The recent Wolfenstein games excelled as much as they did because they harkened back to the classic old-school FPS philosophy. Fast, frantic and exceptionally satisfying. They blended the old-school FPS trappings with some modern gaming storytelling and framing to create this balls-to-the-wall Nazi killing extravaganza within a purely single-player package. The series quickly became one of my favourites, as Nazi killing and fast gunplay are really high up on my list of things that are awesome.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is the furthest thing from old-school. It’s the quintessential modern video gaming experience. But in becoming that, it lost its soul along the way.
We take control of the legendary B.J. Blazkowicz’s twin daughters Zofia and Jessie, two southern girls with a knack for killing just like their daddy. The central conceit of the game is that Daddy Blazkowicz has vanished without a trace or a word uttered and they manage to track him to Nazi-occupied 1980s Paris where a local resistance also needs their help to overthrow their Nazi overlords.
The dynamic between the two sisters is probably the highlight of the game. The two are goofy, nerdy and they do all the dumb things that siblings do to each other. Both of them have some of that southern charm from their dad’s side of the family and you’ll fall in love with them extremely quickly. During elevator rides, they do synchronised dance moves and try to prank each other which is always so adorable. It’s just a shame that the game has a grand total of three cutscenes since the story is really not the focus they went for.
The tragic thing is that the story that is there is extremely good. The character interactions are wonderful between the sisters and their allies including Abby, Grace’s daughter from Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, as well as the Blazkowitz family and their charmingly violent dysfunctionality. Instead, you get thrown into Paris and you’re tasked to destroy three major hallmarks. That is all you need to do and nothing story-related happens between these excursions.
It was such a far cry from the recent Wolfenstein games where you couldn’t shake a shotgun without falling into a fast-paced cutscene that gives life to these incredibly unique and bombastic characters. I want to give the benefit of the doubt that crafting a fully-fledged story for this relatively small-scale game wouldn’t really have worked, but I can’t shake the feeling of disappointment that there wasn’t more. I really loved these two goofballs and they weren’t given the limelight they deserved.
I did, however, love the 80s aesthetic. The synths, the awesome visuals and the nostalgia-inducing collectables were a treat to experience and they did a good job of capturing that neo-80s feel that I am a huge fan of.
Nein, nein, nein, nein!
If we can’t have the story, at least we have the Nazi killing, right? Yes, but with quite a few caveats and bulging asterisks. The first thing you’ll notice about your new Nazi enemies is that they now have health bars. These health bars are often guarded by one of two types of protection that can only be penetrated by certain guns in your arsenal. Initially, that sounds like an interesting idea, trying to weave a little strategic killing in with the flagrant killing. But no, all this just turns the Nazis into bullet sponges.
A very apt comparison can be made with games like The Division, Anthem or Destiny. Nazis now have levels associated with them and a lot of the special units take about 10 clips and some special sauce to get down. This then turns the game almost into a looter shooter which just absolutely baffled me to the moon. This is a Wolfenstein game. I want to kill Nazis as fast as I can with as much force as I can and in this game I found myself crouching behind a barrier and headshotting one strong Nazi about 50 times before he finally went down.
I really loved these two goofballs.
This made the experience feel immensely slow which is a cardinal sin for a “classic” FPS franchise. Instead of feeling like a Nazi killing badass, I felt like I was doing a raid in some dungeon like some nerd because I have to use special guns to take out protection shields on almost every enemy I see. [Ed: Your “raiding nerd” boss would like to have a word…] To illustrate how ridiculous it gets, I used a throwing knife for a lot of my kills because they usually one-tapped an armoured Nazi and it would have taken longer to shoot them with a triple-barreled shotgun. All this extra stuff introduced so much fluff to the combat experience and it takes quite a while to get used to it before you really feel at home and starting to feel those badass vibes again.
Since Arkane were along for the ride during the development of this game, we got to see a little of their signature flavour added to the game. What that means is that we have RPG mechanics now. You level up and get points you can spend in skills and your level does make a difference since some enemies can just be too powerful for you to take on and your guns will do nothing. The skill trees available cover might, mind and powers with 16 upgrades in each.
