Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a collaboration between Wolfenstein developers Machine Games and Dishonored and Prey developers Arkane. The idea is that Machine Games supply the excellent (most of the time) Wolfenstein shooting gameplay, and Arkane supply the excellent (most of the time) Dishonored level design. What’s not to like?
Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.
I should say up front that I don’t actively dislike Wolfenstein: Youngblood the way a lot of the internet seems to right now. It’s sitting on a 47% “Mixed” rating on Steam as of the time of writing, which I feel is very unfair for a game that is a lot of fun to play. (Most of the time.) Unfortunately Youngblood has chosen to actually experiment a bit with the Wolfenstein formula, and that experiment doesn’t really work, and the botched nature of these new systems appears to be pissing a lot of people off. I get that. It pissed me off at a couple of points during my trip through Youngblood. The thing is, though, I can also recognise that the moment-to-moment gameplay of Youngblood — leaping around in a suit of magic power armour shooting Nazis with a selection of around nine improbably-sized weapons — is as fun as it has ever been, and is certainly a damn sight better than the comparatively tepid stuff to be found in New Colossus. It’s just a bit baffling that this excellent shooter gameplay is now sharing a bed with… permanent co-op and RPG-style levelling mechanics?
I’m guessing this sudden desire to innovate and experiment has been driven in part by the 2016 Doom reboot. Like the original Doom and the original Wolfenstein, the 2016 Doom did everything that the 2014 Wolfenstein did in terms of tearing around at light speed slaughtering enemies, and it did it better. 2017’s New Colossus hadn’t really had time to react to the existence of Doom, which is why it was so underwhelming. Youngblood has, though, and it’s notable that the basic movement and shooting in Youngblood is now almost a direct replica of the stuff in Doom. Just like Doom, you start the game in a suit of power armour giving you super speed and double jump and mantling abilities from the get-go. On the flipside the signature Wolfenstein mechanic of being able to dual-wield most weapons is much less noticeable, as you can only do it with pistols and submachine guns. The shooting in Youngblood is mostly a case of you holding one very large gun which you use to blast Nazis into tiny chunks — again, just like Doom. The weapons are a bit unimaginative (shotgun, assault rifle, grenade launcher etc.) but most of them have their niche and you’re switching constantly during combat, which is usually a sign that a game is doing something right.
The problem here is that Wolfenstein can’t just copy Doom because publishers Bethesda already have a franchise that does the Doom mechanics. It’s called Doom. Wolfenstein therefore has to find some other way to justify its existence in a post-Doom world; with Old Blood it also set a precedent of following up a big mainline Wolfenstein title with a smaller expandalone one that reused many of the assets and was consequently cheaper to develop, and so Youngblood is arguably an ideal opportunity for them to try something new. I’m never going to begrudge a game developer trying something new when it’s driven by a genuine desire for change instead of chasing market trends, which is probably why I’m a little more sanguine about it than all those people leaving angry Steam reviews. But Youngblood does, unfortunately, feel rather experimental, like I’m dealing with a jury-rigged prototype instead of a revolutionary new design. The best of its ideas are hampered by the technical restrictions of the Wolfenstein engine and the reduced budget available for this smaller interim release, while the worst of them are exacerbated a hundredfold by those same limitations.
So. Wolfenstein: Youngblood is the tale of BJ Blazkowicz’s twin daughters Jess and Soph, who have been trained from birth in the fine arts of Nazi-killing by both BJ and his wife Anya and are fairly proficient at it despite their teenage years. BJ goes missing at the start of the game and the twins find evidence pointing towards Nazi-occupied Paris as his likely location, so they get together with their tech-guru friend Abby – who rather conveniently has a pair of power suits for them to use — and fly over to Paris to help out the Resistance there as a means to finding their father. This is very quickly boiled down to “break into these three heavily guarded locations and hack into the computers there”, but with a catch: all of the Nazis guarding the computer compounds are much higher level than you are at the start of the game, making them practically impossible to kill. Before making your assault on the computers you first have to spend a bit of time wandering around the various Paris environments killing Nazis and doing side quests; this will let you upgrade your weapons and suit abilities to the point where you can take the plot missions on.
