When it comes to first person shooter franchises, Wolfenstein isn’t just one of the oldest names in the book. It’s the author. And like any franchise that’s been around as long as this one has been, Wolfenstein has had its fair share of ups, downs, highs and lows.
In some ways, Wolfenstein is almost like the James Bond of shooters. Both franchises have changed and evolved with the times and the tastes of its audience, but all the tropes, symbols and beats you want out of them are still there. Wolfenstein is what it is, and it's reticent to try and become more.
There’s always just enough of a gap between each Wolfenstein game that it’s easy to overlook; but one of the key constants here has been an unwillingness to evolve. 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein is a game about killing Nazis. The series’ more modern entries are still fundamentally about killing Nazis. I’m not so sure that the same can be said for many other series that are just as old. And as fun as each game in the series is, things sometimes feel a little too familiar.
Co-developed by Machinegames (Wolfenstein: The New Order, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus) and Arkane (Dishonored, Prey), the new Wolfenstein: Youngblood runs against the grain of the series’ history. If the last few Wolfenstein games have seen the iconic shooter evolve into the Fast & Furious of the gaming world, this is definitely the the franchise's Tokyo Drift.
Putting aside spin-offs like Enemy Territory and Wolfenstein RPG, this might actually be one of the most radical entries in the series to date. Not all of the experimentation in Youngblood pans out, mind you, but it certainly feels like they’re trying to feel out what a new kind of Wolfenstein experience could look like.
Set about two decades after the events of The New Colossus, Youngblood follows Jessica and Sophia Blazkowicz – twin daughters to series mainstay BJ Blazkowicz – as they fight their way through a Nazi-occupied version of 1980s Paris searching for their missing father. It’s a setup that lends itself to plenty of action, but where the The New Colossus merely flirted with more non-linear level design and structure, this one takes things a little more seriously.
The alternate version of Paris depicted in Youngblood is fun to explore but it’s not all that big. Each district of the city sits closer to something like Destiny’s zone-like planets than it does large urban landscapes of The Division or Assassin’s Creed.
Comparisons to Raven Software’s 2009 Wolfenstein might also be apt. It’s more hub-like than a true open world. You’re able to travel between each area of Paris using the metro system and, while there is some variety to be found, they all feel painted from the same palette. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Consistency is good! Still, it feels like there’s not enough being done here to set the feel and vibe of a zone apart from another.
The banner-laced ‘Little Berlin’ is the only part of Paris that really made an impression on me. The rest blurs together before long and Youngblood is largely devoid of the incredible, jaw-dropping moments, sense of scale and personality that made The New Colossus so much fun. There’s nothing nearly as crazy as going on an American late-night talk show and scalping a Nazi on air. You don’t even get to visit any of Paris’ iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe.
Regardless, your overall goal in Youngblood is to work your way through each major district in the city and fight your way to the top of three critical Nazi communication towers. Get to the top of each structure, fight a quick boss battle then hack into the Reich’s communication network and you’ll learn a little more about the larger goings-on within the Wolfenstein universe.
Most of the story beats here are predictable but if you’re hankering to see where the series goes next, Youngblood drops plenty of tantalising hints. What’s more, to some degree, the game gives you plenty of choices about how you want to play it.
Right up front, you have the choice of playing as either Jess or Soph. The differences between the two are largely cosmetic. There’s a whole microtransaction system built into the game that does let you cosmetically kit out your character. However, when it comes to their actual capabilities, there’s no real reason to pick one sister over the other.
Then, when it comes to tackling Youngblood’s gauntlet of jackbooted goons, you’re given a lot to improvise. When it comes to weapons, most of the usual suspects from the last two Wolfenstein games return and there are some fun new abilities attached to the series’ powersuits, such as the ability to temporarily become invisible. This addition makes it way easier to sneak through encounters using stealth and pick off your foes one-by-one.
I opted for a mix of both approaches during my time with Youngblood and, while the stealth systems here aren’t nearly as nuanced or flexible as something like Dishonored, this quieter style of play definitely felt a bit more viable than it did in The New Colossus. This time around, there are other ways to kill Nazis aside from as loudly and violently as possible.
