Reviews

Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review – A Passable Offshoot

The official artwork for Wolfenstein: Youngblood from Bethesda, Machine Games and Arkane.

I really love the idea behind games like Wolfenstein: Youngblood. Cheaper, smaller offshoots of the main series that let the developers play around with some ideas without having to create something quite so vast. Taken in that context, though, reviewing this smaller projects can be difficult because just how much should they be compared to their main series counterparts? Wolfenstein: Youngblood, after all, does do a lot different: new lead characters, co-op gameplay, RPG mechanics and a second developer in the form of Arkane, the folk responsible for Dishonored. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s jump into it.

The Terror Twins

Taking centre stage are the Terror Twins Jess and Soph, the daughters of B.J. Blazkowicz and his wife Anya. They’re teenagers raised to kill Nazis by a father who, and let’s be honest here, is a tad on the crazy side. The first time the twins kill a Nazi soldier they become giddy and excited, then one of them throws up and laughs again while the other picks brains out of their hair. They revel in slaughtering Nazis, perhaps more so than their own dad. They’re also goof balls who mess about in elevators, refer to themselves as Arthur and Kenneth after their favourite book series and are frequently immature.

Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Machine Games, Arkane
Publisher: Bethesda

The plot kicks off when B.J. mysteriously vanishes. Jess and Soph decide to go find their dear old dad with help from their best friend Abby, the handy-dandy tech geek whose personality and relevance to the story could best be described as exceptionally non-existent.

The Terror Twins also represent the game’s single biggest problem, at least for the majority of people, it seems. Their brash, almost like the quintessential bro-dudes of gaming from years ago, acting like the long-lost siblings of Marcus Fenix and Dom. Their antics can be annoying, and they have no real development over the course of the story. But I liked them in a strange way, and that’s because I think they are supposed to be annoying and weird and dude-broish. The reason, of course, is that they were raised to kill Nazis and their enthusiasm for doing that is…kind of worrying.

Here’s how I view it: the twins still have basic teenager traits, from their less than subtle humour to their antics in elevators. Mixed with that, though, is a terrifying bloodlust. They were trained from birth to kill people and they are good at it. Just as good as their dad, it seems. In other words, I feel the over-the-top tone is quite deliberate and that the twins aren’t meant to be likeable in the traditional sense. In a way we’re supposed to feel sorry for them because they’re already so caught up in blood and death that they’ve clearly never had a chance to have a childhood or grow up normally. They lack social skills because that’s just not something they had the opportunity to build up.

There are two big problems with my little theory, though: either I’m correct about the twins portrayal being deliberately more worrying than likeable, in which case the writers failed horribly to get this across because most people just find the twins annoying, or I’m completely wrong and they are indeed just crap characters. Neither of those possibilities is a good one. Either way the writers failed in their job, and the Terror Twins are a pale shadow of their own father.

But knocking these deeper debates to the side, the twins just don’t have much personality. Though they may look different they both have largely the same character, and their sole drive is that daddy taught ’em how to kill Nazis and now daddy is missing, so they’re going to go kill the Nazis. It’s not compelling stuff and by the end of the game they haven’t changed, grown or developed.

Outside of the twins the rest of the characters are forgettable and dull. Likewise, the story, which revolves around the fact that one day B.J. goes mysteriously missing, is half-hearted nonsense that only occasionally pops up to get in the way before disappearing again. Indeed, there’s arguably a better storyline going on in the collectibles.

What’s frustrating is just how much cool potential there was for Jess and Soph to be compelling and interesting people, had the game ever taken the time to raise some of the obvious questions. What’s it like being raised under Nazi occupation as the daughters of the most famous Nazi killer ever? Should they follow in the bloody footsteps of their father? At the very start of the game we see Jess hunting a goat under the watchful eye of her father. So focused on the target she is that she doesn’t see the snake about to bite her, and is saved by B.J. at the last second who teaches her a valuable lesson; don’t become so focused on one thing that you forget about everything else around you. As for Soph, she’s training with her mother on a punching bag and wants to stop because she’s tired, but her mother pushes her on, telling her that all it takes is one Nazi. These set up potentially interesting character flaws and beats for the sisters to overcome later, but they don’t. In fact, in the story’s big twist it becomes almost comically stupid.

And finally, the constant use of “dude” and “bro” is downright fucking annoying.

But The Shooting Is Still Good

Alright, so the twins aren’t going to be winning any awards, but the good news is that the core Nazi-shooting gameplay still feels mighty fine, albeit with a few questionable tweaks that stop it from being as refined as the previous two games in the franchise.

