Wolfenstein Youngblood might prove that co-op storytelling can actually work

Co-op and E3 show floors aren’t conducive to telling a good story. Listening to dialogue and paying attention while your buddy is talking is hard enough and that problem is exponentially worse during the hectic cacophony of E3. But Wolfenstein Youngblood overcame those odds. From the first few seconds of the hands-on E3 2019 demo, MachineGames showed its storytelling acumen in a way that cut through the noise and showed that this cooperative, narrative heavy game could succeed, despite the less than ideal setting.

The section began with a beautifully constructed scene showing an older B.J. Blazkowicz teaching one of his daughters, Jes, to hunt while his partner Anya was training the other twin, Soph, in physical combat. Excellent cinematography ensured that the camera found interesting angles. Well-written dialogue warmed up the audience to the new characters while reminding us why we like the familiar faces. And the editing was slick enough to cut at just the right moments to create a sense of cohesion between the two different duos. Youngblood’s intro didn’t need to start off with a Nazi-killing spectacle to hook you because these three elements were so beautiful woven together.

Wolfenstein Youngblood Preview | Daddy’s Nazi-killing girls

wolfenstein youngblood preview

These scenes play out before B.J. has gone missing and, through some additional masterfully cut scenes, the 18-year-old twin girls embark on a journey to find their father. And while the prior MachineGames’ Wolfenstein games have masterfully juggled their tones, Youngblood seemed to be going for a slightly less serious atmosphere. This likely has to do with their age and the playful nature of teenagers over grizzled war veterans.

They talk to each other and have a silly rapport that only sisters or true best friends would have. It was charming and hilarious in the right ways. But they’re also having to follow in their father’s legendary shoes, which ends playing out in one of the weirdest and most hilarious scenes MachineGames has made thus far. From this opening hour or so, the game laid the groundwork for a compelling mystery, introduced an intriguing band of younger characters, and did it all with some masterclass cinematic skills.

And this is all the more impressive considering that it is a cooperative game. Co-op experiences are usually designated to be light on the story and seem to mostly focus on playing with your friends. After all, it’s hard to not talk over the cutscenes since almost every co-op game either doesn’t try to tell a deep tale or tries and fails miserably like A Way Out. While you can play Youngblood solo with an AI companion, it would have been easy to assume that MachineGames would reign in the narrative beats. But, judging by the opening hour, it appears the team has added co-op without sacrificing its storytelling prowess.

Wolfenstein Youngblood Preview | A familiar base

wolfenstein youngblood preview

Cooperative play has changed the shooting though even if the foundation is rather similar. Youngblood plays a lot like The New Colossus, relying on fast gunplay and a similar arsenal to get the job done. Armor packs and health have to be picked up and this encourages that players play fast and play hard.

But there are some key differences that change the loop and make it more of an RPG. Skills are unlocked via leveling instead of completing challenges. Weapon modifications like silencers and grips can be purchased via coins hidden around the environment. Nazis also have health bars floating above their heads, which almost seems like it was added to accommodate the game’s increased RPG focus.

Wolfenstein has always had unique progression and these new methods will have to prove themselves in the full game. The bevy of options is alluring and dwarfs what the prior installments had, but it may come at the cost of originality as these seem like standard ways to upgrade your character. Not bad, but standard.

While the gunplay framework is initially recognizable, it begins to differentiate itself as you dive more in. Sneaking through sections and silently dispatching Nazis before going loud still looks to be the primary method of initiating a fight, but that’s where it begins to change. Designing a game for one player allowed for MachineGames to specifically funnel Nazis into specific areas. It was a more curated experience because there was only one player to account for.

Adding in another person changes that dynamic since MachineGames can’t as easily pin down where each player will be. Enemies felt like they were a little more scattered as a result. Instead of constantly pushing forward as the Nazis spawned ahead of you, backtracking often felt necessary because of the stragglers that were left behind. Multiple players mean foes can be oddly paced out in a way that’s not as focused.

It’s unknown how this will play out in future levels too, given how Dishonored developer Arkane has contributed to project and helped make the subsequent stages a bit more open. This bigger approach is probably why MachineGames stated that doing everything in the game will take around 25 to 30 hours. Nonlinear, more open worlds have a chance to add something new to the series but it’s hard to infer that from the traditionally narrow beginning. But these introductory levels were less authored because of co-op and more open and it remains to be seen whether or not that trade-off will be worth it (if it ends up being a trade-off at all).

Wolfenstein Youngblood Preview | The sisters that slay together…

wolfenstein youngblood preview

Cooperative abilities, however, feel like less of a trade-off given their benefits. Players can resurrect each other if they’ve been downed. And they’ll want to do that since they share lives for each level. If you and your partner run through your handful of lives, you’ll have to restart the level. It sounds punishing but it’s a welcome way to ratchet up the tension and encourage that players play intelligently and work together. Wolfenstein is a difficult series and this lives system might be a faithful way to carry on that legacy.

Players can also perform certain actions to give each other buffs through gestures. These hand signals can boost both players’ health or armor and are one way to play up the co-op nature of the game. Because the Youngblood’s excuse for co-op, at this point, only feels like a narrative one.

Jes and Soph are charming as hell but the gameplay doesn’t seem to be as inherently built for cooperative play especially since the most co-op-focused actions seem to be relegated to opening doors and turning valves like every other co-op game. While Wolfenstein’s shooting is incredible enough to work in most situations, there doesn’t seem to be as convincing of a gameplay argument for the series to veer into this multiplayer territory.

But perhaps it doesn’t need to have a cooperative mechanical argument to justify its existence. The story was immediately engrossing and its narrative threads may indeed be adept enough to carry the game. Wolfenstein has always had exceptional gunplay anyway so even a less directed experience might not have a noticeable negative impact. And it could even eventually evolve into an experience that benefits from co-op. It’s hard to say. But it is easy to see how Wolfenstein Youngblood has the potential to tell yet another deep, engaging story in one of the best first-person shooter series around.