To put all my cards on the table right from the start, I am a huge fan of the rebooted Wolfenstein series. I like pretty much everything about the game, from the over the top supporting case and set pieces, to the subtle ripples of BJ Blazkowics’ personality and struggles. I like watching the big Nazi killing lug be so damn good and pull a Nazi’s skull out of their head, but also lamenting that he has to do so in the first place. I like the gunplay, even on the hard difficulty because I am not averse to a bit of wall-hugging to survive. Mostly, I like dual-wielding huge shotguns.
I walked into Wolfenstein: Youngblood hoping for more than just the spin of cooperative play, but that is the main attraction here. I don’t want to over overly cruel in the first parts of my review, but if you want to know if I consider Wolfenstein a hit or a miss, I can only confess that the game has rendered me unable to make a decision. It is fun, yes. But is it good? I am not so sure.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood’s hook is that instead of BJ, you can play as his two daughters. You can also play with a friend. This hook works. The game is fun when played with another person. The nature of the punishing hit-scan enemies at higher difficulties feels different as one of you can distract while the other person moves. The act of shooting things is fun, the same way it always is in Wolfenstein.
You have an arsenal of weapons to choose from and can upgrade them as you see fit. You level up and pick from a range of abilities that have various gameplay impacts. It is pretty easy to develop your own build, focusing on a couple of the game’s elements. This allows you to differentiate from your cooperative partner. One of you can be stealthy, while the other can act as a walking dinner bell. I was a little miffed at the absence of dual-wielding, which is locked away behind abilities now.
I liked the two characters, Jess and Soph. I enjoyed the odd mix of turbulent teens who were out of their depth and Beavis and Butthead like chuckleheads who can’t quite get over how cool it is to kill Nazis. And it is cool to kill Nazis. It always is in these games. Mowing down a few heavily armored Nazis, then jumping on a mounted laser to take out some giant robot dogs is undoubtedly fun.
It’s A Mad World
Wolfenstein: Youngblood takes place in Neu-Paris. The Nazis have set down roots in the City of Lights. Their presence can be found everywhere. This is one of the highlights of the game for me. I like the way the levels work. I like how they are designed. At first, you feel clumsy as you learn the lay of the land, but when you come back for more missions, you get sneakier. Patrols get taken out quicker, and you know what routes to avoid if you want to be fast. Secrets are uncovered and discovered. Truthfully, I prefer this to the occasional sprawl of previous levels in the series, where you would rarely if ever return. You’ll be carving your way through three districts, taking out a major Nazi stronghold in each one, before opening up the fourth district to play in.
You will often be asked to venture off to a strange area to take care of some additional mission. Even in a game designed to have little set direction, these missions feel a little odd. I had a hard time deciding if they were put in to make me explore, or to give me some more Silver Coins to upgrade my weapons and maybe buy a skin. They don’t quite sit well in the game, one of the live-service influences that the game wears awkwardly.
The level design and set dressing are also excellent. Locations feel real, and the impact of Nazi occupation is everywhere. In large and small detail, the fact that lives were going on, interrupted, and then fought to continue is everywhere. You can find small patches of evidence that lives were being lived all over the levels. Boarded up buildings contain hastily made homes that had to be abandoned. Here a door was kicked in, items and livelihoods scattered across the ground as the Nazis try to remove the last of the dissidents who will not bend to their rule.
The game also looks beautiful. Even without Ray-Tracing, which will be arriving in the game at a future date, the game is visually stunning, which is something we have come to expect from the series. I don’t think any game out there does metals quite as well as this series, which is essential when you are taking on jacked-up soldiers in metal armor, a selection of robots, and a few massive mechs.
What I didn’t like was the game leveling system. You have a level, and your enemies have a level, and they rarely seem to match up. The level system seemed to have a hard time matching up the amount of damage enemies could take with the amount of damage I could put out. I wanted to see if this was an element of the difficulty I was playing at, but after getting in some gunfights at the easiest difficulty, I was still just hammered rounds into bad guys that, if they had any armor, didn’t need to care. Eventually, things balance out somewhat, but it makes the start of the game a bit of a struggle at times. Not in a good way, just in “I’m tired of lamping rounds off this Nazi’s dome” kind of way.
A Certain Lack of Soul
The main thing that stood out to me about Wolfenstein: Youngblood is that the story lacks the heart of the previous titles in the rebooted series. Maybe I got too used to BJ being a big lovable lug. I miss the ramblings of a man desperate to find a middle ground between his desire to fight, and his desire to live. I did enjoy those long bouts of head-smashing that were punctuated with the existential crisis that BJ was experiencing.
The protagonists in Youngblood are fun, but the rest of the NPCs are a little dull. I felt as though the series had been in the process of slow escalation. Events got wilder; characters got more blown out, the existential angst got stronger. Youngblood feels a little bit like hitting pause on a tv show to watch a pretty similar tv show that doesn’t quite push itself as far as the one you were already watching.
I also think the structure robs much of the tension. You worked to build yourself up to the point where taking on the Brother strongholds is something you can do. There are few swerves and curveballs that come your way during this process. It is, essentially, something you grind out, picking, and choosing exactly how you do it. The lack of direction of this open-world style will always rob a game of its sense of urgency, and that is a bit of a shame in this case.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is fun in the coop, slow and stilted in solo play, and doesn’t quite achieve what I perceive to have been its aims. The things you hope for from a Wolfenstein game are here, yes, but those little things that made the Wolfenstein games feel special can be lacking. It’s fun for two people who can team up and play through the whole thing together. The obvious focus on design for coop play ensure that. For lone wolves, it will be somewhat of lesser experience.
That said, I do feel the need to point out that this is a game with Triple-A polish for a Double-A price. I do believe it is meant to be more of a compliment to the daring adventures of BJ, a new way to see and explore the world of Wolfenstein, rather than a replacement for the games we are used to. There is certainly fun to be had here, but it’s not the experience I had hoped for. The game, at times, feels a little trapped between trying to stay true to the series and wanting to do something new, and it’s hard to get past the idea that more commitment in either direction might have yielded something just a little bit more exciting.
Disclaimer: This game was reviewed using a code provided by Bethesda.