Killing Nazis never goes out of style, and now you can gun them and their alternate history-inspired mechanical contraptions down with a buddy
Despite only having two numbered entries, the modern Wolfenstein series now has its fourth entry with Youngblood, the first co-op game in Wolfenstein's history which utilizes Wolfenstein II's engine.
For a crash course in the franchise's history, Swedish developer MachineGames was founded in 2009 and soon found itself tasked with creating a reboot of the beloved Wolfenstein series. Wolfenstein began life as a top-down shooter/stealth game in the 80's before Wolfenstein 3D and its sequels became massive hits in the 90's as hardcore first-person shooters. After several less-than stellar outings in the 2000's had gamers write off the series entirely, The New Order shocked the gaming world when its gameplay was revealed and announced the return of Wolfenstein in style.
Upon release in 2014, Wolfenstein: The New Order impressed fans and critics alike and quickly became one of the best shooters of its time - buttery smooth and fast-paced gunplay, excellent stealth mechanics, a vintage looting style, and well-designed environments with tons of secret passages and collectables to find made the reboot instantly one of the top modern single-player shooters. It was the perfect blend of old-school violent action with new-school mechanics and design improvements.
Surprisingly, it was the game's narrative that really made waves, with impressive character progression from the normally generic hero of previous games alongside a strong supporting cast and a well-written villain, the heinous General "Deathshead". The story impeccably balanced over-the-top action and one-liners with thoughtful, emotional moments that really took players on an emotional roller coaster throughout.
Spoiler warning for the first three Wolfenstein titles ahead. You've been warned.
Set in the 1960's in an alternate version of world history which had the Nazis win the second World War, the game put players in control of American BJ Blazkowicz, who begins the game stuck in a vegetative state at a mental asylum. In 1946 Special Ops Captain Blazkowicz took part in an allied raid of General Deathshead's fortress only to be captured and tortured by the evil General before finally escaping, suffering a debilitating head injury in the process.
Fourteen years later while he was being taken care of by a nurse named Anya in an asylum in Poland, the Nazis ordered the closing of said asylum, slaughtering its patients and Anya's family in the process. The trauma snapped BJ out of his passive state and he rescued Anya from the Nazis, fleeing the scene to link up with Europe's underground resistance forces and re-learn his Nazi-killing skills. The game then featured various campaigns against the Nazis in Europe (even an assault on their lunar base!) and sported multiple endings depending on choices the player made through the campaign - all of them however ended with BJ Blazkowicz on death's door, sacrificing himself to take out Deathshead and his fortress.
Just over 6 months later a standalone expansion was released using the same game engine titled Wolfenstein: The Old Blood that served as a prequel to the spectacular reboot.
Although it offered almost nothing new in terms of gameplay besides a new score-based extra game mode, The Old Blood delivered another great (albeit much more predictable) story and explored many battles in the leadup to BJ's final mission in WWII, with the game ending right before BJ's fateful assault on Deathshead's compound in 1946.
Fast forward to 2017 and The New Order's first full-fledged sequel was released, titled Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.
It was quickly revealed that instead of dying at the end of The New Order in 1960, Blazkowicz was actually retrieved by a friendly helicopter before the nuke that destroyed Deathshead's compound detonated, and after extensive surgery he was in fact alive and well.
When he awoke 5 months after the events of the first game, he learned that his love interest Anya was pregnant with twins (that will be important later). The resistance was now based in a captured Nazi U-boat and was attempting to liberate America from the Nazi occupation. The U-boat promptly came under siege by Wolfenstein II's lead villain, Nazi Commander Frau Engel (a psychotic middle-aged woman Blazkowicz disfigured in the events of The New Order), who was as sadistic as she was ugly.
The campaign saw Blazkowicz and his resistance forces striking back at Nazi strongholds, only for Blazkowicz to be captured and executed publicly by Engel herself, his head cut off on a live television broadcast in a pretty shocking scene.
Fortunately for BJ, his friends had a plan, and secretly nabbed his head as it fell hundreds of feet from the top of the spire he was executed on. They quickly took BJ's severed head and surgically grafted it onto a bio-engineered Nazi super-soldier body. Now if you're thinking that Wolfenstein's alternate history is a bit silly, you're completely right, but I'll be damned if it ain't a good time.
BJ then hilariously impersonated himself in an audition to play BJ Blazkowicz in a Nazi propaganda film, only to gain access to an aged (and seriously ill) Hitler and the codes to Engel's airship's automated defense systems. The final mission sees BJ return the favour and execute Engel on live TV, sparking a revolution in America to rise up against the Nazi regime.