The RPG mechanics weren’t entirely unwelcome and I found myself enjoying the progression to unlocking my final form and becoming the resident Nazi death dealer. Some of these skills make some real gameplay differences and expand your toolset to murder Nazis quite significantly.
Weapons can be individually upgraded using a currency you can only find in the game world and can’t be purchased with real money at all. Each weapon has multiple slots that you can upgrade and each of those slots offers something different. It’s mainly split between three styles namely accuracy, fire rate and raw damage. This part of the game I did not mind at all since it gave you some variation in your killing arsenal and you can cater your weapons to how you play. I am a very accuracy-focused FPS player and all the guns had accommodations for that and I could ramp up the damage on my short-ranged weapons to give them some oomph when I need to get close and personal.
I found myself having a lot of fun, despite the game trying to slash at my heels all the time.
Let’s not forget the whole sister dynamic. You get things called Peps which are little buffs you can give to your sister such as increased damage or health recovery which can be really useful in a clutch situation. You also have shared lives which means if one of you goes down and bleeds out, you lose a shared life. When all lives are lost, you start over at a checkpoint. It’s a rather fair and well-designed co-op system that plays a bit with the twin sister dynamic as well.
When you’re playing solo, an AI sister will follow you around and be at your level in terms of skills and weapon levels. However, she’s a little braindead and only really does some potshots and is only really useful for when you go down and need to be revived. This is obviously where the co-op gameplay comes in, but I only got to experience it with randoms because when I tried to do the co-op with someone on the team, it refused to work and we were stranded. The little I did experience was a fun co-op time, but I really needed someone I knew and could talk to really experience it and a bug prevented that.
Viva la open-world gameplay
Wolfenstein: Youngblood has a very strange structure to how it plays out. You have your hub in the Paris Catacombs (which is awesome by the way) and the city of Paris has three main districts that you can head to. Each of these districts is like a gigantic level that you can explore and do side-missions in while collecting stuff as you go. The three Brothers, immense buildings serving some purpose to the Reich, are your main objectives and each of them is in their own district. Once you destroy the Brother in that district, you’re done.
These levels are where I need to give a lot of props to the designers. They’re intricate, beautifully detailed and you can spend hours exploring around looking at stuff and trying to find collectables if you’re so inclined. The Brothers are also each massively impressive in their designs with unique features in all of them which makes the battle through them quite the memorable affair. However, this system gave me some very heavy games-as-a-service feelings.
Doing menial stuff for XP, not being able to access some areas because enemies are too strong, slow progression and repeated returns to the same district. It felt like one of the games from earlier in how it tried to “addict” me into spending as much time with the game as I can even if it means that I’ll be doing the same thing over and over again.
Excuse me, this is Wolfenstein. If I wanted to do the same thing over and over again for little XP gains, I’d go play an MMO. I’m here to murder Nazis and make a damn good display of it. It’s like the game actively fights against itself.
Tell me about it, sister
The game really frustrated me at the start of it with its various weird “modern” design elements and features. I didn’t care about currency collecting or doing dime-a-dozen side-quests. However, once I unlocked a bunch of skills and got into the flow of the game a bit more, I found myself having a lot of fun, despite the game trying to slash at my heels all the time.
The special weapon barriers, the bullet sponge Nazis and the looter shooter mechanics started becoming familiar and I could tap into that pure rush of euphoria as you murder Nazis, the objectively worst people in the world. However, I really wished this didn’t only happen in the last third of the game.
I tried to love Wolfenstein: Youngblood as much as I could and in the end, I sort of did. But the missed opportunities, the baffling combat systems and the diversion from the core philosophy of the franchise made this a rather frustrating Nazi killing extravaganza. While it has a lot of points of redemption and some sisterly charm, I can’t help but think some corruption happened somewhere here. The game does have microtransactions, but mostly they’re for gaudy outfits and skins that don’t do anything. But the fact that they’re in a Wolfenstein game tells us that some of the soul was taken out of this to make way for modern sensibilities. For a franchise as old-school as Wolfenstein, I don’t think this was the best fit. Hopefully the sequel will give me what I craved since this was just an appetiser that someone shoved their bratwurst into.