The magic is in the guns which feel chunky, powerful and awesome to use. Each pull of trigger feels freaking great, although now it takes considerably more firepower to put down the Nazi soldiers who are determined to introduce your face to the wonders of fast-travelling metal. You see, somewhere between the events of the last game and this one the Nazis have discovered health bars and an armour system, both of which make killing them to death much harder.

Let me explain this new armour thingy because along with health bars it’s one of the two things that Youngblood gets wrong with its core combat. Basically many of the Nazi soldiers ambling around come packing hard amour or soft armour, as denoted by a small white rectangle or a slightly different small white rectangle. If you don’t use the correct weapon against the right armour then you can still kill the Nazi bastards but it’s going to take a lot more bullets.

Presumably the system is designed to make you swap weapons and use the entire arsenal at your disposal. I suppose on paper it’s not a bad idea but in practice it’s awkward, breaks the flow of the otherwise smooth combat and stops you from using the guns you actually want to be using.

The level design is where you can feel the influence of Arkane the most. While certainly not as impressive or layered as those found in the Dishonored series, Youngblood’s levels tend to have some nice verticality to them so that your double jump feels awesome to use. This brings some extra energy to the combat that I appreciated, though I wish the enemy A.I. could have made more use of it, too. Everything feels nice, fast and fluid, and so while Youngblood doesn’t manage to match its own predecessor it’s still good fun in its own right.

As for the stealth, it’s still featured but its inclusion feels almost like an afterthought. In the previous games killing Commanders would stop reinforcements from arriving, so sneaking around until you could kill them was often a good plan. Here, though, killing a Commander simply decreases the amount of high level reinforcements that will come tumbling in, which doesn’t feel anywhere near as satisfying a reward. Plus, the enemy layouts make pure stealth almost useless – more often than not it all ends in a hail of bullets.

There’s An RPG In My Wolfenstein

The biggest gameplay change to have occurred is that somehow seems to have got confused and accidentally put some RPG into my Wolfenstein. Enemies now sport little numbers next to them that indicated their relative level, while others will have a skull. At the game’s launch these bastards were nigh on unkillable, but along the way updates have made it so that it’s possible to tackle skull enemies and still walk away with your limbs intact.

Killing Nazis grants you experience which in turn levels you up, and for each level you dish out more raw damage. That would be wonderful if it wasn’t for the fact that enemies level up with you anyway, so no matter how many levels you gain everything feels the same. There’s no sense of true progression, even when you head back to previous areas.

You’ll also be given points to invest in improving your character, but somebody in the development team forgot that levelling up is supposed to be an exciting prospect. There are a few skills you can buy and upgrade but they boil down to improving health, making your charge attack a bit better and making your throwing weapons more dangerous. The only two that felt truly fun and game-changing to get was the ability to pick up heavy weapons and store them in your inventory, where they could then be upgraded. The second lets you turn invisible, which feels more like a crutch for the weak stealth elements.

Considering this is a Wolfenstein game you might expect to be gathering up Nazi gold, but instead the levels are sprinkled with silver coins that can be hoovered up. You can then spend these coins to upgrade your weapons, each one having several pieces that can be swapped out for one of three parts which alter the stats. Now this little piece of RPG goodness is one I actually liked. It’s kind of cool to tweak your weapons to your liking, and there’s a small selection of skins that you can apply, too. There’s even extra bonuses to be earned if you decide to match up part manafacturers.

Overall, these attempts to introduce RPG elements into the mix don’t really work. A whole redesign would be needed rather than attempting to stuff them into the current Wolfenstein template. I’m not actually opposed to that, but it needs to be done right. I mean, why let players choose between the sisters at the start of the game if they both have the same skills anyway? Why not let us build wholly different characters?

A Whole New Structure

The previous two games were purely linear shooters featuring bespoke levels for every mission. It was a glorious return to hand-designed missions and controlled pacing. For Youngblood, though, there’s a new structure in place with Paris being divided into small sections that act like little hubs. Whenever you head out on a story mission or one of the basic side-missions you’ll jump into one of these sectors and head for the objective. As a result you retread the same ground over and over, with the enemy groups having respawned and somehow not become suspicious of the fact that you always come storming through the same area. At some point you’d think they would realise that you keep coming out of the metro and would at least board it up or something.

The problem is that these little hubs just aren’t very interesting, so coming back to them is hardly exciting. Arkane’s influence is something I mentioned earlier and it can be felt in the general layouts, but while the Dishonored franchise gave you a wealth of tools to play with around the environment Wolfenstein: Youngblood does not. The sectors of Paris remain the same every time you come back with nothing new or exciting to explore. Even enemy locations are mostly the same.

