Machine Games have joined up with Arkane Studios under Bethesda’s umbrella to continue the alternate history story that they began in 2014 with Wolfenstein: The New Order. This time though the 1960’s era has definitively been dumped and we’re propelled forward into Nazi occupied Paris in the 1980’s. That’s not the only change either, B. J. Blazkowicz is nowhere to be found, literally, and his twin daughters are on the hunt for him. The game also promises to have non-linear routes through the semi-open levels. It’s these new characters and settings that are the titular Youngblood and mark arguably the biggest change in the way the series has been played out since its inception in 1981. Is the shift in protagonists enough to stop the series becoming another routine shooter, and can the changes to the level structure inject a fresh perspective?
With B. J. heading to Paris to help the resistance fight against the occupation, he leaves his wife and twin girls, Jessica and Sophie, at home in Texas. When it all goes radio silent and the FBI turn up to tell the family that he’s missing, Jess and Soph take it upon themselves to steal a helicopter and head off the French capital in search of their father. With some help from Abby who can fly the chopper and handle the tech, they manage to make contact with the underground leader Juju and start helping clean up the Nazi presence. As they pick their way through the city and the soldiers on the streets, they start to uncover a more sinister plot running underneath the German regime that’s going to take all of them working together to stop. They’ve also got awesome power armour… sweet.
As the player you pick which one of the pair you want to play as upfront, then select various bits of the power armour and a special ability. In single player you’ll be accompanied by an AI companion through the adventure, though it’s possible to play the whole thing through in drop in/drop out co-op. The opening mission eases you back into the world of Wolfenstein by having the duo running around a fairly cramped Zeppelin to take down a rogue general, but critically it gives the opportunity to get used to the new mechanics before letting you loose around the city sections. Mainly its the co-op play that’s important – knowing where your partner is, using the pep’s that act as the special abilities, and keeping each other alive with the shared life system. There’s an introduction to the weapon system too where ammo types are suited to particular enemies, creating a more tactical challenge for Youngblood than in previous games.
The core of the last few titles has been the visceral combat coupled with the outrageous elements of the story, and that remains unchanged in Wolfenstein: Youngblood. B. J.’s daughters might not be as battle hardened, yet they make up for it with enthusiasm and surfer talk, though this does change some of the simple pleasures from the past. Dual-wielding is restricted to smaller weapons, and it takes some time before the heavy weapons dropped by the tougher enemies can be picked up, but the twins are definitely more agile and can take a decent amount of punishment. If either of them gets in trouble a quick pep signal can boost health or armour, or if they’re down then it’s a matter of calling for help or heading to your partner depending on who’s in trouble. Of course, practice in Third Reich killing makes perfect and the twins level up over time which makes them more deadly and gives access to the skill tree.
Building Jess and Soph’s skills is only half the upgrade system though, firearms can be levelled and beefed up too. The more they’re used the more powerful they get, and they can be augmented with new parts to make them more to your preferred playstyle. Because they can be changed at any time by spending some of the coins collected it’s easy enough to experiment with the loadouts and find out what works best. There’s a multifunction feel to some of them too, like the heavy machine gun that doubles as a sniper rifle with the right setup. The approach seems a little daunting at first with a huge amount of choice, but once you get your head around just going for the elements that fit the current mission it becomes pretty flexible, especially as the enemy soldiers level up their difficulty alongside the twins development. Enhanced guns are need for the lengthy boss fights too as it doesn’t hold back in the late game in ramping the challenge with no real warning. However, the choices do open up more options for dealing with combat in the free roam sections and in the dark sewers that link the major objectives.
The main areas of Paris are the bits that Arkane has had the most influence over, there’s a distinct feel of Dunwall in the level design, even though the assets are clearly French. There are four sectors, each containing a major piece of infrastructure that needs taking down, and how you get from the district’s Metro station to the objective is up to you. There’s a mix of stealthy and balls out action approaches depending how bold you’re feeling and whether you can spy out all the routes, and optional objectives pop up at random giving a nice amount of variability to each time you visit. With a tonne of collectables to go after and farming needed to rank up yourself and the weapons, there’s plenty of reasons to spend time exploring and solving the mild co-op puzzles dotted around; though upgrading is best done in the hub area as the action doesn’t pause in the menus.
The French resistance is hiding out in the catacombs under the city and is a safe space to run through levelling options and get hold of side missions from the others fighting for liberation. Abby is holed up here and provides a number of bonus daily and weekly objectives that offer up extra XP, cash and upgrade tokens. It’s also the place that’s safest to run through the significant amount of text and audio found in the world that fleshes out the story and what’s been happening since the last game. With caches to max out ammo, health and armour it’s handy to visit as often as possible, and as long as you’re not in combat you can fast travel back at the touch of a button. An alternate take on the classic Wolfenstein games is back again in an arcade cabinet in the rec room too, so it’s possible to spend all your time playing the old skool shooter instead of the modern variant.
The thing that I’ve held off talking about is what should be one of the biggest selling points of Youngblood – the co-op mode. It’s clearly built for it, yet manages to be a bit impenetrable when lower and higher ranked players are matched together. It seems to balance the effectiveness of the team between the ranks by reducing damage to the enemies and increasing the punishment to Jess and Soph, which spikes the difficulty. It’s not great for newcomers and I’ve ended up starting a game from scratch to make it bearable to play. It does come together after a couple of hours and when both players get near a similar rank, but getting to that stage can be an exercise in frustration and you can find sections that are a breeze with the AI are suddenly rock solid. My tip: start from scratch with a friend, it’s free for them to join if you’ve got the buddy pass and they’ve downloaded the trial… they just won’t earn any trophies.
We’re big fans of Wolfenstein here, and Youngblood is a great addition to the series that moves it in a new direction whilst still keeping what makes it stand out from the crowd. The promise of a smooth co-op experience is marred a bit by the choice of how to manage different levelled characters, though it can be decent fun when you push past it. What raises it up is that there’s a good 12 – 15 hour game here if you’re determined to see everything it has to offer, and it’s at a budget price. It’s almost as if Machine Games are using it to test out new ideas and these work really well. This is a must buy for fans with very little that that gets in the way of just enjoying the feeling of freeing the world from the grip of evil.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch for around £30 depending on platform and store.