The minute Wolfenstein: Youngblood boots to life, it’s off to a good start. The logos of Machine Games and Arkane Studios flash across the screen, a partnership that, on paper, is a match made in heaven. The former is comprised largely of the team that created the glorious and underrated Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The latter has spent the last few years reviving a brand of gameplay not seen since the halcyon days of System Shock.
And yet, this is the result? A buggy, messy, bombastic co-op shooter that feels like a stopgap before something bigger and better comes along? Why Youngblood exists in the first place is hard to explain, save for the obvious – it’ll make money. To add insult to injury, microtransactions are present — an inclusion that does not bode well.
While there’s ostensibly a story on offer, Youngblood is designed to let you roam carefully portioned sections of the map and blow chunks off as many Nazi soldiers as you can. It’s co-op mayhem, though it can be played solo, with a computer-controlled companion instead. You’re in the shoes of either Soph or Jes Blazkowicz, an insufferable duo who call BJ dad and who are searching for their father. Who you choose to play as will result in a minor loadout difference, but the difference is largely cosmetic, something the game acknowledges.
The Nazis are the bad guys, but a few hours in you’ll wish you could turn the gun on the heroines. Their asinine comments and grating camaraderie are a real bugbear, and the fact that they’re constantly exchanging high-fives and indulging in slapstick commentary in the face of so much evil is a misstep. When BJ anchored the story, there was a sense of pathos at work. Here, it’s as if a B-grade writer from Comedy Central has been drafted in to write the script.
That leaves the gameplay to do the heavy lifting. So what about it? Well, once you navigate an uninspired opening section, you’re taken to Neu-Paris, a quasi-open world environment that you navigate via fast travel points. Arkane’s worldbuilding is first-rate, and there are some signature flourishes on offer here. Nazi torture rooms are appropriately galling, and the world design stands tall at times. I particularly like the level of verticality on offer, something you can exploit by way of a double jump. What’s more, Machine Games’ rock-solid shooting mechanics never waver, and there’s primal satisfaction to be had unloading a shotgun shell into the belly of an oncoming soldier. If you like your bloodshed delivered in the most visceral way possible, Youngblood won’t disappoint.
It can also be a lot of fun to play with a co-op partner, and there are a few good hours to be had exploring the map with a friend, though this will need to be done online. I was disappointed to find no split-screen option available, meaning you can’t play with a buddy the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, after a few hours, the gameplay loop becomes wearisomely familiar. The beauty of the rebooted Wolfenstein games has been the way they’ve provided a reason for the bloodshed. Who can forget the surprise appearance of an ailing, demented Adolf Hitler in the latter stages of The New Colossus, or the way a ragtag group of resistance soldiers banded behind the irrepressible BJ throughout the lengthy campaign? In Youngblood, there’s no propulsive narrative arc to keep you engaged.
That’s a crying shame, because both Arkane and Machine Games have excelled at creating perfectly paced story-driven experiences in the past. Here, things are thrown against the wall and made to stick. Youngblood champions the more, more, more approach to game design, yet it’s a looter shooter without in the way of good loot; an action-RPG with the onus on grinding levels to take on stronger enemies because… well, just because. There are too few dimensions in play, and that’s exacerbated by the fact that Youngblood doesn’t do stealth well. The entire series has struggled with it, in fact, but with two players this time around, there are more opportunities to be spotted. Worse, you’re penalized every time you are, with commanders calling in enemy reinforcements to make life harder. What gives?
Another design misstep comes in the way the game tries to teach you how to play. Tutorials are found in laptops positioned around the world, but they’re perfectly easy to miss, and it’s possible to sink several hours into the game without having access to an incredibly important piece of information. For a game about shooting baddies in the face, there’s a lot to parse, another symptom of the bloated approach to game design.
Finally, bugs have been widely reported by other outlets, and I’ve had my own issues. Incredibly, despite wielding a brand-new DualShock 4, I kept encountering problems with movement and control. On one occasion, the camera wouldn’t stop floating upwards, making it impossible to aim. On another, my movement was hampered, which meant that I couldn’t walk forward without coming to a temporary standstill, despite pushing the analog stick all the way up. Oddly enough, switching back to an old, grubby controller solved some of these issues.
Put these problems together, and Youngblood is difficult to recommend at full price. Yes, the shooting mechanics are rock solid, but even the most unassuming game needs something more. It’s all mindless, forgettable action. Without a good story to justify the mayhem, Youngblood feels devoid of ideas, built on a tragedy that deserves more respect, more emotional heft. In the end, it’s missing BJ’s humanity – and that’s a surprise. I was greatly looking forward to playing as his twin daughters, but it turns out that a musclebound meathead is the savior the series really needs.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Bethesda Softworks.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood feels like a non-essential addition to the franchise, and a game that is sorely missing the humanity of BJ Blazkowicz.