Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review

Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus were bold reimaginings of id’s classic franchise. MachineGames turned the series hero B. J. Blazkowicz into a man out of time after he falls into a coma following a failed assault on the compound that belonged to his deranged nemesis, Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse. Awaking in a world completely under total Nazi control, B. J. surrounds himself with freedom fighters to help him do what he does best: kill Nazis. The New Order and its sequel offered thrilling gunplay that in itself was good comic relief to the grim and darkly-laced narrative.

And then The New Colossus happened. Beginning with its dreary and dour characterization of its protagonist, the game took a hard left turn involving anachronistic super science, excitable conspiracy theorists, a stunning jailbreak, and a visit to the planet Venus for a very special visit with Hitler himself. Whether this cartoonish direction was the natural evolution for the series or not is for MachineGames to say, and while it may be dismissive among fans, I enjoyed the comically bizarre and hilarious redirection as it made for a much more entertaining Nazi-hunting adventure.

And now we come to Wolfenstein: Youngblood, a “half a sequel” in which grown-up teens Sophie and Jess Blazkowicz, aka the Terror Twins, take it upon themselves to track down their father after he goes missing in Neu-Paris. Developed as a co-operative first-person shooter, it provides brand new gameplay mechanics that work to distance Youngblood from the old school flavor of the previous two games. Arkane Studios, developers behind Dishonored, worked with MachineGames to build the game into open-world, character level-based loot shooter in the vein of Borderlands. I like to think that I’m responsive to change to a fair degree but this particular direction wouldn’t have been my first choice. It became more and more apparent over time because Youngblood makes some very odd design choices that made me develop an active dislike for it. And because the game brings little to the table storywise, unless it somehow gets referenced in Wolfenstein III, this is going to be one of those adventures that’s forgotten about in a month. 

To find their daddy, Jess and Sophia steal an FBI helicopter with their friend Abby Walker, daughter of revolutionary turned FBI director Grace Walker, and head to fortress Europe. Once there, the twins infiltrate Neu-Paris and connect with French Resistance who offer their help in exchange for the girls assisting them to fight against Nazi rule. Like most parts of Europe, Paris has gone through Nazi terraforming as the natural beauty and splendor of the city has been transformed into an imposing, totalitarian concrete jungle. Divided into four major sections, the girls must find and hack three supercomputers located in towers as means to locate B. J. but also learn of plans by Lothar Brandt, who looks to be staging a coup on Berlin after Hitler’s supposed death by B. J. in the 1960’s. These computers are locked away inside towers that represent Destiny-like raid missions that are overly long, filled with unique enemy encounters, and ending with some sort of boss engagement. Because the raids are inherently difficult at the start of the game, you’ll end up tackling a long laundry list of side missions intended to increase your character levels and open up routes to the towers. Experience points are awarded for almost everything you do, so you’ll rise through the ranks at a steady clip and getting more than enough ability points to spend on upgrading your character's passive traits and combat abilities. 

It wouldn’t be a Wolfenstein game without a ridiculous collection of weapons to shoot Nazis with. Youngblood doesn’t bring any new toys but offers a “best of” collection from previous games into the new adventure. The difference here is how you can upgrade every facet of a gun to make it more effective by boosting its damage, rate of fire, DPS, and range using money that you’ll find scattered around the world. Weapons can also be cosmetically modified with skins that often carry an exorbitant price tag or be supplemented with a premium currency that costs real money. You’ll need to actively upgrade your weaponry because the Nazi soldiers are a lot tougher this time around and not because this is the first time the girls have fought the enemy. Instead, Youngblood falls into the trap of making enemies tougher by increasing the number of them on the field and giving them more health for bullets to soak up. Youngblood also equips each of its Nazi soldiers with armor types that only certain guns can penetrate. At the face value, this is a really neat idea because it mixes up combat and gets you thinking on your toes. However, the combat in Youngblood is nothing short of complete and utter chaos as you have to worry about knowing which gun to use while you’re getting swarmed. Now, you could stealth your way through combat encounters but the option to skulk around and kill enemies without others knowing is an illusion. You’re better off going guns blazing throughout the entire adventure because of how much it screws you over. For one, the pistol, which was so useful in The New Order and The New Colossus, is useless because you can’t perform consistent one-hit killshots. Shoot one in the head and they’ll go down. Shoot another in the head and they only lose half their health and trigger the alarm. 