This is where Arkane’s influence is most heavily felt in Youngblood: it’s gone from a traditionally linear first-person shooter to a more free-roaming experience with most of Paris accessible from the start of the game. Or it would be free-roaming, at least, if a) the game wasn’t still restricted by the necessity of packaging things up into discrete levels (you’ll see a lot of loading screens in Youngblood), b) there were more than four of those levels, and c) there was literally anything at all in those levels that was memorable. Seriously, I’ve spent three or four hours wandering around the Paris streets shooting Nazis and I couldn’t describe a single distinguishing feature about them, they’re so generically Paris. The thing is there are very few actual locations in these levels; they’re about the size of a typical Dishonored level and are further compartmentalised by the necessity of each of them having to support multiple unconnected mission objectives and side quests, so the best you get is the hospital which is three corridors and a couple of rooms, or the interrogation “complex” which is two corridors and a big open gantry, because to have them be larger than that would eat up too much of the level.
Mostly the Paris streets are just that: streets, designed to get from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss (well, aside from all of the Nazi barricades and robots), and with almost none of the architectural flair displayed in Dishonored and Prey. Oh, the game does try, with minor secrets and collectibles scattered throughout the game, but it’s always on the order of a locked door leading to a room with some stuff in it rather than the far more elaborate mechanisms concealing Dishonored 2’s secrets. The running battles with the Nazis are always fun, but they’re fun because of the Doom-style combat and (later in the game) the obscene overpoweredness of your characters, not because the levels are in any way a decent backdrop for them. You’re mostly stuck in the middle of a street, after all, so all they can really add in terms of combat geometry are the standard collection of waist-high barricades and the occasional raised platform. It’s not really possible to play stealthily the way it is in Dishonored — you have a cloak ability and can run around shanking Nazis for a little bit, but once the alarm is raised all enemies will be able to spot you regardless of whether you’ve got the cloak on or not — so while it was occasionally entertaining to deal with big boss enemies by simply running past them and into the next area transition, that was the sum total of additional combat tactics afforded by the level design.
(Youngblood makes matters even worse by relegating many of its side missions into generic sewer levels that are put together out of obviously prefab chunks and which must have been fairly cheap to create. My hatred of sewer levels is well-documented, and Youngblood is a good poster child for why I hate them; no game developer is ever going to intentionally add a sewer level if they have the time and resources to do something, anything else, and so having to resort to adding one anyway is a sign that all is not well with the development of your game.)
Youngblood’s free-roaming doesn’t really land, then. The level design does get better once you start storming the three computer compounds, as these are put together much more like a traditional Wolfenstein level with a smattering of Arkane-flavoured alternate routing through vents and on top of light fittings, but the streets and sewers in which you spend the majority of your time are as generic as they come despite the alternate ‘80s Nazi chic. It does rather feel like they’re only there to support the levelling mechanics: killing Nazis and completing missions levels you up and gives you ability points, which can then be spent on a variety of hilarious Nazi-murdering skills. Scattered throughout the various environments are chests full of — sigh — silver coins, which are somehow a currency in this game that is used to upgrade your weapons to fire faster and do more damage. In order to level both your abilities and your weapons up enough to finish the game you’ll have to criss-cross Youngblood’s levels many times — although, contrary to some reviews you might have read, dedicated grinding is not necessary in order to beat the higher level enemies, since I didn’t have to do any. All that was required was to do most of the side missions and — and this is really important — not tackle any of the computer locations until we had completely cleaned out every other activity available.
Now, if you don’t do this, you’re in for a world of pain thanks to the way Youngblood handles those levels and abilities and weapon upgrades, which are partially level-locked anyway. The increase in power that they offer relative to the baddies isn’t linear but rather geometric; you go from chipping away at giant Nazi death robots with an assault rifle to one-shotting them with an upgraded Laserkraftwerk while laughing as they fail to make any impression on your vast pool of health and armour that you can fully regenerate every 20 seconds. Most enemies in Youngblood appear to be calibrated towards the shallow end of this power curve; they will be challenging to handle with basic weapons and abilities, but not impossible unless they outlevel you by five or more. However, the various boss enemies are a completely different story, as the weakest of them are targeted at midgame characters who have bought all of the first tier of upgrades for all of their guns and who have invested in the first half of the health and armour skill trees. If you have not done this you simply won’t be able to put out enough damage to kill them before dying yourself. I wouldn’t have too much of an objection to this if they didn’t represent such an obvious difficulty spike; you’ll be happily slaughtering your way through one of those three computer compound missions and there’ll be nothing about the standard mook enemies to indicate that you might be in over your head. Then you get to the end of the level — this takes around 30 minutes — and you run into a brick wall of a boss who, it turns out, you are simply not equipped to handle.
