Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Written by Sean Colleli on 8/7/2019 for PC  
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The era of the reborn 90s shooter marches on. Id Software is riding high after their 2016 reboot of Doom, a triumphant return to form that crystallized everything we loved about the early 90s classics into a single game. Now they’re poised to release the sequel, Doom Eternal, later this year. But Id didn’t kick off this FPS renaissance in their own right; appropriately, it was MachineGames that got things rolling with a refresh of Doom’s predecessor, Wolfenstein 3D. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a soft reboot of the reimagined grandpappy of shooters, which ostensibly began with 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which itself was a reboot of 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D.

The New Order took the action-packed, linear level-based gameplay the series was known for and set it on a bold new direction. The game followed longstanding protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz into an alternate history, Nazi-occupied 1960s timeline. The setting and gameplay were both thrilling and evocative, so MachineGames followed up with a story-centric prequel, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, a year later in 2015.

2017’s full sequel, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, stumbled a little with some awkward story beats and pacing and a bit of clunky gameplay balance, but no one would call it an out-and-out bad game. So now that it’s 2019 we’re about due for another spinoff, and we’ve certainly gotten it with Wolfenstein: Youngblood. I’m left scratching my head now because it’s still made by MachineGames, with the help of Arkane Studios of Dishonored fame, and I’m not sure how these talented studios could have fallen so far in the span of a single project. Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a stack of poor decisions and bad ideas nearly from top to bottom, and one of the most disappointing games I’ve played in recent memory.

Taking place 20 years after the end of The New Colossus, most of the world has been freed of the Nazi scourge, but in the 1980s they still have a foothold in certain parts of Europe. B.J. Blazkowicz goes missing while investigating Nazi-held Neu Paris, and his wife Anya and her best friend Grace Walker, now director of the FBI, have no leads. B.J. and Anya’s twin teenage daughters, Jess and Soph, steal an FBI helicopter with the help of Grace’s genius daughter Abby, and go in search of their vanished father.

Youngblood, at its core, is a cooperative shooter and that is not a detriment in and of itself; Wolfenstein has always been a solo affair, but unlike horror games, co-op FPS games have a long history of working well and being thrilling teamwork experiences. The problem is that the co-op is so poorly implemented that it poisons everything else by extension. For starters, John Yan and I attempted the online co-op mode but couldn’t get it to work. We troubleshooted the issue from both sides for close to an hour, but Youngblood and its clunky, mandatory implementation of Bethesda.net thwarted us at every turn. I had to resort to playing the game in single player with an AI buddy, which is an overall atrocious experience because the AI in this game is so thoroughly incompetent.

Regardless of which Blazkowicz sister you play as or which starting weapons and perks you choose, your AI partner is invariably next to useless. She will stand out in the open and soak up withering gunfire, rockets and lasers. She cannot use the game’s sneaking ability or cloaking device with any hint of competence, so stealth is essentially unfeasible. And when you get knocked down and start to bleed out, half the time she won’t even revive you, even if she’s standing right next to your prone, rapidly exsanguinating form.

What makes this AI incompetence utterly infuriating is the game’s shared lives system. Basically, Soph and Jess have a limited number of shared 1-ups, and when one of you dies, you both get booted back to the last checkpoint. Run out of lives, and you have to replay the entire level from the beginning. This is particularly awful during boss fights or battles with high-level enemies because of your partner’s bullet sponge proclivities. She’ll inevitably get knocked down, directly in the line of fire, and you’ll have to run right into a hail of rockets and bullets to keep her from dying, or suffer the severe consequences. Oh, and you can’t pause the game, ever, because even when you’re playing off-line with a computer partner, you’re apparently always online. Ever had to replay an entire 45-minute level because your AI buddy likes eating lead, and you can’t even pause to catch your breath? Youngblood will impart that lovely experience early and often.

So the AI is buggy and useless, but Youngblood could still be a fun co-op experience if they get the online system working and you could play with a human, right? Well…no. Not really. Youngblood is marginally functional without the AI millstone around your neck, but as a co-op shooter it’s mediocre at best. Machinegames and Arkane took the fantastic, engaging and fun foundation from their last three Wolfenstein projects and messed with it until it’s borderline unrecognizable.

The perfectly functional linear, level-based progression, which had this addictive push-forward design, has been scrapped in favor of a hollow and repetitive open world. Jess and Soph are trapped in Neu Paris, which is doubly disappointing in that it is both tiny and bereft of any engaging gameplay. Once you hook up with the local resistance they’ll give you both main story missions and side quests—pretty standard stuff, right? Well once you try any of the story missions you’ll realize that a lot of them are XP gated behind high level minibosses that will positively shred you on sight. This means that you need to grind out those side quests, which repeat over and over and over, if you want to have any hope of progressing. I’ve completed a sidequest before and returned to resistance HQ to literally be given the exact same objectives in the exact same location I just came from.

The once-addictive combat has also been made tedious and repetitive. Youngblood has adopted an armor-ammo checks and balances system which looks good on paper, but is poorly executed. Enemies have two armor types—light and heavy—and different weapons do more damage to different armors, while other weapons are practically impotent against certain armors. It’s a pretty basic binary system, something that’s been used in games like Bioshock and even previous Wolfenstein games. Fighting a robot? Better equip those armor-piercing bullets! Facing hordes of soft targets? Swap in those hollow-points, pronto. The problem is that the system in Yougblood feels arbitrary, and the HUD icons that display what armor an enemy is wearing, and what type of weapon you have equipped, are incredibly obscure. You spend more time squinting at tiny icons above bad guys and your ammo counter than actually fighting, and switching weapons is also slow and cumbersome.

