Wolfenstein: Youngblood feels different from The New Order and The New Colossus. That much was to be expected given the 20-year narrative jump and new lead characters of B.J. and Anya’s daughters. Were those the main changes, the game could shine brighter than its predecessors, for Jess and Soph have the potential to be wonderful characters, struggling to both survive and live up to their family’s incredible legacy. However, MachineGames and Arkane Studios have erred in more fundamental areas of Youngblood and the game suffers as a consequence.
Where Wolfenstein has heretofore been one of the last bastions of the campaign-led corridor-shooter format, Youngblood abandons that, looking instead towards RPGs and shared-world shooters for its structure. The result is mixed.
On one hand, 1980s Neu-Paris is the most fleshed-out environment that the series has yet provided, and players get to wander all over (and under) it, from fetid sewers to boulevards bedecked with cafes and stores to ghetto slums from those the Nazis deem degenerates and undesirables. Arkane’s influence is most palpable in these streets. The Dishonored developer is renowned for its talent in world construction, and Neu-Paris is every bit as dingy, diverse, and lived-in as Dunwall or Karnaca.
On the other hand, gameplay variety and narrative tempo suffer. Neu-Paris is divided into three districts, each dominated by a tower that the twins must eventually infiltrate. However, those towers are level-gated, and trying to tackle them ahead of time will almost inevitably result in a swift death. Instead, in typical faux-RPG fashion, players venture out into the world, taking on missions to increase their chances of survival against ever-increasing odds. Thankfully, the experience requirements for levelling up are relatively modest, so the game does not stretch out unduly. Even so, having to revisit the same areas and face off against the same assortment of Nazi soldiers and robots repeatedly quickly begins to drain the fun from this adventure. Moreover, the semi-open hub design of Neu-Paris, combined with hyper-alert enemies, means that stealth is a less viable option than ever before. The action is almost unrelenting, which makes the inability to pause disappointing (especially in offline, single-player mode).
The overall structure also robs the narrative of much of its heft. Jess and Soph’s introduction is powerful. Players meet them as young women, simultaneously vulnerable and tough, being trained by their parents to take on the world (or at least the Nazi regime). Somewhat foolishly, the game strolls into the same trap as 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, with the girls showing anxiety about killing their first Nazi before immediately transforming into unstoppable slaughter machines. In context, the shift is not as egregious because the twins have been raised by the Nazi-slaying hero B.J. Blazkowicz. After an initial thrust into the oppressive Neu-Paris, narrative takes a backseat, much as it did in Rage 2. In fact, as the girls take on side missions to increase their skills, losing sight of their reason to fight—finding their lost father—becomes a very real possibility. To be fair, the story itself is compelling enough to carry players through (even possibly giving some hints as to the yet-unconfirmed Wolfenstein III), but the delivery leeches it of impact.
Perhaps the most significant USP in marketing for Youngblood has been its co-op functionality. The game be played entirely solo (and was for this review), with the AI companion generally being competent and intelligent enough to not be frustrating. In fact, on a comparable difficulty setting, Youngblood is easier than its predecessors, aside from a few difficulty spikes that may prove infuriating.
A more contentious issue is the presence of microtransactions, here justified by the RPG mechanics, the semi-open-world structure, and budget price. Nevertheless, the need to purchase items with real-world money is vanishingly small. Every gameplay booster can be purchased with the in-game currency that bespatters the environment. Moreover, the real skill upgrades—weapon mastery and character levelling—are tied exclusively to play. The weapon upgrades, with only a handful of exceptions, seem to have negligible impact on the moment-to-moment experience.
Elsewhere, the game notes a curious absence of new toys and tools, as well as some notable backwards steps. Gone is the ability to dual-wield any combination of weapons, as is the ability to pick up heavy weapons (until that skill is unlocked, at least). Meanwhile, the special laser, diesel, and electric weapons that series veterans may fondly remember feel pared back and inefficient compared to previous iterations. Youngblood also lacks for anything resembling a standard sniper rifle, which furthers the sidelining of a stealth-led combat approach. These omissions from the arsenal are particularly baffling, as they remove much of the experimentation.
If these flaws were not enough, the game also suffers from several minor bugs and other frustrations. One of these is a tendency for the audio to drop out randomly, while it crescendoes into a cacophony of indistinguishable noise at others. At other points, the open level design results in spawn points being readily visible, with Nazi soldiers popping into existence before the player’s eyes. Neither of these issues is game-breaking, but they contribute to the shattering of the illusion and reinforce the sense that Youngblood is a stopgap product—an ill-conceived and -executed holdover until the inevitable Wolfenstein III launches on the next generation of consoles.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood had the potential for greatness. MachineGames has proven itself as one of the best FPS developers active today with the previous two series entries, and Arkane Studios has a well-deserved reputation for great immersive sim experiences. Both are highly regarded for their single-player offerings, yet this collaboration squanders so much of the magic that could have been. The gunplay is as tight as fans could hope, and the central storyline is just strong enough to overcome the malaise that the repetitive open-world exploration breeds. However, those boons are not enough to offset the flaws, foibles, and—most of all—the sense that this is a game designed to keep players coming back: even as it lacks a hook to do so.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Coming to Google Stadia at a later date.