Revisiting Old Games

February 23, 2012

File this under: Revisiting Old Games
I like to go back sometimes and see if games I once loved (or missed out on)  actually hold up at all.


Return To Castle Wolfenstein (2001)
It’s difficult to step back and see just how far we’ve taken the design and artistry behind something as simple as weapon handling. Or movement. Or enemy AI mechanics conveyance. Or any number of FPS mechanics that seem so sturdy and fundamental today. Going back to play Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a chilling reminder of how things used to be.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought this game was pretty awesome when I first played it back in college…but now, ten years on, the only thing that stands the test of time is the story…and that’s only because it’s three steps to the right of ridiculous, making it fine company with some of today’s finest game plots.

Anyway, since I’m a game artist first and foremost, let’s talk art. This was once a beautiful game: moody… rich … detailed. I remember this game as the first time I was introduced to localized fancy translucency effects in a game. Words can’t describe the feeling of circle strafing a room, dodging skeleton zombies, in order to ogle pools of localized floor-fog, or light coronas, or translucent webbing.

Look at all the pretty!

And you know, all those bells and whistles hold up ok even today. In fact, they’re almost tastefully used in comparison to the over-use of post-effects and lighting flares and such today. That restraint was probably due to tech budgets, but, heck, I’ll give it points. Not everything held up so well though:

Decade old fog is very sarcastic.

This is what happens when fog, the far clipping plane, and a Geforce GTX 275 meet.

As for the assets, some of the stuff that looks more hand painted holds up, but not much. The majority of the game has the feel of grain-sourcing; using noisy photos as a base and then dodge-and-burning your way to something to resembling a Carbonite Han Solo and then slapping that on the 3d Model. Sure, it was once standard practice and I’ve been guilty of it more than a few times in my career, but it doesn’t help prolong the staying power of a game’s artwork. don't see the resemblance?

And then there’s the poly budget. Won’t talk much about that, but 2001 wasn’t a kind year for foliage.

In my day, we had to make a tree with only sixteen triangles and our bare feet!

Anyway, art aside, the big thing that doesn’t hold up is the mechanics in RTCW. Guns feel…useless, weak, hollow. Enemies don’t really communicate their mechanics very well (am I actually hurting this thing in front of me? Is it blocking bullets? Did it just make my screen go black?), the level design was linear, and, (if there’s one mechanic that NEVER stands the test of time it’s this) mandatory stealth sections. Mandatory, instant-fail stealth levels should be ripped out of any game and rocketed into space as a warning to any hostile aliens of what we are capable of.

Anyone who has played this game has had nightmares from this damn level

RTCW has an excuse at least for its stealth: Thief had only been out a couple of years (and thus hadn’t been canonized as the ultimate example of stealth done right) and maybe enough games hadn’t been reamed for poor stealth yet in reviews. But even today there are lunatics out there pushing half-baked stealth. Remember, developers: Friends don’t let friends use Internet Explorer. Or make stealth sections in their non-stealth games.

Anyway,  perhaps the biggest realization I had while playing through RTCW again: this game was an early harbinger to the problem we have been seeing for the last six or seven years in FPS design. Maybe someday I’ll post more about that, and RTCW isn’t nearly as bad as it could be in this regards–but it’s there…You can see the hints of what FPS fans will cry and harp about for years to come, and how what many of them attribute to ‘consolification’ of the FPS’s level design.

For now I’ll just leave off with the main defense offered by proponents of current FPS level design, a defense as hackneyed in 2012 as it was in 2001: “linearity allows for the tailored single-player experience.” Primary counter-argument: Tailored does not equal fun.

So, is Return to Castle Wolfenstein worth revisiting? No, not really. FPS Games don’t generally age well, and this isn’t an exception. Nostalgia kept me plodding through it, but core aspects of the FPS have come a long way since 2001. Still, if you want to give it a go, you can pick it up for 10 bucks on Steam.

  • joe

    P.S. Monolith, I love you, even if F.E.A.R. has a silly name and story.