The enemies in Youngblood are problematic in many different ways and you’re often put into situations where you can be easily overwhelmed. Enemy placement is often random and have a tendency to spawn through monster closets, giving you no impression of how many you have to kill before the encounter ends. Something that happened a lot during my games was the frequent pop-in of enemy soldiers in the most random of places. More often than not, they’d blink into existence right behind me without any warning. They can also do that when you’re trying to sneak around, further rendering any stealth gameplay moot. All of this is to say that you’re going to put through the gauntlet repeatedly and it’s inevitable that you’re going to be taken out. When you lose all health, you’re put into a “bleeding out” state that leaves you incapacitated until the other sister comes around and revives you. In the event that the other character can’t reach you, choosing to bleed out completely will spend one of three shared lives and get you back on your feet. If there are no more shared lives, the game ends after the player completely bleeds out and you’re forced to restart the mission. It’s the most ill-conceived decision choice as restarting after death puts you back to the very start of the district you were exploring or at the beginning of a raid mission. To make matters worse, you’re brought back with the ammo you had the moment before you died which proved time and again to be a major inconvenience as you have to fight respawned enemies with whatever meager bullets you had left. The utter failure of this design was no more apparent than the game’s mess of a final boss battle that forces you back to the start of a multi-stage battle with barely enough shared lives and ammo to make any kind of dent.

When I hit my first game over screen during Youngblood’s first and confusing boss battle, it was obvious that the game was meant to be played with another human. Having an AI-controlled sister puts you at a handicap because she’s not really good at reading the environment or capable of strategically using their Pep, a special gesture that can do things like refill health and armor. What’s more, there’s actually not much need for the second character at all. Nothing would be lost or gained if either Sophie or Jess didn’t follow you around because the only teamwork needed from them is opening doors and unlocking shared life containers. When you’re knee-deep in the fight, struggling to switch guns on the fly, it’s easy to forget the bot is even there because it doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the fight - except, maybe, exploiting the enemy’s often boneheaded AI. I did spend the majority of the weekend playing with fellow Darkstationer Jonathan Miley and we both reached the consensus that chatting with each other about this and that was more fun than actually playing the game together. Playing with him made fights easier because he knew what he had to do and I didn’t have to babysit him as I did with an AI bot. It also exposed that, if given an entire uninterrupted day, we could probably have finished the main quest line in a day. That is, if we didn’t mutually agree that the final boss fight was terrible and unfair and walked away without a second glance. One other thing we noticed that was never a problem when playing with a bot was the complete technical breakdown of the game’s sound effects. What started off as intermittent sound skipping and not hearing character dialog eventually devolved into the only sound I could hear were bullet impacts and ricochets.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a disappointment on nearly every possible level. It’s unfairly difficult, it’s crippled by bugs and glitches (Jonathan managed to climb his way out of the map entirely), the graphics and draw distance make the world feel like an artificial sound stage, and the added gameplay mechanics are more of a nuisance than the fun innovation they were supposed to be. Having to scrounge around for ammo after restarting the session from death does nothing more than to pad length and there’s a lot of open real estate that doesn’t get much use. Compared to The New Order and The New Colossus, Neu-Paris is a bland, lifeless world that fails to capture the charm of the series nor does it instill any feeling of horror of Nazi rule like that last two games did.

The Blaszkowicz sisters are probably the only good thing in the game because they are wonderfully adorkable and their banter is super-silly and fun. I wish they could have gotten fleshed out more but you don’t really get much of a read on them once the overly long introductory cutscene ends. They don’t grow or show any development by the time you’ve confronted the final boss nor does whatever passes for Youngblood’s story. The shoehorned inclusion of microtransactions is kind of ugly because it’s limited to weapon and character skins and timed character boosts that serve no purpose other than to get you to spend money. I suppose it’s a small mercy that you don’t need premium currency for anything but at this point, why even bother? I try not to judge but anyone who buys gold bars to get skins and boosts is wasting their money. Skip this game and play The New Order and The New Colossus instead. You’ll have way more fun. Honest.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.