First-person shooters are rarely known for the depth or complexity of their narrative. On paper, “kill every Nazi you can” is admittedly a fairly simple premise, but it’s also a solid one. I mean, other Nazis aside, who doesn’t hate Nazis? The most recent Wolfenstein games – The New Order, its prequel The Old Blood and the subsequent sequel The New Colossus – did impressive things with the Nazi-killing concept, bringing together responsive, brutal gameplay with earnest, charming characters the likes of which are not often seen in the genre. With Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the series is evolving further: you can now kill Nazis with a friend.
Rather than cast you yet again in the role of series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, Youngblood tells the story of his twin daughters. Blazkowicz himself has gone missing, vanishing mysteriously from the family home in Texas. After the events of The New Colossus, America has been liberated from Nazi rule, and BJ has ostensibly settled down and embraced family life. Without a word of warning or explanation to his wife and daughters, he sets off for Nazi-occupied Europe. Naturally, his daughters Jess and Soph go looking for their old man, and all that stands between them and their reunion is, well, a whole army of Nazis.
Jess and Soph aren’t the seasoned killers their father is, however, and this is their first real foray into the world of death and destruction. Their first encounter with a Nazi shows a mingling of their desire to follow in their father’s footsteps and their own lack of experience with warfare. Without going into too much detail, the twins are confronted with the reality that killing is in fact not an easy thing to do – at least at first – no matter how well you train for it. This early scene sets Jess and Soph apart from their father, and they’re stronger characters for it.
In typical Wolfenstein fashion, characterization and dialogue can swap between emotional and almost cringe-worthy in a heartbeat. It’s a little cheesy, but also weirdly endearing, to hear the girls congratulate one another with cries of, “Whoa, you’re so awesome, dude!” It was a little jarring at first, especially after three games of BJ’s melancholic monologues, but these are two American-born girls raised during the ’80s, and their dialogue reflects that. One sister also unironically uses the word “tubular”, which I haven’t heard since I was a child watching films that were a decade older than I was.
The Blazkowicz girls are joined by a whole underground resistance, led by eccentric Frenchwoman Juju. Paris is bearing the brunt of Nazi rule, and the sheer size of the enemy presence is at first an insurmountable wall between players and their objective: locating BJ. Alongside priority tasks from Juju, you can also talk with other resistance members and help them alleviate Paris’s woes. One early mission, for example, sends the girls to rescue a prisoner before the Nazis brainwash her into a mindless propaganda machine. It’s a nice distraction and helps ground you in the world a little more, and it’s a far cry from the A-to-B slaughter-fest of previous games.
Unlike previous entries in the series, which were strictly linear affairs, Youngblood operates out of a central hub, the resistance base, which itself is located amidst a series of explorable locales within Paris. It’s here that the involvement of Arkane Studios, developer of the Dishonored franchise, is most apparent. Youngblood certainly isn’t an open-world game, but like the Dishonored series there are plenty of places to explore and goodies to collect. It also adds an extra layer of strategy to your encounters with the enemy; they can come from any and all directions, and some routes will provide different challenges to others.
Curiously, Arkane’s influence here also extends to an RPG-lite system. In previous games, the only real upgrades came in the form of perk rewards for certain playstyles, like strengthening your grenades after X amount of explosive kills. Here, Jess and Soph have levels – as do your enemies! – and a series of skill trees allow you to power-up abilities and unlock new means of taking down the Nazis. It feels a little intrusive at first and, while it never takes away from the experience, it felt just a little too Dishonored-like for my tastes. Wolfenstein is always straightforward in its mechanics, and this comes close to diluting the experience. There’s also a microtransaction system for the game’s cosmetic items because clearly publishers just aren’t making enough money. It’s strictly for the cosmetics, mind you; real money can’t be used for upgrades or skill points.
In addition to skill points, which you acquire from killing enemies to level up, you can also find silver coins scattered throughout levels: left behind on tables, littering the ground after a gunfight and in large supply crates. These allow you to purchase a variety of weapon upgrades, with a different brand of attachment for things like firepower, rate of fire and the like. Like the level system, it’s never obnoxious – I can’t deny that I enjoy the sense of satisfaction attached to improving my gear – but this too feels very conspicuously un-Wolfenstein.
On the other hand, I can’t really fault Youngblood for including these mechanics. Developers are constantly expected, by fans and publishers alike, to innovate and improve with each new title, sometimes to unreasonable extents. Had Youngblood adhered to the same formula as its predecessors, it would have likely been bemoaned as more of the same, but that isn’t always a bad thing. From The New Order onwards, Wolfenstein boasted both superb gameplay and an engrossing story that most of its genre counterparts sorely lacked. These new level-up mechanics aren’t without their appeal, but they feel jarring and somewhat out-of-character for a Wolfenstein game.
Although I was never fully on board with the RPG elements, Youngblood plays just as excellently as its predecessors, and the new, more open environments make it a lot more challenging to simply sprint into the chaos, guns blazing. Enemies will surround you easily, and the stronger foes – sporting armor that will require certain weaponry to destroy – can take you down easily if you’re unprepared. Losing all of your health will cause you to start bleeding out, at which point your partner will need to revive you. If you both go down, you’ll lose one of your shared lives. You can only possess a maximum of three at a time, and going through them all will send you back to the start of the area you’re in.
The AI of your partner isn’t terrible, but it’s a poor imitation of playing alongside another player. It’s often needlessly aggressive, getting into fights it has no hope of winning, which means you’ve got to wade in after your sister to save her. I’m accustomed to playing Wolfenstein games on the hardest difficulty, but even on Normal, I was often losing a lot of my lives – entirely because of the AI. The game is still enjoyable when played with an AI partner – aside from its aggressive tendencies, it can be quite helpful as a teammate – but is absolutely best played with another person.
The biggest and most disappointing issue with the game’s co-op system, though, is the lack of split-screen play. Youngblood is precisely the kind of stupidly hectic, fast-paced multiplayer game that split-screen works best with. For all the recent advances in games and games consoles this past decade, the fact that developers continue to neglect such a core aspect of multiplayer gaming never ceases to disappoint me.
Youngblood‘s cast is its broadest yet, comprising people from many different backgrounds and creeds. MachineGames’ high quality of design and animation is plain to see, aside from a few issues here and there: I encountered occasional slow-down in cutscenes, and my AI partner would sometimes clip through walls and obstacles when she had to operate one of the game’s myriad two-person switches. Occupied Paris is as desolate and war-torn as you’d expect, and fighting through its streets and alongside its beleaguered citizens lends a great deal to the mood of the conflict.
Previous Wolfenstein games maintained such a high quality of production that the bar is inevitably set high for future games. Youngblood is the first game in the series to stumble in its execution, from the awkward RPG elements to the characters themselves, who don’t quite walk the line between cheesy and believable as well as the cast in previous games. Despite a few failed experiments with new mechanics, this is still a Wolfenstein game at its core. On top of that, a pair of refreshing, ass-kicking protagonists and the potential for some chaotic coop fun more than make-up for Youngblood‘s other shortcomings.