A small attempt at making revisiting parts of Paris was made by including doors which can only be opened using certain guns, almost a very light Metroidvania element. It’s inclusion, though, feels so incredibly half-hearted because your reward for slogging back through a level after trying to remember where the hell these doors were is a few coins, some armour and ammo. There’s no cool secrets, new routes or potentially awesome new weapons to unlock behind these doors. Nothing of worth whatsoever.

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus had a main hub that you returned to and it was not a feature which was appreciated, for the most part. It’s surprising to see the exact same idea employed in Wolfenstein: Youngblood. To get new missions you need to head back to the Catacombs that act as the Terror Twin’s base of operations, and oh boy, is it boring. There’s nothing in it. The characters that stand around in the catacombs exist to hand out some missions, there’s nothing to do and there’s no reason for the place to exist.

Microtransactions

It’s hard to escape microtransactions these days, and Bethesda seem more than happy to sneak some into their games. By paying real money you can purchase weapon and armour skins, including some they aren’t available via any other means.

You can also pick up boosters that increase the rate at which you pick up ammo, health or gain experience.

The good news is that there’s nothing pushing you toward these microtransactions. Health, ammo and experience are all easy things to come by and the few skins that can only be picked up using real money are really not worth it. Indeed, most of the weapon and power suit skins aren’t worth a glance, let alone spending coins on.

Co-op

The big selling point of Wolfenstein: Youngblood is the co-op, or at least it should be. But they really dropped the ball here by crafting the most basic, bog-standard co-op they possibly could. The extent of the co-op gameplay is picking up your downed sister or both of you having to use a lever at the same time. You might, at the very least, expect enemies that have weakpoints to be exploited by one player acting as a decoy, but Youngblood doesn’t even have that.

I’ve said before that any co-op that is fun simply because you’re playing with a friend is not co-op worth having. Pretty much anything is more fun if a friend is along for the ride, including torture, casual murder and trying to break into the Queen’s Palace. A good co-op game builds its mechanics around having someone else there. Just look at Portal 2. But Wolfenstein: Youngblood effectively feels like two people playing singleplayer together. That sense of co-operation is never there.

I’m also pretty baffled by the fact that a game supposedly build around multiplayer does not support local co-op. WHAT!?

With that said, leaping around and gunning down Nazis together is enjoyable, so if all you want is a run and gun shooter to enjoy with a mate then this might just do the job for you.

Oh, and I do have to mention the buddy pass system! Basically if you buy a copy of the game you can then have a friend play in co-op with you for free by downloading the demo version of the game. Obviously they can’t play solo or with other people, but it’s still a great idea that I’d love to see in other games.

Black Boxes of Doom!

I have to say that on PC Wolfenstein: Youngblood looks amazing at times with plenty of detail, lovely art design and smooth performance. With my Ryzen 1600 CPU and GTX 1080 I was able to get over 100fps with everything turned up, and no major drops or anything of that sort. That’s great considering the combat is fast and fluid.

I also have to say that there’s plenty of graphical options to play around with so that you can nail the right settings.

And for the most part it was a bug-free experience, with one major exception that is so damn major it could hold the rank of major in the bloody army. You see, occasionally and for no apparent reason giant black boxes will appear on the screen and obscure your vision. I can’t find what triggers these floating boxes of non-colour, but they seriously do fuck everything up. At one point I spent most of a boss battle unable to see because every time I looked at the giant robot Nazi thing trying to stomp my face into the ground I would just wind up looking at a massive black box. Lots of people seem to have this issue, and it’s a fucking nightmare. It needs to be fixed ASAP.

The Wrap Up

Wolfenstein: Youngblood has gotten kind of brutally demolished by the gaming community, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair: a lot of folk have treated it like it’s Wolfenstein 3, which it isn’t. It’s a budget spin-off game trying some new stuff, and can’t really be held up to the same standards as the previous two main entries in the franchise. That isn’t to say that Wolfenstein: Youngblood isn’t deserving of criticism; it’s certainly a game with big issues, an experiment that doesn’t fully work. The Terror Twins themselves are the prime example of this having failed to connect with the majority of players.

But I don’t think it’s a complete failure. The core combat, even with the changes that don’t work, is still a lot of fun and blasting Nazis with a friend is pretty cool. Therefore, even though it’s already a budget game this is one I think is worth picking up on sale.

2.5 out of 5

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