change to an upbeat pace when you’re engaged against several enemies which creates a more battle-esc mood. Some of the voiceovers aren’t the best in the world but they get the job done – all of the Nazis speak in English with lame German accents but some of their conversations can be humorous at times. The game also supports Dolby-Digital 5.1, so you can hear bullets and explosions all around you and moaning zombies creeping up from behind.
The controls are well set out and are easy to grasp. Right trigger fires, left one jumps, ‘A’ and ‘B’ cycle through the weapons, ‘Y’ activates the scope or binoculars, ‘X’ reloads, the right thumbstick looks around, the left one movement, the d-pad has preset multiplayer commands. The black and white buttons differ in use from single to multiplayer modes. Pressing down the left thumbstick ducks, whilst the right one actives items. That’s about it as far as the controls go.
The replay value totally depends on whether you have Xbox LIVE or live somewhere where there’s enough people to use the system link mode. If you don’t have either, then the lifespan of RTCW is basically not a lot. You won’t be playing the single player mode for long at all. But if you do have Xbox LIVE, you’ll be hooked for weeks and months. Each time you play, it’s a different experience, and the gameplay is good enough to keep you interested for quite a while. There’s also downloadable content due for release sometime this year, which’ll keep people playing for a bit longer.
Although the single player campaign isn’t much better than your average shooter, Return To Castle Wolfenstein: Tides Of War is the best Xbox LIVE game available, simply because it’s a dream to play and uses all the network’s features to create an excellent online experience. It really does shine amongst the likes of Unreal Championship and Whacked!. It even puts Ghost Recon to shame in some respects. I’d give it a score of 8, 10, 10, 10, for the multiplayer, but only 8, 6, 6, 6 for single player, hence the score that I’ve given it. If you’ve got Xbox LIVE, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t run down to the shops and pick it up now.