Wolfenstein: Youngblood Gives The Car Keys to Teenagers
As the grandpappy of first-person shooters, the Wolfenstein franchise has been killing Nazis in increasingly flashy ways for decades. With Wolfenstein: Youngblood, we flash forward to the trendier than ever 1980’s where BJ Blazkowicz’s daughters Jess and Soph are taking up his mantle. They’re Nazi killers, no doubt, but regrettably, Youngblood struggles to capture the tone and style that have made the recent entries so memorable.
Playing Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a little like eating a plate of chicken wings. I know I like chicken wings, and these taste fine, but there’s something wrong with the sauce. It’s bland, or maybe too salty… In any case, it’s still chicken, but the experience isn’t quite right.
The New Order and The New Colossus showed that there’s more to killing Nazis than just killing Nazis, and did what I would’ve thought impossible – they made BJ Blazkowicz a sympathetic and relatable character. Characters? In Wolfenstein? Yup, it’s nuts, but The New Colossus had so many great scenes it could’ve had its own category in our GOTY 2017 Awards.
Wolfenstein Youngblood starts out strong with a look into how BJ and Anya are raising the girls, and has some definite moments near the bitter end, but the middle 90% really aren’t up to the standard set by Machine Games’ previous entries in the series. It’s tragic. Jess and Soph are quite likeable, but memorable characters of the caliber of Frau Engel and Wyatt just aren’t here. I was pleading and begging for there to be some meaningful character growth for the girls, but was left disappointed. That’s not to say the story is outright bad: there’s charm sprinkled here and there, but with a whole lot of filler in between. For every scene that made me laugh, there were too many that were strictly functional or missed the mark.
The dynamic of the sisters is the most interesting part of the story, but I wish they’d explored some of the themes more directly. I’d have loved a flashback or some backstory explaining Jess and Soph’s alter egos Arthur and Kenneth, or more scenes in the vein of the game’s opening. It’s definitely funny when they start dancing in random elevators, but where’s the context? Without some story to latch onto, those chuckles are going to quickly fade from my memory.
A big problem for me was the lack of a defined villain to unite against for the bulk of the game. Sure, there’s “the Nazis”, but stories are inevitably more effective with a defined evildoer like the completely unhinged psychopath that was Frau Engel. The last act changes that, but I felt it was too late to build any real disdain for the newfound antagonist.
Structurally, Wolfenstein Youngblood deviates from its siblings as well. Large, open hub areas with multiple objectives and side tasks are the name of the game, and again that works against what has made this franchise so entertaining in the past. Instead of spending most of my time melting Nazis with the Laserkraftwerk, I often needed to find paths, find out I was going the wrong way, and finally waste 10 minutes trying to Skyrim over a house to save 30 seconds. Making matters worse is the lack of a map you can pull up in the menu. At least, not that I could find. Prepare to squint real hard at the mini-map.
I can see why they went the direction they did, but quest design leaves something to be desired. Reach the marked location and press x is an oversimplification in some cases, but not by much. Quests all have flavor text and a voiced introduction, but the stakes still seemed low. The characters mentioned in quest intros rarely present themselves or impact what’s happening in the game, and consequently, I didn’t end up chasing too many side missions.
There’s a good deal of recycling going on too, with a particular get two of this thing to unlock this other thing trope showing up constantly, and several objective locations being too similar for my liking. One thing that’s not recycled and had my attention right away is the ability to straight up skip things if you can figure out how. On a couple occasions, I found myself in the Paris underground, sneaking past a minefield of bad guys way above my level, and those moments were certainly high points.
Quests are all picked up in your base of operations, but sadly there’s little reason to spend time there. It’s a well designed and interesting physical space, but devoid of life in an unsettling sort of way. Very few of the characters have much to say, and it’s a missed opportunity to inject some personality into an otherwise by the numbers experience.
We’re In The Nazi Killing Business
It’s probably sounding like I hate this game, but there’s a lot to like as well. For one, the combat is as smooth and satisfying as I hoped it would be. Firing up the Laserhammer and turning super-soldiers into swiss cheese with that piercing BWAAHHHHH noise is magnificent. Mobility is great too, and clever players will be able to use the level design and traversal to have truly acrobatic engagements. When the intensity really ramps up, it’s an overwhelming storm of particles in the best possible way.
It’s not all spray and pray either. Each of Jess and Soph’s weapons deal a specific kind of damage, so breaking down the armor of tougher foes calls for some simple rock, paper, scissors swapping. It makes ammo management much more important than in past games, and generates more intense situations when you realize you’re pretty much boned.
Constantly having a partner switches things up too. The companion AI is infuriating at times, since there’s no real way to direct them. When multiple enemies have weak points on their backs, it’d be great if Jess would stop running over to stand at my side all the time. Or would revive me, like, ever. I thought we were sisters? Anyway, all that’s solved by playing co-op, and that’s kind of the point of Wolfenstein Youngblood.
The sisters share a pool of lives, and strategically it often made sense to burn a life instead of getting my partner to come revive me. Once the lives run out though, it’s game over. Don’t let that happen. The checkpointing in Wolfenstein Youngblood is punishing. The first time I lost all my lives (about 80% through my 10ish hour run), my last checkpoint was a solid 30 minutes back.
Progression is handled well though, with both character and weapon upgrades to manage, and a drip of upgrade currency that makes picking and choosing carefully more important than in a lot of other games. I went for a more stealthy approach with a focus on silent weapons, but the Rambo approach is equally possible. Just choose a bunch of damage boosting Stier brand weapon attachments and upgrade the charge dash ability – you’ll be laughing.
Plays Well With Others
Speaking of handled well, I give massive props to Machine Games and Bethesda for the Buddy Pass, which lets a Wolfenstein Youngblood owner play co-op with someone who doesn’t own the game. It’s a rad idea that’s super consumer-friendly – a huge high five to whoever carried this torch over the finish line.
It kills me to say it, but as of this writing Wolfenstein: Youngblood has a lot of bugs. I found myself unable to interact with objects or my sister a handful of times, and got stuck in geometry a handful of others (the Skyrimming, what can I say). More bizarrely, I got stuck standing at a strange dutch angle a couple times, with my character at a solid 30 degree angle compared to standing straight up. While stuck that way, jumping didn’t work, nor did my efforts to stand back up. Hopefully, that last one is going to be ironed out soon.
On a technical level, the iD Tech engine continues to shine. Paris is gorgeous and detailed, and it runs like butter. In addition to my 1080 (which may have been yawning when faced with super high settings), I tested an older GTX 970 I had laying around and had a locked 60 fps experience at 1440p. For five year old hardware, that’s darn impressive. Obviously, newer cards will slay this game well into the hundreds of frames per second.
Wolfenstein Youngblood looks great and has solid shooting mechanics, but misses the mark when it comes to the things that have become Wolfenstein’s greatest strengths. Without the wacky hijinx and startlingly engaging story of The New Colossus, Youngblood is a good co-op shooter that will struggle to stand out from the crowd. Strange design choices and repetitive quests try to bring it down further, but delicious good looks and flexible progression systems could make it attractive to the right suitor. And hey, killing Nazis never goes out of style.
**PC code provided by the publisher**
- Killing Nazis
- Solid co-op & Buddy Pass
- Looks and runs great
- Weak story & characters
- Questionable AI
- Ho hum quests