Return to Castle Wolfenstein could be called one of the most unheralded first-person shooters of its time. Developed by Gray Matter under the supervision of id Software, the game was released in November 2001 to excellent reviews - but it was ultimately overshadowed by both Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (released just two months later) and its own multiplayer spinoff, Enemy Territory.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein was both a resurrection of id's iconic Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and a thoroughly modern first-person shooter. Remarkably, the developers succeeded in both paying tribute to the "grandfather of first-person shooters" and fully absorbing the lessons from the games that followed in its wake. As a result, RTCW captures the thrill of both old school and modern shooters, and retains tremendous appeal over 15 years later.
World War II Pulp Done Right: The Story
The story for the mediocre Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014) was much-praised, which says much about how low the expectations for stories in videogames remain. The narrative was a bare-faced theft from Half-Life 2 (2004), stretched to connect the otherwise disconnected setpieces. By contrast, the altogether simpler story in Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a thrilling tale of World War II pulp, into which the game's numerous missions fit naturally.
Gray Matter's masterstroke was to set their game far away from the increasingly rote battlefield settings of other WWII shooters. Instead, hero B.J. Blazkowicz spends the entire game far away from the frontline. Set in 1943, the adventure takes place mostly within Nazi Germany itself but the locations are hugely varied, including a rocket base, rural villages, ancient crypts, an airfield, underground caverns, and the titular Castle Wolfenstein.
The game depicts a Germany meddling with both the occult and formidable high technology; a Germany clearly with total victory in its grasp. There's a terrific pulp thrill to being in Blazkowicz's boots, sabotaging two major operations with which senior Nazis compete for prestige and favour. Operation Resurrection aims to bring despotic 9th-century king Heinrich I back to life, while Operation Uber Soldat threatens to bring deadly cyborgs into the war. While The New Order wrote "Nazis in space!" on a whiteboard and underlined it four times, RTCW introduces these schemes bit by bit and gradually weaves them together. Clearly, it's not meant to be believable per se - but its coherence makes it far more exciting than the recent game's scattershot approach.
An excellent touch is the plethora of readable letters, memoranda and other documents scattered through the levels. This method of adding detail to a world is overdone today, but was quite novel in 2001. Gray Matter did it beautifully: the documents range from a letter from Himmler expressing disappointment about Wilhelm 'Deathshead' Strasse's "obstinacy" to comically dull health and safety notices.
Wish You Were Here: Level Design and Gameplay
In 2001 Wolfenstein 3D was already an ancient relic in gaming terms, so Gray Matter needed to take inspiration for their level design and gameplay from elsewhere. They chose well, absorbing the lessons of Half-Life (1998) more thoroughly than any of their peers. The scripted setpieces, snatches of overheard dialogue, large arsenal of weapons, and mixture of human and non-human adversaries with strong AI were all highly reminiscent of Valve's groundbreaking game. In many ways, Gray Matter were short-lived successors to Valve - both developers pushed the FPS forwards while using id Software's technology.
One of RTCW's chief assets is its superb level design. In 2001, many developers were striving for greater realism in settings, but this often resulted in confusing or boring layouts. Gray Matter succeeded in designing environments which had a plausible practical purpose - a submarine pen, for example, or a deconsecrated church - while still being fun to explore. In this, they were successors not only to Valve but also to 3D Realms, who had laid the groundwork in this area with the wonderful Duke Nukem 3D (1996). One of the game's very best settings in the atmospheric village of Paderborn. On the eve of an occult ceremony, it is sheathed in gloom and Nazi mysticism and plays host to one of the few enjoyable stealth missions of the era.
Ultimately, an FPS rests on its shooting and RTCW is a finely-tuned middle ground between the carefree blasting of Duke Nukem 3D and the fussy "realism" of today's military shooters. The wide variety of weapons don't come with usable iron sights, but there's a degree of realism to the sniper rifles and two of the guns can overheat if used non-stop. Surprisingly, the outlandish sci-fi weapons (including the fearsome rotary Venom gun) are designed in a way which makes them fit with the real-world armaments. Of these, special mention must go to the FG42 "paratroop rifle" which may one of the most satisfying bread-and-butter firearms in the history of the FPS.
Crucially, RTCW repeats the trick that Valve achieved with Half-Life: creating dynamic, back-and-forth battles with enemies within pleasing environments. Gray Matter designed a whole host of varied Nazi troops to fight, from rank-and-file soldiers to the leather-clad female Elite Guard. Battling into the covert Nazi facility within the bombed-out city of Kugelstadt is gripping stuff even after all these years, as paratroopers fire from concealed positions within the shattered buildings, fires raging all around.
Nazi But Nice: Sound and Visuals
Along with Max Payne (another enduring classic), RTCW was one of the most visually impressive games of 2001. Gray Matter constructed many of its textures from photographic sources, which helps lend an air of gritty believability to the way environments look. The models were also cutting edge - there are dozens of variants for the way enemies look, and these are tailored to the environments they are found in. For example, the defenders of beleagured Kugelstadt have visible injuries, and the troops stationed at the mysterious X-Labs in Norway wear special winter uniforms.
RTCW was built on id Software's id Tech 3 engine, specifically the variant used in Quake III: Team Arena (2000). Gray Matter pushed the technology almost as far as it would go, making the most of its primitive water and fog effects. Cranked up a modern screen resolution, RTCW still looks fantastic today and is far less dated than any game of its era. The abiding feels is of a game enriched and empowered by its then-advanced technology, not overwhelmed by it as many modern shooters tend to be. Later, another major World War II shooter would also use the same engine: Call of Duty (2003).
Sound is another important part of the game's aesthetic, and it's clear that a lot of attention was paid to it. While the well-known Hollywood composer Michael Giacchino would compose the music for Allied Assault, RTCW also boasts an excellent soundtrack. Composed by Bill Brown, it's a one of the best fully orchestral scores of the time and while it doesn't reach the heights of the music for, say, Total Annihilation (1997), it's an overlooked gem. To round off the excellent production values of the game, the sound effects are also extremely solid across the board, from gunfire to the groans of the undead.
Alternate History: What Might Have Been
By building upon the advances of Half-Life while never overtly imitating it, RTCW marked a significant step forward for the FPS. The World War II shooter in particular would become dominant in the years after 2001; but Gray Matter injected a sense of fun and originality that made their game the best example of this trend. In a number of ways, RTCW picked up the threads of the classic shooters from before 1998. It was highly interactive, and had the right degree of realism in its environments, as Duke Nukem 3D had done.
Gray Matter's game might have paved the way for further intelligent shooters which struck the right balance between realism and pulp escapism; but despite initial success, it lost out in terms of influence to Allied Assault and later Call of Duty. When consumers finally became tired of straight-laced WWII games, a new tide of straight-laced modern warfare games arrived - and persists to this day. Where RTCW cleverly picked up elements of classic early '90s games, the likes of the Rise of the Triad remake (2013) often exist purely as dumbed-down, low-budget rehashes.
For their part, Gray Matter (who existed as Xatrix between 1994 and 1999) did not last too long. They began developing an original shooter for Activision called Trinity which was ultimately cancelled; later, they became an early part of the Call of Duty series, developing the first expansion pack United Offensive (2004). It was to be their last project before Activision merged them into Treyarch and many of the staff moved on. For Return to Castle Wolfenstein alone, Gray Matter will always have a place in FPS history.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.