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Welcome Back 'Wolfenstein'

Latest iteration of what was once a simplistic adventure for the Apple II seals series' spot in gaming canon.

January 31, 2002|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are sacred places in the video game world--imaginary realms that intrigue and confound players long after they leave.

The ethereal islands of Myst.

The mysterious glades of Norrath.

And the treacherous corridors of Castle Wolfenstein.

Few could have predicted the long-term impact of "Castle Wolfenstein" when it debuted in 1983 as a primitive World War II adventure on the Apple II. Nearly a decade later, though, "Wolfenstein 3D" for the PC changed forever the way video games are designed and played.

For the first time, gamers could immerse themselves in a world that felt completely three dimensional. "Wolfenstein 3D" may not have been the first first-person shooter, but it's the one that stuck and became the Abraham of the genre.

That was almost 10 years ago, and the latest version, "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" for the PC, demonstrates the vitality of in first-person action games. "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" is more than a simple sequel. It's a complete rethinking of the game. And it's the first truly three-dimensional experience in the series.

"Return to Castle Wolfenstein" is two distinct games--a single-player adventure and a multi-player melee. In the single-player aspect of the game, players are dropped deep within the bowels of a Nazi stronghold and must blast their way out. The multi-player game requires teamwork and coordination of squads that square off as Nazi or Allied soldiers.

Either way, the game excels at smothering players with a creepy ambience. The gloomy castles and forbidding landscapes turn players all around and push them into dead-ends crawling with Nazi goons.

Every piece of the game is interactive. Food on tables can be eaten to replenish health. Windows can be shot out. Equipment can be broken or damaged. Doors can be kicked in. The ability to manipulate even mundane objects gives "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" a realistic depth.

Rather than just run and gun through the castle, players explore it and learn its many secrets.

Play begins in 1943 as Army Ranger B.J. Blazkowicz, trapped in the dungeon of Castle Wolfenstein. Blazkowicz has been sent into enemy territory to uncover a Nazi plot to resurrect an army of undead warriors. SS chief Heinrich Himmler has dispatched troops to uncover the ancient prison of an occult warrior, which he plans to call into service of the Third Reich.

So the corridors of Castle Wolfenstein teem not only with German troops but also with scores of zombies and hideous mutants, the unfortunate byproducts of Himmler's experiments. None are very nice. But some are smarter than others and the game's artificial intelligence endows its characters with surprisingly skillful tactics.

Like Kenny Rogers' gambler, these shock troops seem to know when to hold a position and when to fold up and run. When a lone soldier is staring down the business end of a machine gun, he tends to think first about his digital hide and scurry away screaming something in German. But when his buddies are with him, that same coward turns into a relentless uber-Nazi.

In multi-player mode, "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" forces players to work together as squads to achieve a variety of objectives--from stealing enemy documents to seizing and controlling key territory.

Squads are divided into four player classes: soldier, engineer, medic and lieutenant. Each has distinct capabilities. Engineers, for instance, blow stuff up. Lieutenants can call in airstrikes and resupply troops with ammunition. The balance of attributes and talents creates a team in which every member is necessary.

But it raises an interesting dilemma: Who would want to play as the Nazis? Unlike other games of the ilk, which create fictional factions, "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" draws its characters from a brutal period of history. Playing as a Nazi is like remaking "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with Indiana Jones as a pesky intruder.

The game makes no value judgments. The two sides are equally matched. One of them just happens to be Hitler's goons.

Whether over the Internet or a network, the "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" takes squad-based combat to new levels of excellence. The multi-player elements were designed from the ground up as the game was being developed.

The dual experiences of "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" give the game a life beyond the standard one-time walkthrough. True to its roots, "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" expands on the franchise and refines the relatively tired genre of first-person shooters. Rather than desecrate the sacredness of its name, as so many updates tend to do, "Wolfenstein" further cements the place in the gaming consciousness.

Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times. He can be reached at aaron.curtiss@ latimes.com.

The Skinny

"Return to Castle Wolfenstein"

Genre: First-person shooter

Platform: PC

Price: $50

Publisher: Activision

System requirements: Pentium II 400 with 128 MB of RAM, 800 MB of available hard disk space and a graphics accelerator with 16 MB of video RAM.

ESRB* rating: Mature

The good: Riveting levels, smart enemies, fabulous multi-player options

The bad: Not enough hours in the day

Bottom line: A must-have

*Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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