What Has Become Less Relevant (Return to Castle Wolfenstein)

August 16th, 2009


Last year I consulted my brother as to what PC games within his ownership ought I play in order to classify myself as someone well versed in the essentials of PC gaming. He provided me with a list and then I removed a few. To date I’ve completed Quake, Portal, Half-life (series), a couple of PopCap Games and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which is decidedly less impressive to list than I originally thought it might have been. Oh, well, this is going to be a long expedition, so I’m just working on first person shooter games at the moment.

The only game on that list which I haven’t written extensively about is Return to Castle Wolfenstein which when I think about it kinda makes sense. I played Wolfenstein 3D as a kid and thought it was pretty funky, although perhaps a bit too puzzly for all the Nazi-shooting going on. After finishing Return to Castle Wolfenstein and thinking about this new Wolfenstein game (just titled “Wolfenstein”) I can’t help but think to myself “why do these games even exist?”.

Wolfenstein 3D layed the groundwork for an entirely new genre of game; the first person shooter. (Alternatively, it lead the way for Doom and Doom II which proceeded to lay the groundwork – either either) Return to Castle Wolfenstein on the other hand utilizes the popular Quake III engine and offers little else besides a largely uninteresting narrative to piece together a modestly fun single player game.

Maybe I’m missing the point here but both of these Wolfenstein 3D sequels (I am of course making assumptions of the new one) don’t appear to achieve anything that hasn’t already been achieved before, nor are they really doing anything significant within their own means. These sorts of pretender games which follow in the ripples of larger, more important games aren’t in anyways a bad thing. If you enjoyed Quake III imensely and further have at least some unflinching love for this dark part of Germany’s past, then sure, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is satisfying. Yet, if you’re a general tourist of the genre, then it all just feels a little tired. Tiredness, which I predict has only strengthened with age. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this revisiting of Nazi Germany, Return to Castle Wolfenstein comes recommended, but with the knowledge of its caliber.

While trying to pinpoint why I found Return to Castle Wolfenstein so anti-climatic, I want to also talk about limitations of the FPS genre. I’m not sure if these ideas make much sense, but they’re floating around, so I might as well share them.

return-to-castle-wolfenstein screenshot

I feel that my complaints may be tied to this larger criticism of first person shooters in general. The genre intrinsically has a lack of interplay between player and target. You move your mouse over some variation of bad guy, click, maybe click again and move on. Yes, there are tactics, such as moving and shooting, hiding, flanking etc, but the fundamental process is highly repetitive. Level design, AI operate as diversifiers here, they’re (some of the few) primary mechanics which play a major influence. These control knobs when turned correctly can make each confrontation unique and enjoyable, but in a title such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein it all feels the same, nothing is distinct and everything is boring. Quake or Halo on the other hand are always fun to play, even though you are repeating the same tasks over and over. In Halo it comes down to the construction of conflict which is designed to maximize impact and in Quake the level design represents a ghoulish character itself, giving the game another dimension to hold onto. Outside of these few variables, there is little diversity within the formula which is why so many modern first person shooters rely on new-fangled gimmicks (see here for examples) as a selling point. In reality though, most of these are artificial.

Ingenuity is ultimately what will bring this genre forward, but ingenuity is also very hard to achieve. Looking forward, it’s clear that the scripted set piece structure of Call of Duty 4 will be a continued winner, but racing elements in Rage or drop landing in Section 8? Perhaps not.

When Return to Castle Wolfenstein was relevant, these aforementioned issues were not (and hence it didn’t really need to do anything fresh, copying Quake III was ore than adequate) but with the genre slowly becoming the most prominent in the industry, playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein in this context where something fresh is essential in maintaining a presence, it doesn’t really hold up too well.

EDIT:  Gametrailers has recently posted a retrospective on the Wolfenstein series which discusses the muliplayer element of Return to Castle Wolfenstein; the coo for the title, provides a much more balance overview.

Additional Readings

Planet Wolfenstein