|System: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC|
|Dev: MachineGames, Arkane Studios|
|Pub: Bethesda Softworks|
|Release: July 26, 2019|
|Players: 1-2 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Strong Language, Blood and Gore, Intense Violence|
by Lucas White
When MachineGames took over the aging Wolfenstein brand and soft-rebooted the series under Bethesda as a publisher, people were hesitant to say the least. But it worked out, and MachineGames’ fundamental understanding of what Wolfenstein is as a game, combined with some excellent, satirical/earnest hybrid writing, led to a cult hit. The sequel was bigger and better, taking more risks in both its gameplay and storytelling. But, like the first game’s Old Blood pseudo spin-off, the team has now released Youngblood. Ostensibly a sequel to the second game, Youngblood takes the core gameplay of MachineGames’ Wolfenstein and just piles a crap-ton of experimental ideas on top. The end result is kind of a confusing mess, but the fun protagonists and co-op play style make the story worth running through at least once.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood puts players in the shoes of Jess and/or Soph Blazkowicz, the daughters of seemingly invincible series protagonist BJ. Living in a recovering, liberated America in Wolfenstein’s 1980s, BJ and his wife Anya are teaching Jess and Soph survival and combat skills. While America is once again free, other parts of the world are still under Nazi rule. To that end, BJ disappears without a trace one day, and his daughters believe they have tracked him to Nazi-occupied France. So, the two suit up and head out to put their Nazi-killing lessons to practice. Hilarity ensues.
When starting a new game, it’s abundantly clear Youngblood is not meant to be a single player experience. You can play by yourself, but the way the menu works seems to actively discourage that. Regardless, once you jump in, fans of the series may immediately feel comfort from the punk rock edge to Youngblood’s marriage of righteous violence and crass humor. The actual gameplay feels exactly like the previous games’ and, while the smaller areas and detailed mini-map makes things feel much smaller scale, the loop of running across open space, grabbing dropped ammo and armor, and filling enemies with lead remains. But the finer details, the bells and whistles, make things a little messy.
Youngblood makes its mark quickly by introducing more hardcore RPG elements than have been present in Wolfenstein before. Doing “things” in Youngblood nets you experience points, and leveling up not only introduces points for the prototypical ability trees, but you also get a permanent damage boost. This carries over for whatever game you’re playing. Your character is your character, no matter whose game you jump into. Enemies are also named and have health bars, and some of them even have special armor that actively puts a wrench in that loop I mentioned earlier.
This was my first major problem with Youngblood. Enemies with barriers are weak to specific ammo types, and that is represented with little visual cues. The problem is those cues look pretty similar to each other. Early on, it takes bizarre effort to focus on what kind of armor an enemy has, then make sure you’re switching to the right weapon. This is especially true with a shooter as frantic as Wolfenstein. It makes taking on larger groups of enemies much more fiddly than it should be, especially since barrier enemies are often stronger types with special weapons such as flamethrowers, which can already mess with your visibility options.
Not to mention, you can’t pause Youngblood. While it does make sense that you can’t pause during an online co-op game, you also can’t pause if you’re playing by yourself. So if you’re just taking your time and trying to move through the story on your own, you also have to consider that you can’t even mess around with your skill trees until the coast is clear of Nazi scum. While taking out Nazis is great and all, sometimes you want to go right into the menu when that level up fanfare pops off, and Youngblood makes that a problem.
Other than those mechanics, it’s also hard to get a pin on what Youngblood actually wants to be sometimes. For instance, it’s still a story-driven game, with cutscenes and plenty of ambient dialogue. But if you’re playing co-op online, nobody is going to want to wait and let you take in the silly Nazi chatter. There’s also a ton of grinding, with silver coins that can be used to get new cosmetic options, the skill trees and its leveling. But there’s no way to really peak by the time you finish the relatively short (but thoroughly entertaining) story. It seems like Youngblood wants you to play with people randomly, over and over, and get satisfaction out of that grind. But that doesn’t gel with what’s appealing about playing a MachineGames Wolfenstein.
That said, the co-op play can be quite a lot of fun. While it is super disappointing that there is no local co-op option, playing with others can still be a blast. There’s a mechanic that allows you to send boosts to your partner with a thumbs up, devil horns, or other unlockable gestures, and you can revive each other from the “bleeding out” mode. In fact, since there’s a shared lives pool, being able to snap your buddy back from a bad situation is important. That said, there is also a lot to be said for more skillful players to seek opportunities to split up, in order to take on Nazi waves more strategically.
In the end, I feel like I’ll continue to struggle with how I truly feel about Wolfenstein: Youngblood. Its strange and uncomfortable structure, or rather my reaction to it, clearly stems from my love for the “normal” games. It isn’t more of what I loved; therefore, it’s scary. At the same time, some of those scary things are legitimate frustrations that seem to compromise the game to make it more gimmicky. It’s still as charming as ever, and is full of fun characters and dialogue, which makes it harder to really be disappointed. Wolfenstein: Youngblood comes off as a big experiment, and attempts to take something people like and do something new with it. I’m glad MachineGames was afforded the creative leeway to make it.