Youngblood is also the first story-focused Wolfenstein game that you can play through with a friend. And, when it all works, there’s definitely some co-op fun to be had.
Machinegames and Arkane have opted for a mostly-generous shared lives system here. If you get incapacitated, your comrade can get you back on your feet. However, if you both get knocked down, you’ll have to spend one of your lives to get a second wind.
If you’re playing through Youngblood on your own, an AI will take over the second player slot. When it comes to fights, I found that they were mostly competent and they won’t break stealth until you do but if you need them to bail you out after you’ve been incapacitated, that might be pushing your luck. Even if it’s very much designed to be experienced with a friend, playing through Youngblood on your own is totally do-able and not as painful as it could be.
Nevertheless, I did find that the game was too little punishing when it came to checkpoints. If either character bleeds out, you’ll fail the mission and, most of the time, you’ll be booted back to the very beginning. Depending on how fast you play and how high level you are, you’re looking to having to salvage 10-20 minutes of progress – which can be pretty frustrating.
Given the relatively-short length of Youngblood, it’s easy to suspect that this poor checkpointing might be by-design. I hit the credits in just over seven hours.
If you had told me that the new Wolfenstein game would take many of its cues from Destiny, I would not have believed you. Yet, the cooperative focus and zone-based structure aren’t the only things that Youngblood pulls from Bungie’s loot-shooter.
This latest Wolfenstein is the first to truly incorporate an RPG-like leveling system. In addition to earning skill points (which are used to unlock new abilities) and silver coins (which are used to upgrade your weapons), shooting Nazis in Youngblood will also net you experience points. Kill enough fascists, and you’ll level up. With each level you earn, the Blazkowicz sisters deal more and more damage to enemies.
Somewhat surprisingly, this progression system lends itself nicely to the series’ usual power fantasy. You might start slow but by the end not even the Reich’s finest footsoldiers can stand in your way.
Unfortunately, the flipside of this is that you sometimes encounter enemies which are too powerful for your guns in a way that fundamentally stifles and disrupts the core logic and conceit of what any Wolfenstein game is ultimately about: killing Nazis.
Sure, sometimes the Nazis have giant mechanical powersuits but, for the most part, you’re shooting flesh and blood soldiers. And where the last few installments have offered a seamless symphony of cathartic ultraviolence and a never-ending stream of new and exciting ways to kill Nazis, this Wolfenstein game finds a way to make that foundational hook feel routine and mundane.
The pieces are all here but the magic isn’t. It doesn’t so much feel like you’re reaving karmic justice upon modern history’s greatest punching bag so much as it does running on an XP treadmill and watching the numbers go up.
The Bottom Line
For as much as Machinegames’ previous Wolfenstein games felt filmic and cinematic, Youngblood falls just shy of it. All too often, it feels like a run-of-the-mill first person shooter. It’s got some charm but not nearly enough to get by in the same way that The New Order and The New Colossus did.
There’s some fun to be had here, especially if you rope in a friend, but Youngblood definitely doesn’t feel like the game it could have been. It ends up being a Wolfenstein that’s quite unlike anything the series has attempted before but also one that’s dragged down by a lot of those changes and evolutions failing to pay off as intended.
Even if it fails to unlock the potential of what it’s trying to do, I think there’s something decidedly compelling about the new ideas that Youngblood tries to bring to the franchise.
I enjoyed Wolfenstein: The New Order. I enjoyed Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. I will probably enjoy whatever Machinegames decide cap off their trilogy with. But would I enjoy another another mostly-linear rollercoaster of a Wolfenstein game as much as I would something that takes the structure and systems of Youngblood and improves upon them? I’m not so sure anymore.
Wolfenstein is one of those franchises that’s built around simplicity. It’s a shooter about killing Nazis. If you’re going to get more complicated than that, you have to have a good reason for doing so. And if you’re going to deviate from the core fantasy that underpins the series, that journey has to be one worth taking.
In Youngblood, it isn’t – but it’s not hard to see how a bigger and bolder version could be.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is available now on PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One X and Nintendo Switch.