B.J. Blazkowicz is the best Nazi killer video games have ever seen, striking fear in every digital Hitler-loving asshole in the world. But the resilient SS-slaying meat tank can’t make Nazis shake in their jackboots if he’s gone missing. WOLFENSTEIN YOUNGBLOOD is a new cooperative-focused, half-sequel that keeps the series in the family name but passes it down to his twin daughters, Sophia and Jessica. And while two Blazkowiczs can make the Nazi body count double, it doesn’t mean it’s twice as good.
It would be easy to assume that Youngblood would be, at worst, a rehash of its MachineGames forebearers à la The Old Blood. But its boldest choices and biggest problems stem from its inability to embrace what the prior Wolfenstein games did.
Wolfenstein Youngblood Review | Honorable intentions, dishonorable results
Youngblood is a wider game set in a more open world with multiple routes that are reminiscent of the Dishonored games. And it makes sense, given that Dishonored studio Arkane co-developed the title. Levels often have two routes that reward players for looking up for rooftop ledges or looking down for vents and secret doors. Arkane has a knack for creating paths that naturally fit in with their surroundings, making the process of discovering them rewarding as you have to actually look for them yourself.
Conceptually, this open approach is well done and liberating but it moves the game away from something it was already so great at. MachineGames’ trilogy of entries excelled in funneling the player down more linear structures and forcing them to kill quickly in order to survive. Only death awaited those with unscratched trigger fingers and this pacing combined with the extensive arsenal made these games genre standouts.
Opening up the world robs the game of that pacing as well as the omnipresence of two characters. Enemies can’t be focused into one area since it has to account for two people and instead feel randomly placed around the big arenas. Instead of constantly running forward, you’re running around as your co-op partner aggros enemies in different directions; a problem that is exacerbated how enemies pour in from every direction. Not funneling them towards a one, single player is also less compelling in a thematic sense since part of the Wolfenstein fantasy is feeling like the ultimate Nazi destroyer. That feeling is dampened a bit with another person and, while the shooting still controls well at a fundamental level, it trades that unique brand of excitement for something a hair more mundane.
There are also mechanical changes that make the joy of running and gunning less viable than it was in the past. Youngblood is more of an RPG as you can pick up currency to buy weapon augments, level up, and apply skill points in a more straightforward way than the past Wolfenstein games. Using skill points and customizing weapons allows for a decent sense of progression, even if the former jumps away from the active skill points of prior entries and the latter usually just boils down to increased ammo, higher overall damage, or more headshot damage. Neither are bad but are less inventive than the similar systems in the prior installment.
Wolfenstein Youngblood Review | (Un)like father, (un)like daughter
However, leveling up is where the RPG system becomes the most questionable as it allows the tedious parts of the genre to creep into a first-person shooter that they don’t belong in. Areas are soft-gated by Nazis that aren’t just tough in terms of firepower, but in their level. It means you may have the twitch skills to outgun a group of huge Aryan super soldiers but your comparatively lower numbers mean that won’t be a fair fight. Enemies, no matter their level, are also quite bullet spongey, which their constant on-screen health bars repeatedly remind you of.
Wolfenstein has had durable foes in the past but those could be felled quickly with accurate shots. Youngblood, in this regard, prioritizes arbitrary numbers over player skill in a way that is a huge step back for previously skill-based gunplay. The new ammo system also slows you down as certain types of ammo seemed aimed at giving you strategic options but are mainly just another tedious aspect to futz with in the heat of battle. Like having two players and spread out enemy placements, both are just more roadblocks that keep you from running and gunning since you often have to stop and continually dump rounds into a single soldier in order to move on and second guess what ammo type you have equipped.
Change isn’t inherently a negative but the game doesn’t replace those gutted aspects with better mechanics. Dual wielding is mostly absent and the game’s arsenal is almost a direct copy and paste from the previous game with only a small bit of adjustments that mostly manifest in the aforementioned bland upgrade parts. Double jumping gives players a new view of the battlefield and cloaking makes stealth a tad more forgiving but they’re incredibly basic features sitting on top of the same (and sometimes lesser) systems. They’re welcome systems to have in addition to — but not in place of — the mechanics MachineGames has taken out.
Wolfenstein Youngblood Review | Sisters: A Tale of Two Daughters
Co-op is most likely meant to smooth out these rough patches, despite the irony of it being the root cause of many of the title’s issues. And like many other games, it does in the mindless way that co-op usually does. Playing alongside a friend holds up because of the satisfaction of the game’s shooting and the adrenaline that combat can supply. Players can’t interact with each other much aside from giving health or armor boosting emotes and opening doors with one another. It’s as basic of a co-op experience as you can imagine.
Friendly AI is passable when you’re playing solo even if she will sometimes stand still and inhale an unhealthy amount of bullets and fail to run over to revive you. There’s no way to send her commands either, meaning that she meanders around the battlefield at her leisure, rarely helping or getting in the way. She’s just there to exist and occasionally suck up your limited lives resource — another questionable mechanic that solely exists to drag down the pace and make you replay long sections.
Both girls do drive the plot forward though, mainly due to their personality and rapport. Their journey to find B.J. has a few noteworthy twists and turns that play well within the confines of this game and the series as whole but the relationship between the twins is the most compelling aspect throughout. They’re a couple of dorky teenagers that crack stupid jokes to each other and that strikes a unique tone when compared to the rest of the series. This is epitomized in one of the earlier scenes where the two murder their first Nazi and celebrate while Sophia vomits all over the floor between cheers as a nearby cassette player blares some ’80s-ass ’80s music. It doesn’t always wildly shift in tones like that but it’s at its best when it does.
Wolfenstein Youngblood Review | Not even Nazis can stop floppy disks and synth pop
The rest of the game has MachineGames’ signature fantastic writing, performances, and cinematography, but there just isn’t enough of it. The story is pretty thin in the long stretches between cutscenes and makes sense with the game’s more open approach but it’s disappointing because of how skilled the storytellers at the Swedish studio are. It deserves more, despite its budget price.
But it does take place in an interesting world. 1980s nostalgia can be all too easy to tap into but it takes on a different life because it is showed through the lens of a Nazi-dominated world. VHS tapes, floppy disks, synthy pop music, old video games, and other retro symbols give us a connection to our world, but the Nazi perversion gives them a much-needed twist. It’s bizarre to see a Nazi version of Tetris, Friday the 13th, or advertisements for cardboard 3D glasses and those touches, when combined with the broad strokes, shows how skilled MachineGames is at creating a unique world.
As catchy as that music is, the game sadly has some major audio issues that frequently make the record skip. A mysterious, frequent bug would pop up and cause the audio in entire levels to randomly and sharply cut in and out at a rapid pace. Levels are quite long too, so this disruptive cacophony would often drag out for well over 30 minutes. Occasional glitches like this are tolerable but this happened so many times that it became a detriment to the whole experience as it was difficult to suss out enemy locations as well as story dialogue.
The game’s other missteps can’t be so easily chalked up to an unfortunate bug as Wolfenstein Youngblood is the Resident Evil 5 to Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus’ Resident Evil 4. The latter games are genre-defining classics while the former ones are a surface-level imitations that lack the nuance of their predecessors. Although you probably won’t notice the former’s flaws as much since co-op is the magical video game Band-Aid that doesn’t quite heal all wounds, but makes players less aware of them. Those problems are still there though, even if Youngblood appears to be infusing fresh blood into the series with its co-op, RPG systems, and more open levels. Intentions to do something different are appreciated, but the way these additions sabotage the previously pristine core mechanics will only make your blood boil instead.
GameRevolution reviewed Wolfenstein Youngblood on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.