The New Colossus cemented itself as one of the best shooters in gaming with its streamlined customization and exhilarating combat, its whacky yet excellently written story filled with memorable characters, and its amazing level design chock-full of bombastic set-pieces. It was nominated for plenty of awards including game of the year and set the bar even higher for the overperforming Wolfenstein series.
Enter the renewed franchise's latest standalone release, Wolfenstein Youngblood.
Set some 20 years after Wolfenstein II, America and other parts of the world have been liberated from Nazi occupation after Hitler's demise at the hands of one BJ Blazkowicz, though much of Europe is still under Nazi rule. BJ and Anya settled down in the states and raised their twin daughters to be fierce combatants in case the need to defend themselves ever arose, and that's where the game begins, showing an aged Blazkowicz and Anya mentoring their young offspring Jessica and Sophia in the American countryside.
Suddenly in 1980 BJ disappears without a trace, with Anya suspecting he went overseas to help the European resistance. Jessica and Sophia, with the help of their friend Abby (Grace Walker's daughter; Grace was a supporting character in the previous entries) discover a hidden room in their house which reveals that BJ went to Neu-Paris in Nazi-occupied France to link up with the resistance there.
As any daughters of BJ Blazkowicz would do, the twins and their computer whiz friend steal an FBI helicopter and a pair of powered armour suits and set off for Neu-Paris to find BJ and bring him home, knowing the FBI wouldn't dare follow them into Nazi territory. After hooking up with the underground resistance in the Catacombs - a series of underground tunnels which feature plenty of human skeletons and serves as the game's hub - Jessica and Sophia begin their adventure by helping the resistance take down Nazi targets and learn that BJ was looking for a secret Nazi facility called Lab X.
After a classic Wolfenstein level on a massive Nazi blimp which inevitably ends up running aground after the twins take down a Nazi general, Youngblood opens up into what the majority of the campaign consists of - the Twins gain access to three large areas through the metro system, each consisting of a major objective. Taking out each of the three "Brother" towers which are located in those areas is essential as each contains a keycard required for accessing Lab X.
Players are able to tackle the missions in whatever order they choose, and there are plenty of side missions handed out by resistance members to complete in different areas of the three levels, which can be accessed at any time. It's a solid semi-open world premise, though the three main areas all look visually near-identical to past areas in the games and don't sport a ton of visual variety.
Although it might not have many new additions in the visual department, the world of Wolfenstein is as beautiful as ever and as always looks amazing in motion. The 60 fps framerate (in 4K on the One X and PS4 Pro) is rock steady and the bombastic action looks gorgeous on the slightly updated Wolfenstein II engine.
The combat and weaponry is lifted right out of Wolfenstein II - guns still feel just as good as ever, and an expanded customization suite allows different attachment options rather than the linear leveling up found in the last title. Weapon mastery levels grant you bonus damage with a particular weapon as you get more kills with it. Weapon attachments (as well as cosmetic skins for both your character and weapons) are all purchased with silver coins which are found throughout the world and from fallen enemies, and you accrue them at a steady clip. Unfortunately other than some modifications all of the weaponry is copied from the earlier games - a few new guns to play with would have been nice.
The tiered abilities for your power suit such as temporary invisibility, a charging smash, extra health and armour, dual-wielding, and more are all tied in to ability points which you get from leveling up (you earn one point per level). In this aspect the game seems extremely stingy, as leveling up (especially as you get to higher ranks) takes a decent amount of time and earning just a single point per level, particularly when some abilities can cost 3-6 ability points to unlock, is grinding. Some missions offer ability points as a reward for completion as well, but even with this the points simply aren't near frequent enough.
Unlike Wolfenstein II which had a steady progression system, Youngblood hampers itself by locking away abilities we're used to from previous games behind too many ability points, meaning you likely won't get the same range of abilities in this offshoot as you did in Wolfenstein II until very late in the game or on a second playthrough. Dual-wielding is disappointingly only available for the pistol and machine pistol, unlike prior games which allowed dual wielding of assault rifles, shotguns, et all. This is seemingly to differentiate the twins from their more physically imposing father, but considering they're wearing power armour which enhances their strength, it seems like an odd restriction.