The game’s broken ammo economy doesn’t help matters. Let’s say you run out of one kind of ammo, then get killed and sent back to a checkpoint. Surprise! You’re still out of ammo. Now you have to wander around the level or the Neu Paris overworld, scrounging for that desperately needed ammo type. It doesn’t help that Nazis are constantly respawning in the overworld, so just running past them is more efficient than fighting them. Youngblood manages to take the one thing that was indisputably great about the previous games—the addictive and weighty combat—and turn it into an arduous chore.

What’s particularly sad about this is there is a clear example of how to do this whole system correctly, and it’s directly in the series’ past. The oft-maligned Wolfenstein 2009 by Raven Software used the small hub city of Isenstadt and connected it to multiple story missions and sidequests, and it even had respawning enemies and a resistance base where you received new orders. Wolfenstein 2009 lacked the variety, defiant attitude and striking, world-fallen-to-Nazis premise of MachineGames’ rebooted series, but it was still an entirely competent attempt at a semi-open-world Wolfenstein, with compelling combat and a perfectly functional upgrade tree.

Youngblood, instead, shamelessly tries to right its hopelessly lopsided combat and unforgivably padded mission structure with microtransactions, and it does it in the most obvious way. It literally has two forms of currency: silver coins, which you can collect through normal gameplay, and gold bars, which are purchased with real money. It actually has a basic silver and premium gold in-game currency system, like you find in scummy, Skinner box mobile games. When I first opened the in-game store, I leaned back in my chair and chucked in astonishment at just how naked the whole thing was. 

The final insult is that Youngblood takes one of the strongest elements of the previous games, the story, and ruins it. From The New Order onward, Wolfenstein has had this perfect duality built into the plot. It sounds ridiculous—Nazis running the world into the 1960s—and it is, but the way MachineGames pulled it off is eminently satisfying. The story has moments of really stark horror: torture, concentration camps, genocide, gut-wrenching decisions between two evils. However, it tempers this queasy, too-close-to-home terror with moments of sheer Tarantino-esque catharsis, where you’re storming through a submarine while dual-wielding shotguns, or wearing a mecha suit and stomping through a Nazi barracks, just massacring everything in your way because it’s mother-fragging payback time. The plot is held up throughout by extremely well written characters that make you believe these people are real humans in an extraordinary and horrifying situation.

Youngblood torpedoes all of this. The first few minutes are promising, showing a dual cut of B.J. and Anya training their daughters to hunt and fight against the very real Nazi threat. I was really hoping for a situation like the film Hanna, but once B.J. exist screen left, the plot degenerates into the cringiest of fan fiction, and a lot of this falls on the characterization of Jess and Soph. You would think that they would be driven, focused killers, but also slightly damaged and emotionally stunted, having been trained almost since birth by their paranoid war veteran parents. Instead, they both typify the swaggering, obnoxious frat boy douchebag. Both girls swing wildly between arrogant overconfidence and neurotic naivety, with a sprinkling of the most awkward immaturity throughout. Their banter both during cutscenes and in-game made me want to gouge my eardrums out with a fork. The supporting cast is equally tiresome or at the very best one-dimensional, as are the situations they find themselves in, which robs the story of any narrative weight or emotional punch.

This is kind of tragic, because despite the few mis-steps in The New Colossus, MachineGames’ rebooted Wolfenstein series was headed toward a tantalizing conclusion. Why didn’t we get B.J. and Anya’s revenge-fueled, blood-soaked honeymoon across Neu Paris? Why didn’t we play as Anya and Grace searching for B.J.? Why did we get these awful, unlikable kids? Unless MachineGames strikes this…thing…from canon and ignore that it ever happened, I think Wolfenstein’s new order is irrevocably tarnished.

About the only positive thing I can say about Youngblood is that it’s pretty, at least from a technical standpoint. MachineGames’ mastery of the Idtech 6 engine is consistent, both in raw visual fidelity and attention to detail. This is the same endearingly clunky, yet stark and austere Wolfenstein they established in the last few games. My only problem is that they didn’t take advantage of the 80s setting at all. Aside from a few Nazi-fied pop songs playing on the radio (a cool holdover from the previous games) there are very few references to the era. It just doesn’t have that understated 60s, James Bond aesthetic that New Order and New Colossus portrayed so effortlessly. Youngblood’s visuals are pretty, but lack personality.

At the end of the day, a fully cooperative Wolfenstein game for $30 might seem like a tempting deal. Don’t be fooled. This is a shameless cash grab, bloated with repetitious grind, counterproductive mechanics, a co-op system that doesn’t even function and a story that will leave a bad taste in your mouth for weeks. The sad thing is, none of this can be completely repaired with a patch; the co-op AI could be fixed, but the other gameplay systems in place are fundamentally mis-implemented, and the story just plain sucks. Youngblood takes the one thing that absolutely must work above all else—the first person shooting—and bleeds out all the enjoyment. Do not reward this with your money. Don’t buy it on sale, do not waste your valuable time. Avoid Wolfenstein: Youngblood at all costs. There are many, far better games that deserve your attention.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood takes one of my favorite FPS series and ruins it with repetitive grind, bloated FPS mechanics, a broken, mandatory co-op system and a frankly insulting story. Don’t touch this one with a ten foot pole.

Rating: 5.5 Mediocre

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.

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