And when the boss inevitably kills you, the icing on the cake is that when you respawn, you’ll discover there is no checkpointing and that you’ve been dumped back at the start of the level, presumably because this was too difficult to implement for a co-op game on a budget. All of the enemies have respawned, and you have to do the entire thing all over again. At the end of the game, when you have actual, literal superpowers to help you on your way, this can be done very quickly and trivially. But if you try to do those missions before you’ve got enough upgrades and abilities unlocked you’re going to end up very frustrated and annoyed — and as it turns out, the amount of upgrades and ability points that you need are almost exactly the same as the amount granted by doing all of the available side missions. Youngblood is one of those “open world” games where it’s nowhere near as open as it would like to appear; you have to do all of the content at some point, and all you as a player really get to decide is what order you do it in. And since it turns out that all of the side missions are actually compulsory, you end up going back and forth across Paris through the same areas fighting the same enemy groups over and over again. There’s only so many times you can kill them before the experience inevitably starts to pall.
Honestly, Youngblood does come dangerously close to being another Rage 2: it’s got a good core combat loop and the powers are fun once you’ve unlocked them, but the surrounding game fabric is stretched dangerously thin through banal repetition and does an incredibly poor job of providing any meaning or context for why you’re shotgunning your thousandth Nazi in the face. What little story there is is there to support the standard uninspired RPG structure of doing three levels and then doing the Big Level and then fighting the end boss to complete the game, and there’s basically zero effort expended to hide that nakedly artificial setup. However, Youngblood has three things on its side that Rage 2 didn’t.
First is that, as with most things, shooting Nazis is much more fun when you do it with a friend, and Youngblood is a co-op game first and foremost with many mechanics and concepts that are based around there being two players present in the game. If you don’t have a Player Two to bring along then you’ll end up being accompanied by an annoying and not particularly effective AI player, but even with an autonomous chum I don’t think it’s a viable game to play solo. With an actual human friend playing along with you, though, it’s worth playing Youngblood just for the sheer hell of it, especially if you pick different ability builds. I went for super throwing knives and a fully upgraded pistol while my regular co-op partner Kenti went for the ability to pick up and retain heavy weapons along with the Nazi equivalent of Uzis, and these builds complemented each other quite well; I’d run around knifing people to death while Kenti repeatedly fell over because it turns out heavy weapons aren’t that great, but he made a wonderful target that drew a lot of fire while I got the job done.
Second is that that the two protagonists of Youngblood, Jess and Soph, are fantastically well-realised and basically what Rage 2’s artificially edgy player character was trying way too hard to be. They’re teenagers, and they act like it: constantly goofing around and treating the wholesale slaughter of Nazis like a big game. They’re utterly convinced of their own immortality in the way that teenagers often are — they’re certainly far too naive to know what they’re getting into when they jet off to Paris — and their youthful energy makes for a welcome and refreshing contrast to BJ’s increasingly morose and increasingly wearing internal monologues in New Colossus. It also made some of the more weirdly unnecessary game elements like the armour and weapon cosmetics a lot more natural, because of course a teenager is going to daub war paint all over their power armour. They’ve even got a boost ability called a Pep Signal that essentially amounts to throwing up gang signs or doing dance moves to give both players a temporary buff, and I kind of loved that I could restore myself and Kenti to full armour by stopping for a couple of seconds in the middle of a furious firefight to do the robot. Jess and Soph don’t have a huge amount of depth to them as characters, but I liked them nevertheless and enjoyed spending the eight hours it took to finish Youngblood in their company.
And third is, well, it’s £25. That’s a bit pricier than my typical budget purchase, but also substantially cheaper than what I spent on New Colossus or Rage 2 and so I’m commensurately a little more forgiving of Youngblood’s shortcomings and limitations than I might be otherwise. The relatively short length and the experimental nature of the game are effectively factored in to the RRP, and the good thing about these shorter Wolfenstein games is that while they do tend to get as much wrong as they do right, they don’t stick around long enough to get on your nerves. That being said, I think it’s something of a failed experiment, as I’m not sure there’s much in Youngblood that could be taken forward into a mainline Wolfenstein game — not unless Machine Games are going to make it an inherently co-op series from this point onwards and are willing to do some significant technical work to shore up the engine so that it can actually properly accommodate co-op gameplay. The power armour abilities work quite well, the weapon upgrades less so because very few of them change the actual functioning of the gun and most of them seem focused on making damage numbers bigger; however, neither the abilities nor the upgrades require the absurdly gamey levelling structure to be in the game, and so I don’t think any of that stuff is going to make it through to Wolfenstein 3. And so while Youngblood is more or less adequate as a short once-through and done co-op shooter, it’s not anywhere close to being an answer to the question of what Wolfenstein should be in a post-Doom world, and is itself doomed to remain nothing more than an interesting curio.