Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review
Double the Blazkowicz, half the fun
Wolfenstein has always been about shooting Nazis—a one-man army against impossible odds. But now, those odds are doubled in Wolfenstein: Youngblood, a cooperative shooter that tells the story of B.J. Blazkowicz’s twin daughters. This two-woman army spinoff is a collaboration between Arkane Studios and Machine Games, and the former’s influence is clearly visible. While still primarily a shooter, it adds more RPG elements and also shares a similar mission structure to the now-forgotten, but competent, Wolfenstein game from 2009. The resulting mixture is far from perfect. While the gunplay occasionally finds rhythm, much of the experience compares poorly to previous games because of the dual-player focus.
It has been nineteen years since the events of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and B.J. Blazkowicz is the loving father of twin teenage daughters, Jess and Soph. Set in 1980, the adventure begins when our man, Blazkowicz, inexplicably abandons his family. The twins believe he might be in Nazi-occupied Paris, and since they’ve been trained to fight from an early age, they head off to bring him back home. Even if you choose to play Youngblood solo, an AI-controlled twin sister will be right by your side for every step of the journey.
Ah, Paris, the city of love. Well there is not much to love anymore; Nazis have full control. While the streets are crawling with swastika scum, French resistance fighters have sought the safety of the Catacombs to plan their attacks. Enter the twins from stage-left, who can help by clearing the boulevards in return for information about their father’s whereabouts. Their primary goal is to infiltrate three main towers (Nazi installations) and access the computers within to uncover pieces of the B.J. puzzle.
The story compares poorly to the last game and there isn’t much of it. Cutscenes exist only in the first and last hour, of the eleven-hour game, and they are filled with cringe-worthy dialogue, shallow characterisation, and nonsensical moments. The sisters don’t develop, after a strange first-kill scene, and we learn nothing interesting about them apart from that they call each other Kenneth and Arthur, after fictional book characters. Jess and Soph are similar in personality, acting immature and gung-ho. The only real interactions they have are through short, voiceless animations in elevators where they try to scare each other or play high-five-down-low-too-slow. There is just not much about them to like or dislike. Nixing the story in the middle keeps the cooperative action flowing, but it bodes poorly for those wanting to go it alone in the streets of Paris.
The city districts of Paris bear a striking resemblance to the levels found in Arkane Studios’ Dishonored series. It’s also a bit like Wolfenstein (2009), with missions branching off from hub areas. A large bulk of playtime is spent going back and forth through cramped, confusing, circuitous, multi-tiered city streets. Hidden rooftop apartments contain collectibles and ammo. Sealed doors might open from one side to facilitate shortcuts. Metro tunnels connect the districts together and allow players to travel back to the Catacombs for new missions. On the whole, the city has excellent visuals and a lot of detail, but because they’re designed to be traversed many times, they forgo simplicity for not much gain.
What the levels do not forgo are enemies. Oodles of Nazi soldiers patrol chokepoints and they respawn in the exact same locations five minutes later. You don’t even have to leave the zone for them to come back; just going through a few alleys does the trick. It is awful to smash through a checkpoint and return to see foes in the same place again as though it was all a bad dream. The compulsion to simply bypass these newly-spawned enemies is strong, and that’s a bad sign in a game where the main idea is to shoot things.
Nazis are no pushover. Like an RPG, they scale in level with the player. The result seems pointless; you get stronger and they get tougher. Most Nazis have armor too, and even though they are vulnerable to certain bullet types, the majority take a good bit of shooting before they crumble. The twin targets might have them aiming through walls at one sister while the other taps them on the shoulder. The dumb, bullet-sponge enemies make for stagnant combat.
Weapons are adequate but they never feel powerful, and not just because of the scaling enemies. The game is stingy when it comes to ammo, especially for the best weapons. Heavy weapons, dropped by super soldiers, only have ammo to last for a few seconds. The electric weapon is pathetic against some foes. And the Dieselkraftwerk (grenade launcher) is not much better than hurling water balloons. Weapon and skill upgrades improve the situation but never enough to dominate. At every corner, the game strives to make the player inadequate and asks them to grind just to keep up with the curve.
Before you tackle the main missions, you’ll probably need to finish some side quests. Most of these are boring fetch tasks that take players back into the same courtyards and apartments. The worst ones take you underground, through endless brick sewers in the dark where you can only use a pistol with a flashlight. Towards the end of the game, certain weapons will open side rooms, but this metroidvania approach is hardly enough to offset the monotonous backtracking. The best side quests are only good because they open backdoors into the main towers, so you needn’t charge through the front gate, guarded by sizable mechanical beasts.
The three towers are basically main missions and they are more linear and rather long. Here the level design is a similar to the newer Wolfenstein experience and the action is better for it. Stealth is possible, although enemy AI is too dumb and rigid to make it work beyond a basic level; any soldier will raise the alarm seconds after they see you, bringing in a whole bunch enemies that have spawned around corners. At the end of each tower there is a boss to fight and then it’s back to the city streets.
Whether you are playing solo or cooperatively, if you lose all three of your shared lives, you will respawn at the last save. In a main tower mission, this save location is right at the start, so you can potentially lose an hour of progress and any ammo consumed. This ridiculous save system is bizarre in an environment where there are so many doors that require two players to pry open. The game is not hard on normal, outside the horrendous first and last boss, so some players may never see death. Still, for those who like to jump in for twenty minutes at a time, the game will be hard to finish.
If you want to play solo, then you will have to endure the quirks of your AI-controlled twin sister. Most of the time she keeps up and shoots bad guys; but every now and then she will fall into a coma (much like her father in The New Order) and stand still, taking copious amounts of bullets to the forehead. Even when she’s not spaced-out, she will charge out into the open and get downed, requiring a revive, or linger in a position where she cannot do anything. The best thing about the AI companion is that she will teleport instantly to the locations requiring dual character action—switches, doors, etc.—and will regularly provide additional health/armor via a pep system.
If you can play with a friend, then Youngblood is a slightly better experience. But it’s more a case where you’ll enjoy the company rather than the game. At times it can be appealing to return to areas and find hidden rooms, but the bulk of your time will be doing what you’ve already done before, killing stronger Nazis with upgraded weapons and damage buffs. There is not much cooperation; you merely shoot targets, spread out, revive one another occasionally, and give each other a health boost when it’s available. You needn’t worry about your human companion doing nothing, but you might have to worry about character-level differences. If you join a player who is at a lower level, the game might become fun as you can briskly dispatch foes. But if a stronger player joins your game, then you will rue your enhanced ineffectiveness.
Cooperative play had a few technical issues too. Most online games had glitchy animations, disconnections, or sync problems. The worst of it happened in busy combat areas, when there was seconds delay between shooting enemies and them taking any damage. Sometimes the game paused completely and would take a few seconds for everything to sync up again. As much as the coop is the best version of Youngblood, it is still flawed and too basic given how much was sacrificed to include it.
Taking a franchise in a new direction can be a good thing, but that is not the case with Wolfenstein: Youngblood. The main differences between it and older games in the franchise also happen to be its greatest flaws. Shooting is rarely punchy or satisfying, enemies respawn excessively, city levels are cramped, enemy levelling makes the player constantly ineffective, side missions are often boring, and the AI is daft. Remove the cooperative focus, and trim down the RPG elements, and many issues would vanish. But as it stands, even at its reduced price, the title is not a strong choice for players looking for a good single player shooter. And cooperative gamers will find better experiences elsewhere. Wolfenstein: Youngblood is the black sheep of the franchise, and hopefully it doesn’t have a twin.