Not Enough Brie On The Wienerschnitzel
HIGH Slaughtering digital Nazis is still the catnip I need these days
LOW A surprising lack of pizzazz.
WTF Was making the twins meat-headed ‘bros’ a weird attempt at equality?
I don’t think there’s a developer on this planet able to take someone else’s franchise and reboot it as their own as well as Machine Games has with Wolfenstein. They took a series that was essentially dead after its 2009 reboot (Raven Software’s Wolfenstein, which is actually pretty good) and somehow took its tired formula and turned it into a incredible alternate reality yarn. Both The New Order and The New Colossus from Machine proved to be among the best and most memorable shooters of this generation, being both hysterical and nightmarish, while also benefiting from Nazis being a real thing again.
Between those standouts, Machine also made a weird prequel side story in the form of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood that was alright. Now they’ve made a weird sequel side story, and it’s… less alright.
Youngblood is a first-person shooter featuring a co-op campaign that takes place after The New Colossus and (I presume) the events of Wolfenstein III considering that it stars the twin daughters of series protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz. Early in the story B.J. heads to still-Nazi-occupied Paris but soon goes radio silent. So, the girls decide to chase after him and put their skills to the test after a childhood of Nazi murder prep courses from Blazkowicz University.
Let’s talk about the twins. Their names are Zofia and Jessie, and I hate them for a litany of reasons. First, despite their father having only a subtle Texas accent and their mom being Polish, they both sound like a couple of cast members from Hee Haw.
I also think their mother, a college-educated doctor, and their surprisingly introspective father would both be disappointed in the dimwitted slack-jawed yokels they apparently raised — the twins come off like every dudebro videogame protagonist in history rolled into two, and they speak like they’ve never read a book in their lives despite constantly pretending to be in a series of faux Hardy Boys novels. It’s perhaps the only good running joke Youngblood has.
It almost feels like Jess and Zofia were supposed to be male, but at the last minute a PR guy said “Hey we got all these stats saying women are a big thing now. MAKE *clap* IT *clap* HAPPEN *clap* PEOPLE.”, and the team simply did a re-skin. It’s so bad that I’d almost say Machine’s writers aren’t capable of handling female characters, but they’ve successfully done so with previous Wolfenstein entries like Irene Engel, Anya, and Grace Walker (who also has a daughter in Youngblood, and she’s as underwhelming as the Blazkowicz twins are).
The thing that made Machine’s previous work on Wolfenstein so incredible is that woven into great stories with great characters was a steady stream of truly WTF or OMG moments ranging from fighting Nazis on the moon or seeing two housewives stroll down the street talking about the slave market. It’s a tightrope of extremes in tone that was walked surprisingly well most of the time, and while Youngblood has a couple of strong moments, there’s nothing that compares to, say, Hitler shooting Ronald Reagan in the face.
It’s not just that there are no big moments in the story, but a bigger issue is that there’s barely any story at all. While it’s bookended by two linear missions that have a fair bit of plot, the vast majority of Youngblood is set in an open-ish world with almost no script apart from mission dialogue and repeated cutscenes in an elevator of Zofia and Jess doing things like giving each other the bird in increasingly complicated ways.
So the characters and narrative are subpar, and unfortunately, so is the gameplay.
Youngblood’s world isn’t fully open, but rather a series of levels connected by a hub in the Paris underground. The main goal is to infiltrate three towers in the city in order to figure out the location of the cleverly-named ‘LAB X’ where we presume Pops is, but at the start players don’t know the exact locations of the towers, nor are they leveled up enough to engage them.
In order to level themselves (and their guns) up, players get missions from people in the hub, which usually boil down to ‘go here and mess up some Nazis‘. These missions also give information about the towers, such as alternate modes of entry that avoid the heavily fortified entrances. It’s a neat layout for the campaign, and when populated by appropriately-leveled enemies, the combat is the best it’s ever been in a Machine Games Wolfenstein title. The issue comes when the light RPG elements get in the way.
Apparently Machine has attempted to turn Wolfenstein into Destiny without the loot, as both players and enemies have levels. If the player isn’t at a high enough level, they get instantly turned into Swiss cheese — it’s not enjoyable, and happens in Youngblood both frequently and randomly.
More successful than the RPG elements is the co-op, and Youngblood is definitely designed for two players at once. It’s incredibly easy to jump in or host a game, and while it’s always a richer experience to play a co-op focused title with a real person, the AI does a pretty decent job for those who want to play solo. However, the need for coordination never rises above the standard ‘ok, let’s both pull this lever at the same time‘ shtick, so players expecting novel iterations of the concept might be disappointed.
That aside, one of my big complaints with co-op campaigns (I’m lookin’ right at Halo 5 while typing this) is the complete lack of tension when players are able to zap each other back to life when downed, leading to a subconscious lack of strategy because there’s no real punishment for death.
Youngblood has attempted to mitigate this issue with a shared lives system — if both players are downed at the same time, they lose one (of three) heart containers. More can be found in levels, but if the team depletes all three, players go back to the start of the level. This system works well until one waltzes into an area they’re not supposed to be yet and both characters get repeatedly chunked for having the audacity to want to shoot things in a shooter.
At one point, my co-op partner and I stumbled into the entrance of a tower, weren’t at the proper level, somehow cheesed our way to the top, then were obliterated by the boss only to find out we had to do the entire hour-long climb all over again. Would a checkpoint halfway up have been too much trouble? I respect the drive to solve the lack of tension, but I don’t want to be punished this heavily in my over-the-top zany Nazi co-op shooter. Great idea, bad execution.
It’s hard not to look at the four Wolfenstein titles Machine Games has made over the past five years without getting a distinct ‘A-Team/B-Team’ vibe. While Youngblood is a far more interesting idea than the ‘prequel with zombies‘ approach taken by The Old Blood, it still doesn’t have the “WOW” factor that makes the main entries so memorable, and the severe downgrade in protagonists doesn’t help. So while Wolfenstein: Youngblood is disappointing, it’s also just kinda there. At least it wasn’t so bad that it impacted my desire to play the next main entry in this series…
Disclosures: This game is developed by Machine Games and published by Bethesda. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, Switch and Steam. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a Windows 10 Laptop with a GTX 1060, 16GB of RAM, and a Intel Core i7-7700 processor, which was able to run the game on high settings at above 60FPS. An estimated 13 hours of play were devoted to playing the main campaign, about half of which was played cooperatively, and the campaign was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and features Blood And Gore, Intense Violence, and Strong Language. Definitely not one for the kids here. The game features a incredibly foul script, exploding enemies, some disturbing imagery, and that’s all on top of being set in an alternate universe where the Nazis won. Wolfenstein earns its M for sure.
Colorblind Modes: On PC there are three colorblind modes available in the options: Protanopia, Deuteranopia, and Tritanopia.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game features subtitle options and presents them in large, clear font but with no way to resize them. I don’t think there will be much issue for players who want to run ‘n gun, but someone who wishes to take a stealthy approach will have a hard time doing so without relying on the banter of enemies or footsteps, which do not come accompanied with visual indicators.
Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are fully remappable on PC. From the menu, players can map their mouse and keyboard controls however they see fit. If playing with a controller on PC (Or playing on console) the controls are not remappable, but players can choose from four different presets.