MachineGames’ Wolfenstein series has been near-unimpeachable since it began in 2014. Miraculously melding Nazi-killing action with wild alt-history sci-fi and an astonishing sense of heart, Wolfenstein: The New Order and The New Colossus are two of the best first-person shooters since Half-Life 2 set the gold standard. They juggle tone, story, and gameplay with a deftness I wish we saw more of in the genre.
With Wolfenstein: Youngblood, MachineGames has changed up its formula in a host of different ways. If you’re expecting another game like the last two, you’ll be promptly rebuffed.
Youngblood follows not veteran Nazi-hunter BJ Blazkowicz, but his two daughters Jess and Soph, who - a couple decades after The New Colossus - are young adults capable of killing Nazis themselves. When their father vanishes in Nazi-occupied Paris, they don power suits on a mission to find him - and to disrupt the Nazi power structure in the process.
This is a smaller story than the previous two Wolfensteins, with a new co-operative gameplay structure profoundly informing the narrative. Rather than taking place across a series of linear levels, Youngblood sprawls across several largish, open maps that - while they don’t constitute an open world - each contain multiple missions, accessed through a quest diary. This is a popular way of structuring AAA games nowadays, as levels are more cost-effective when they’re reusable. Jess and Soph traverse these environments on a range of missions, ultimately leading to one “raid” mission per map, which lead the sisters to bosses and narrative progression.
MachineGames received help from fellow Bethesda studio Arkane Software (Dishonored) on these maps, and it shows - they're full of secrets, stealth routes, and verticality. Many areas are sealed off until you pick up certain bits of gear, meaning you’ll continue to find new secrets as you return to each sector. As nothing's created bespoke for specific story beats, there’s nothing quite as bonkers as The New Order’s moon mission, or The New Colossus’ audition before Hitler. There’s also less emotional heft, with Jess and Soph built on cooperative fist-bumping rather than BJ’s melancholy. Frustratingly, hints of more-audacious ideas appear, but only as teases for a sequel and a prequel, leaving players hanging on both narrative ends.
Outside half a dozen cutscenes, Youngblood's storytelling comes via environmental storytelling and collectibles. The studio has created an alternate ‘80s pop culture where Nazis are the dominant cultural force, and done so comprehensively: you’ll hear original, razor-sharp ‘80s pop songs with German lyrics espousing watered-down Nazi propaganda; see VHS cassettes boasting alternate-universe versions of every conceivable movie genre; and as usual, read alternate-history newspapers and letters. I’d prefer more direct storytelling, but co-operative game pacing makes reading lore feel like you’re dragging your partner down.
Gameplay in Youngblood is similar to that of its predecessors - and yet completely different, structurally more open, predicated on RPG mechanics, and designed explicitly as a two-player experience. While you can play Youngblood alone, with the game’s AI controlling the other Blazkowicz sister, it’s inadvisable, to the point that it's only worth playing with a friend. Luckily, the game's “Buddy Pass” system allows a friend to download the game for free and play with you (and only with you).
The co-op gameplay is what you’d expect from a co-op game in 2019, with a few additions and a few subtractions. You’ll run around and shoot enemies together, and revive one another when you get downed - which you'll want to do, as dying depletes a shared pool of lives. There’s also a “pep” feature wherein a player can briefly grant both characters enhanced health, armour, or damage. It all works pretty well, with the exception that the HUD does not display a marker for your partner, other than a minimap icon. In maps this huge, that’s a problem, as players can easily find themselves miles apart and in trouble.
As for the shooting, the basic mechanics are much the same as ever; blasting Nazi heads off will never not be satisfying. But immediately, you’ll notice health bars and level indicators hovering over enemies’ heads, which highlights the game’s RPG-lite side. Player builds are a much bigger deal than in previous Wolfenstein games, with characters and weapons customisable via upgrades unlocked with leveling (or with in-game currency). Many enemies are protected by armour weak only to certain weapons. Stealth is nominally more viable than in the main Wolfenstein games, but it’s clearly not the intended way to play; on the other hand, most encounters can simply be run past. And like all today's online games, you’ll find weekly and daily challenges to perform alongside the actual missions. I didn't perform them.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood - at least, the build I reviewed - is also an extremely irritating game, plagued by bugs and questionable design choices. Enemies respawn constantly, sometimes emerging from inside closed rooms you just left, and sometimes even spawning right in front of you. They’re also ridiculously difficult to kill, barely even reacting to countless bullets, grenades, or lasers to the face - especially in prolonged, bullet-spongey boss battles. It’s difficult to abandon missions if they’re too high-level, as players can only return to the hub world from certain spots. And at one point, my partner got trapped in a prone state, unable to die, and unable to be revived, necessitating a full restart of the application.
If Wolfenstein: Youngblood were a brand-new IP, perhaps I’d be more accepting. Certainly, its philosophies regarding level design and narrative deployment suffer in comparison to the expectations its predecessors built up. I was most reminded of Far Cry: New Dawn: it’s a fun idea, but its missions feel designed to fit a budget rather than a vision, with a leveling system that increases gameplay time rather than player challenge. It’s not enough to sour me on the franchise; again, this game implies at least two more that could return to the crazed, emotional thrill rides of the last two. Youngblood is neither crazed nor emotional; it’s a remix of things you loved from Wolfenstein, with things you don’t love from other games, and it’s only really worthwhile for the opportunity to join a friend in shotgun-blasting Nazis in both sides of the face at once.