Developing character and story is tricky business. Throw in interactivity and the discussion on storytelling becomes infinitely more complicated, particularly when considering gameplay and the need for engagement. In many respects, MachineGames’ rebooted Wolfenstein series has, thus far, ticked all of the boxes. Compelling, complex characters fuel an equally compelling narrative, both buttressed by good gameplay mechanics and an intriguing world. Unfortunately, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, a spinoff set roughly 20 years after the events of Wolfenstein II, doesn’t measure up. While Youngblood’s main characters excel on every front, and its story largely upholds the series’ appealing absurdity, the gameplay loop and plot structure stumble time and again.
The year is 1980; America’s long been liberated from the Nazi regime, yet the rest of the world isn’t so lucky. Paris, France, for instance, remains in the regime’s clutches, serving as the nexus of a power play brewing between two competing factions—the Hitler-founded Third Reich and the newly introduced Fourth Reich. To help free Paris as he once did the States, B.J. Blazkcowicz leaves his relatively quiet life in Mesquite, Texas. His lengthy departure and undisclosed whereabouts result in his unexperienced twin daughters, Soph and Jess, embarking on a rescue mission with help from Abby, Grace’s and Super Spesh’s daughter from Wolf 2. This premise carries within it the makings of a great Wolfenstein game, but fails to stick the landing as well as its predecessors.
Strangers in Paris
A disjointed opening segment sets things in motion as B.J. and Anya train their teenage twins on the art of killing. It’s a touching scene that sadly doesn’t utilize Youngblood’s co-op mechanic. In fact, the first instance of co-op seems rather mundane, with a standard infiltration mission introducing the mechanic, a stark contrast to the opening of Wolf 2 where B.J. engages in combat from a wheelchair. Disappointingly, Youngblood rarely disembarks from that feeling of the mundane.
Opposite the linear structure of MachineGames’ past entries, Youngblood’s Arkane Studios-assisted development takes a more open-ended approach. There’s a main hub, an underground hideout in Paris from which the twins work to help free the city and investigate their father’s last known location. Paris itself is divided into multiple districts, meaning copious amounts of backtracking. To an extent, the title functions like an Ubisoft game before the publisher mastered its open-world formula. One-note resistance characters in the hideout assign the twins various tasks, which essentially boil down to assassination, retrieval, or ‘go here and push a button’ missions. As such, there exists very little variety.
However, a few side missions do mix things up, though they are ubiquitous in each district. One common off the beaten path assignment, for example, requires the twins to release Parisians from their bonds. Every mission and task builds XP, adding to a character level that helps players track when best to tackle Youngblood’s primary goal—attacking three well-guarded Nazi outposts filled with sensitive information about B.J.’s potential location, Lab X.
To Wolfenstein or Not to Wolfenstein
Despite the monotonous, uninspired gameplay loop, moment-to-moment action remains a hallmark of the franchise. Gameplay feels good; yet, some players may find adjusting the controls’ sensitivity a necessity. Furthermore, Youngblood’s introduction of RPG-like qualities seems enough to keep players engaged throughout. Reasonably in-depth skill trees for power, health, armor, and other upgrades ensure spending skill points has a meaningful purpose. Even the weapon upgrade system is a massive leap compared to the series’ 2017 sequel.
Character-specific upgrades are earned by leveling up, but weapon upgrades must be purchased through in-game currency known as Silver Coins. This currency is easy enough to find, as boxes filled to the brim with them are strewn about each district. Still, the inclusion of microtransactions warrants note. Yes, they’re cosmetic, but why implement them at all? What’s their purpose, to fulfill the bizarre always-online requirement? An unfortunate consequence of this component constitutes its bleeding into the gameplay, since pausing is no longer an option.
Co-op works well for the most part, barring the other player who doesn’t own the game needing to download a 35GB demo. Yet, co-op with a single player and AI doesn’t quite hit the mark. More often than not, the AI gets in the way or fails to smartly engage in combat, ultimately leading to their death. And their death can come mighty quickly in certain combat encounters. This wouldn’t be too much of a hassle if Youngblood’s checkpoint system didn’t serve as the game’s most reprehensible feature. Just made your way through a huge mini-boss and a wave of bullet sponge enemies, only to have your progress stunted by the AI’s repeated deaths? Too bad, back to the start of the level you go.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
If nothing else, Youngblood does an excellent job of laying groundwork for the franchise’s apparently harrowing future. A few fantastic twists make the overall experience justifiable towards the end. Yet, it doesn’t deliver on the carefully orchestrated sci-fi shenanigans that set its two predecessors apart. Without spoiling anything, Youngblood does an exorbitant amount of telling and not enough showing.
In many respects, this entry feels more akin to an Arkane game and not enough like the Wolfenstein experiences we’ve come to know and love. At the very least, the future is bright, especially if Soph and Jess come along for the ride. Their brilliantly written and performed sisterly banter somewhat makes up for this largely disjointed and underwhelming venture into the franchise’s broader horizons.
Wolfenstien Youngblood review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.