The only ability not lifted from its predecessor is the God Key - a powerful enhancement to your power armour which manifests in your left hand (which counts as dual wielding, therefore you can only use it with either the pistol or machine pistol as your primary weapon) and can catch bullets thrown your way. Serving as both a protective barrier and a potent offensive weapon, you can launch the caught projectiles back at your enemy in a concentrated burst (very similar to a certain Titan ability in Titanfall). You can also use it to blast open doors and catch incoming grenades, making it an awesome new addition to your arsenal. Unfortunately you only unlock the God Key very late in the story.
Another change from previous games are the health bars displayed above your opponent's heads. For a visceral shooter like Wolfenstein it's a bit jarring at first to see big red health bars over your enemies, though it also adds a new gameplay element alongside it; certain enemies have armour which is only susceptible to a certain weapon type indicated by either white bars or squares next to their health, making weapon switching on the fly vital to take down tougher enemies. It's a neat mechanic even if it makes the environment a little less immersive.
As for the level design, MachineGames has once again crammed their levels full of hidden passages, secret items, and locked doors (which can be opened by the Crush ability, one of the kraftwerk weapons such as the electricity firing Electrokraftwerk or the remote explosive Dieselkraftwerk, or by the afforementioned God Key, all depending on the type of door). There are tons of collectibles to find, from coded lockboxes which require a 4-digit code found on floppy disks scattered in the world, to 3D glasses which unlock a 3D character model to view in the menu, to tape cassettes featuring vintage music, to traditional readables and audio recordings which offer more backstory (and can often be quite funny).
The difference in Youngblood from past titles is that the levels are designed for co-op play - some doors and objectives require two switches or handles to be pressed at once to activate or open, enemies are plentiful and can be overwhelming even for two players, and ammo/shields can become scarce with two human players vying for the same pickups.
There are some changes in gameplay to coincide with the co-operative approach - you can tag a single opponent for your ally or for your AI to focus on (unlike previous games that let you tag enemies to keep track of them, this game shows them on your mini-map when you get close to them instead), you can revive your partner should they be downed, and each player has an equipped perk to help both players during combat.
Perks range from adding a set amount of health or shields to reviving your partner from afar when they get downed; you start with a perk that either gives a small amount of health or armour depending on which sister you're playing as, and can unlock new and better perks by spending silver coins. Perks can be used quite regularly as they recharge in about a minute, and you can see which perk your partner has equipped (or you can assign one to an AI partner) so you can coordinate to gain an advantage.
Dubbed the "Terror Twins" by the Nazis, there's really no difference in choosing to play as either Jessica or Sophia. Each starts out with a different weapon and perk at the beginning of the game, but you'll quickly find the other weapon in the game world and can unlock the perk you missed quite early as well, so there's really nothing unique to either character.
Online play for the most part is easily joined and fun, but throughout playing in many sessions lag was noticeable, particularly when a chaotic amount of enemies and explosions were on-screen at once. Whether this is a case of bad net code or me simply not finding games with players in my region was hard to tell, but if you don't have someone in mind to play with you might prefer to go it alone rather than risk spotty connections with random players.
Thankfully you can choose to play the game solo with an AI partner for the entirety of the campaign. The artificial intelligence is largely competent here, helping out in firefights and rarely being downed themselves (usually only if you aren't close by while in a firefight), and will come and pick you up when needed. Tagging an enemy to focus on is useful when a high-level opponent is near, and for the most part having the AI partner doesn't detract from the experience at all.
The biggest problem with the co-op aspect is the difficulty - on normal or especially harder difficulties it can become increasingly frustrating to attempt solo. You and your partner have a pool of lives to share (up to three can be stored at once, and are found in special crates throughout the world) and when you or your partner, be they AI or human, are downed, you have a limited time to revive each other before you consume one of those shared lives in order to get up. While it's not overly time consuming to revive a partner, if you both go down you will lose at least one of those shared lives.
Boss fights in particular can be frustrating, as once you run out of shared lives, if one of you dies again you are sent back to the beginning of the current level. You don't lose your XP or any items you've already collected in the level, but you do have to go through the entire thing again just to get back to the fight you were killed in. It's a punishing mechanic and really pushes players away from higher difficulties because of it, especially if you're playing by yourself.
Most confusingly, even when playing solo, you cannot pause the game - it continues in the background. This is a surprising problem especially given the series' single-player roots; having to find a safe area to hide in just to pause the game or even modify your gear is baffling, especially considering how often it's a complaint in other games that have this problem. Even if pausing the game world would be difficult to code since co-op is so heavily focused on, MachineGames should at least make the character a ghost when in the menus so they don't take damage or anything - it really isn't a difficult problem to fix.
