My first reaction to Wolfenstein: Youngblood was to be cautiously optimistic. Bethesda hasn’t done this game any favors, there hasn’t been a single piece of marketing for this title outside of its announcement trailer at last year’s E3, but I have always found Machine Games’ take on the venerable bigot-slaughtering shooter series to be both potent stress relief experiences as well as underappreciated exercises in breathing new life into tired and familiar ideas. In this case, the idea of a Wolfenstein spin-off starring two brand new protagonists as part of a co-op action experience sounded like a novel enough idea, especially for a game charging itself half the price of a normal big-budget release.
But a lot of my optimism very quickly evaporated within my first hour of play. Despite there being a lot of charm and care put into this game, Wolfenstein: Youngblood makes some pretty insulting decisions with how it treats progression and level structure that actively strangled the fun right out of the whole thing.
BJ’s Our Daddy
Set in 1980, some time after the events of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, the series’ main hero BJ Blazkowicz has finally settled down in the recently liberated Texas with his wife Anya and has been raising his twin daughters in relative quiet. But after receiving an urgent message deep within Nazi-occupied Paris, Blazkowicz vanishes. So, being their father’s daughters, Jess and Sophia get a hold of some weapons, allies, and a helicopter and jump right into the fray, seeking out the French Resistance to help them fight back against the oppressive regime while discovering what happened to dear old daddy.
If there’s a shining light in Wolfenstein: Youngblood’s writing, it is undoubtedly Jess and Sophia. While BJ managed to bring some actual exhaustion and understandable grit with his inner monologue and haunted commentary, the Terror Twins are a much more lighthearted bunch. A mixture of adorkable inside jokes and jabs at one another, a brazen punk rock attitude in the face of danger, and an understandable young naivete tempered by constant military training by their parents. In many ways, Jess and Sophia are a perfect fit for a game leaning really hard on the trashy 1980s action movie aesthetic, which gives the whole experience a nasty, pulpy energy. This is made very clear in a cutscene very early on when the twins kill their very first Nazi and Jess cheers at her first headshot, then vomits in revulsion of killing another human being, then goes right back to cheering because that first kill was a Nazi and screw those guys.
It’s this character chemistry that helps buoy Wolfenstein: Youngblood’s otherwise bog standard story. None of the support characters stand out compared to the colorful cast of past installments, and aside from a twist near the end, all of the beats in the major narrative are predictable.
Lock and Load
Naturally, the gunplay is solid, if uninspired. Each weapon has a solid punch to it, and the contextual knife and axe melee kills all have weightiness to them, even if some of them are recycled from past games. However, despite the change in time period, there isn’t a lot of creative or exotic new weapons on offer like in past installments, it’s mostly just bread and butter fare like shotguns, rifles and SMGs. There is a weapon upgrade system where you can slowly improve things that does add some fun to proceedings, but it only hides so much.
In fact, there is more of an RPG influence running throughout all of Wolfenstein: Youngblood. When you first start the game, you choose which of the Blazkowicz sisters to play as, they’re completely interchangeable so just go for whoever, then you pick a collection of starting perks and powers then you are sent off. You gain levels as you play, which lets you unlock additional perks such as having extra armor, being able to insta-kill certain soldiers from behind, or wielding giant guns.
Finally, it must be noted that the game’s drop-in/out co-op is handled pretty well. At any point throughout your playthrough, you can have another player join your game as the other sister. Whether it be a total rando or an online friend is entirely up to you and your privacy settings. You can also freely join in other people’s games as well with any and all progression carrying over. Furthermore, if you spring for the forty-dollar Deluxe Edition of the game, you have access to a Buddy Pass, where you can invite a friend to play the entire game with you start to finish even if they don’t own a copy themselves. The only trade-offs being you can invite as many friends as you want but only one at a time, and said buddy doesn’t get to keep anything unless they buy the game properly.
Unfortunately, Wolfenstein: Youngblood starts to fall apart when it comes to integrating these features into a coherent rewarding experience. Since anyone can join the experience at anytime, the level design becomes this interchangeable haze of walled-off streets and warehouse interiors. The opening chapter where you’re on a zeppelin is a notable exception, but one of very few. Despite an open-ended hub area where you can tackle story missions in any order, a lot of areas are full of high-level enemies, which amounts to them being nothing more than giant health sponges that can down you in one or two good shots. Which means you are forced to grind out side activities and other missions to brute force your way past these hurdles since there is no other way to get past them. Side missions that amount to very rote and basic actions like “go rescue these people” or “go here and push and button.” It’s also bizarre that despite Arkane Studios (the guys behind Dishonored and Prey) being credited as helping Machines Games develop this, the level and encounter designs emphasize direct combat over stealth or utilizing the environment. This is disappointing since it squanders the utility an RPG and perk system can bring to an action game. As it stands right now, there’s a lot of numbers going up that only makes the game less tedious to play rather than more fun.
But the silver bullet that really soured me while playing is that despite this game being released at a budget price of thirty dollars, Bethesda thought it was a good idea to implement microtransactions and live service features. In addition to having experience points and a collectible in-game currency of silver coins used for the aforementioned weapon upgrades, Wolfenstein: Youngblood also has gold bars, a premium currency that can only be purchased with real-world money. It is used to buy an absurd amount of cosmetic helmets and armor skins for the characters (there are about thirty by my own count) as well as alternate looks for your weapons. So in addition to there being an online co-op component, there’s an element of social pressure to look cool and to get the other guy to pony up some extra money as well so they don’t look as basic. Insidious but sadly standardized by the likes of Fortnite.
There are also signs that there were plans to introduce more aggressive monetization such as consumables and experience boosters to make things less repetitive and awful, but none of them have fully gone live. While there are far more aggressive examples out there that make this look tame by comparison, the fact that the publisher put this into a budget title is just in really bad taste. And the sneaking suspicion it was done to disguise or distract from the barebones level design and sporadic difficulty spikes is even worse.
Taken in complete isolation, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a mediocre spin-off. Like an old school 2000s shooter expansion pack, it experiments with some new ideas, leading to a mixed experience as a whole. But when that very experimentation is leveraged into some manipulative monetization tactics that only draws attention to the inherent flaws in the design, it results in a compromised product that I have difficulty recommending. If you’re a major fan of this new iteration of Wolfenstein and just want ten more hours of fighting the Nazi regime, and are sick of revisiting the other games, this will do just that. just wait for a sale, severely lower your expectations, and keep your credit cards locked away.