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Awful Review: Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War (Xbox)

  This isn't my first time through Return to Wolfenstein: Tides of War. I previously picked up the game used, played the first level and decided it wasn't for me. My initial impression last time out was that it was an exceptionally crappy stealth game (since the first encounter that you experience in Wolfenstein: Tides of War is to knife someone in the back). The reality is that while there are a few opportunities to employ stealth, you are very likely to have better success with a combination of careful sniping and berzerker runs. I haven't played any version of RTW other than Tides of War. I understand, however, that the first block of missions which take place in a densely populated area almost entirely free from civilians and a series of underground tombs in Egypt are new to this release.

The new missions are far more functional than beautiful. They exist for the dual purposes of introducing the game mechanics through annoying chimed bulletins, and to prime the pump of the game's storyline.

The layout and design of levels seems to be almost intentionally derivative of Goldeneye on the N64. This is not a bad thing, but is somewhat unexpected for old school fans of Wolfenstein 3d and Spear of Destiny. In fact, this is probably the closest thing you're going to get to a good Bond game until EA loses their license to kill every tie-in that they can get their greedy little mitts on.

The game also has some shout-outs to Catacomb Abyss 3d, the first person dungeon and graveyard shooting game that came before Wolfenstein 3d (the great grand-pappy of Heretic and Hexen).

Visually, once you get through the first set of missions, you're in for a much more visually appealing experience, roughly on par with Hitman: Silent Assassin. However, this is not Doom3. The engine is capable, but there's a reason that id spent four years writing the Doom3 engine to replace this one.

Floor textures have an annoying habit of becoming a muddy mess of antialiased pixels. Wall, switch, and sign textures look OK from five or six feet, but if you step right up to them, they are all quite fuzzy. The edges of broken windows and other partially transparent textures, which you will see frequently if you take a sensible sniper approach to the game, also bear the telltale signs of low resolution antialiased texturing. I can only speculate that memory restrictions precluded the use of higher quality textures.

There are two other significant annoyances in this game for me:

  1. The character crouches when the player clicks the left thumbstick, which is also used for movement. If you set the crouch stick to toggle instead of hold, you will find yourself crawling around at the worst possible moments (for instance, in the thick of a firefight, while attempting to dodge a panzerfaust rocket). You can avoid this problem by using the crouch on hold feature under the Advanced Settings menu (why isn't this under controls)? However, if you do that, you may find yourself standing at inconvenient times. Probably a better approach is to jump liberally during important battles, which will kick you out of crouch mode as well.
  2. Although the game indicates that you have reached checkpoints, no save file is created. If you are killed in action, you will respawn at the checkpoint, however, if you go to the menu and load the quicksave, you will respawn at the last location you explicitly saved at, even if it is several missions back. Of course, what this means is that you will need to strictly adhere to ritual saving throughout the game. Save whenever you enter a new mission, save before you enter a new area, save when you have full health and weapons from a cache, save at every good opportunity.
Jumping is activated with the left trigger, which I would prefer be assigned to crouching. The cross pad manages inventory items, which are entirely unneccessary for completion of the game, but can make boss fights incredibly easy (Uber Soldat, hop over the railing, run right up to him, toss on the X-shield and annihilate him with the venom. No problem).

In terms of enemy design, the zombies don't look so hot. Humans all look good and animate well, including the Uber Soldat and prototypes. The x-creatures and cyber-dogs are considerably less fun to look at, although they do a very good job of putting the scare into you when you come around a corner. The x-creatures demonstrate another engine oddity: they emit a kind of radioactive light, which you can see through walls and floors. I'm not sure if this was intended or not.

Creature AI is generally good. You occasionally come across human enemies just lying in wait for you, but these are few and far between. More frequently, enemies will be manning machine gun points, taking a bead on you with a mauser from a watchtower, or even paratrooping into your zone. Enemies display a tendency towards a chaotic swarm when they appear in bunches. They emerge from every building to converge upon your location, bringing their formidable firepower to bear. Generally, there are defensible positions to fall back upon that allow you to pick them off at your leisure. But beware, because if one member of that pack has a mauser, you may find yourself without a head in short order.

Occasionally, enemies will do interesting, unexpected things when out of your LOS. A perfect example is the Uber-Soldat prototype just before that boss battle. The fight takes place in a kind of four sided tunnel. Your first instict will be to head for a corner and wait for him to poke his beady little eyes out, then nail him with a few pips from the old paratroop gun before high tailing it out of there to avoid the panzerfaust rockets that will soon be headed in your direction. This approach will even work for a while, until he decides to go around the other way, and fill your backside with rockets, or just hold position, hoping that you're be fool enough to walk into his sights.

Essentially all of the game's best moments come outside of boss battles (although you probably won't forget the experience if you down the Uber-Soldat only to be killed by a scientist with a Luger). The bosses are more or less of a sameness, all about 10 feet tall with poor mobility, a devastating close attack and an annoying long range attack. Worse by far to encounter a nazi with a flamethrower in a dark alley.

Dark alleys and other poorly lit areas abound in Tides of War. If you've played Doom3 lately, you may find yourself either wishing you had a flashlight or even stabbing fruitlessly at the black button like a space marine caught in hell. Unlike Doom3, these areas are not generally populated with enemies or items, so running through them like a madman won't cost you anything. In Wolfenstein, you never need to rest, and there is no "run" button (just like the old days).

This game is short. Even though the later levels are more expansive, a dedicated player can easily burn through this game in a weekend, while getting plenty of beauty sleep.

Overall, though the game has some issues related to graphical quality, easily ambushed enemies, and one extremely questionable control decision, it is easily worth the twenty dollars or less price point that it now garners as a "Platinum Hit." If you're a used game shopper, you can find it in the neighborhood of eight dollars at one major chain. And that is what we call a bargain, because I haven't even touched on the large battlefield multiplayer options.
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