The levels themselves, while well-designed, are visually very similar to what players have seen before. The three separate areas, which you spend the majority of the game in, are even quite similar to each other, let alone to prior Wolfenstein games.
Side missions are added throughout the game by speaking to allies in the Catacombs (which you can fast travel to at any time when out of combat) but all take place in different parts of the areas where the main missions take place, so if you intend on playing all of the content available you're going to be retreading the same paths regularly.
Each area also has an underground component, which can be accessed through manhole covers and place players in the dark sewers under Neu-Paris. A flashlight is required to see in most of the area, restricting players' options to using a handheld flashlight (thus only being able to have a pistol or machine pistol equipped alongside it) or one of the weapons that has an available flashlight upgrade. While it is a bit of a change of pace, it doesn't offer much in terms of variety as each underground location is essentially the same with an altered layout.
This comes full circle with the grinding nature of the game's upgrade systems. Even after completing the game and almost all available side missions, I still had many ability upgrades to go. Along with the weapon mastery levels which can take a lot of in-game kills depending on the weapon (they really should make kills tiered, so that killing a more difficult enemy counts for more than one kill, as it seems silly killing a boss counts for the exact same amount of points as a lowly foot soldier), it's clear the developers want players to keep coming back and replay segments in co-op, but with so much of the enivironments appearing similar and not a lot of incentive given to players to do so, they've largely failed on that front.
Like most games nowadays, Youngblood also has daily and weekly challenges in the Catacombs that players can accept, each giving an XP and/or a silver coin reward for completion. Again there isn't a whole lot of incentive to keep grinding up your character once you've completed the story, but if the game's core mechanics really hooked you playing through it again might be worth it to you.
Besides weapon customization there are also cosmetic options to unlock (by silver coins or by spending real money) in the form of weapon skins, different melee weapons (besides the usual hatchet or knife, you can unlock a wrench, switchblade, and more), and different coloured power armour and styles of helmet. As a first-person shooter, the armour and helmets don't make much sense to spend time on unlocking, given that only your co-op partner will see it and there aren't many options to choose from anyway.
It's apparent the publisher wants to get in on the microtransaction potential of modern gaming but they really don't offer anything substantial in that sense. Luckily none of the weapon upgrades or abilities are purchasable with real money - the grinding upgrade system is thus just poor design rather than a malicious attempt to strongarm players into spending more money.
Completing the title will take you anywhere from 10 to 25+ hours depending on how you play and if you want to complete all of the side missions and find the collectables. Upon completion of the Nazi-slaying journey, one can't help but feel disappointed at what could have been though.
The two new playable protagonists (and their computer-toting sidekick Abby) aren't nearly as charismatic as the series' hero BJ Blazkowicz, and they don't deliver the same tongue-in-cheek cheesy bravado that gave the series its lighthearted tone. The story also never reached anywhere close to the emotional highs and lows of prior entries, instead feeling like a casual stroll through familiar territory throughout. Even the game's villain, General Lothar, is largely forgettable, a far cry from the excellently written and vile antagonists the series has seen before with the likes of General Deathshead, Frau Engel, and Hitler himself.
The gameplay is as fun as it ever has been, but it's unfortunately hampered by a grinding upgrade system and repetitive environments. The co-op elements can be good fun when played with a friend, but overall don't seem to add much to the experience.
Wolfenstein Youngblood fulfills its promise of delivering more great Wolfenstein action and allowing you to bring a friend along for the ride. Though it's hampered by a stingy upgrade system and some grinding aspects as well as repetitive locales if you've played prior entries, the gameplay loop is as addicting as ever and it's a fun time while it lasts. Just don't expect quite the same quality of the mainline entries - it is a budget-priced release after all.
+Superb shooting and moment-to-moment gameplay
+Tons of collectables and secret areas to discover in every location with the series' stellar level design in tact
+Interesting story (at times)
+Solid weapon customization improvements and the new God Key ability
+A variety of enemy types and Nazis to kill
-Difficulty when facing large number of enemies or bosses even on lower difficulty levels
-Getting sent back to the beginning of a level when out of lives is too punishing
-Visually familiar and the levels in the game don't offer much variety
-Forgettable villain, attempts at humour fall flat and doesn't create an emotional connection or moments like prior games
-Grinding ability upgrades
-Little replay value
The Final Score: 7.5 / 10