As I was entering my 14th hour with Wolfenstein: Youngblood, I went back to the catacombs, which serve as the hub of the game, to finish up on a couple of side quests that I had just done in Brother 2 (the second of three raid maps that serve as main missions). I concluded the missions, ready to turn off the game, when I was alerted to another side quest also taking place in Brother 2; I sighed in disappointment and turned off the game. I wanted to start with this statement, because regardless of what I want to discuss after my time with the game, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a massive disappointment and hopefully not a representation of what the future of Wolfenstein entails; as the title of this piece suggests, I want to take a look at what this spin-off title brings to the franchise, but also how it immediately ruins it by doing something equally bad.
For those who don’t know, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a co-op focused, live-service spin-off of the modern Wolfenstein titles; it takes place in 1980, where the twin daughters of BJ Blazkowicz go to Nazi-occupied Paris in search of their father whose trail goes cold after he reached out to the local resistance. While there, the sisters will help Paris get rid of their Nazi captors and hopefully track down their father in the process. Fans of the modern Wolfenstein games will have surmised that the excellent world building, writing, and narrative work that we have loved from previous games may not carry over in a co-op focused, live-service game; that would be a correct assumption to make and where a lot of my disappointment stems from. While there’s a new chronology with new audiovisual possibilities, new protagonists, new setting, and a possible new narrative, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is one of the most dullest looking games of 2019; it’s not a question of fidelity, or a lack of style, but as a series fan I’ve seen all the models and their animations, I’ve seen these maps before (and having to go back to them on a regular basis doesn’t help), most of the enemies are the same with little to none visual changes. It would be disappointing from any creator to see this lack of attempt when it comes to the world and the aesthetic of their games, but coming from the creators of one of the most fascinating modern franchises is a real letdown. Having said that, this is still a Wolfenstein game and it looks really nice in the same way The New Colossus did back in 2017, so while you are getting the same looking game set 20 years apart the previous iteration, it still holds up surprisingly well.
This practice of Youngblood doing something that is positive and a step in the right direction, only to immediately follow it with something that undoes all the good momentum they have built up is, unfortunately, something you can see in every part of the game. Take for example the combat mechanics: While The New Colossus was infamous for how unpleasant it was to play, it was only in comparison to the excellence of everything else in that game. In reality, it required a few adjustments and Youngblood certainly delivered on that front; I can now tell from where I’m getting shot at and how close am I to dying. Furthermore, Youngblood adds a new, intriguing mechanic in regards to armor: Enemies now have 2 distinct sets of armor that can be incredibly resilient when not damaged by a weapon that corresponds to that armor (basically shoot armor type A with damage type A). I found this to be an interesting way to force me to use the entirety of my arsenal and make tougher enemies feel like a challenge rather than a bullet sponge. However, Youngblood also added health bars, enemy levels, and a lot bigger enemies with added quantity as well, which makes most firefights visually busy and hectic situations that don’t allow for much strategic thinking or time to look at armor type and find the corresponding weapon in your sizeable arsenal and armor only applies to certain enemies so for the most part it’s not a consideration, thus it is easily forgotten. This ends up making enemies feel like bullet sponges and fights feeling less like ‘exciting, on the edge of death’ confrontations and more like overtly-long and kind of dull affairs that don’t hold much excitement past the first few times.
I could go on for hours on every good decision having its merit immediately countered by an equally poor decision, but I’ll just restrain myself and talk about the two big ones: Live-service co-op and story. I’ll start with the story because there’s not a lot I can say without spoiling the game and also because there’s not a lot there to begin with; one of the most integral parts and the universally agreed upon thing that made modern Wolfenstein have such a cult following, is only 10% of Youngblood (and that’s being generous). Most of it is filler and poorly executed, the characters are woefully written and annoying (good thing is that they managed to have zero character traits, so if they are re-used then they can do pretty much whatever with them still), and the narrative is pointless filler apart from three points, two of which are pretty huge spoilers, so I’ll vaguely cover them. The big “twist” of the game is very poorly executed and more confusing and contriving than anything else, but it leads up to a very exciting potential route for the franchise, which made me very excited by the possibility; also, a big revelation is made early on (and throughout the game), about our exploits as BJ in Wolfenstein 3 (which takes place before Youngblood), which makes me incredibly happy and aching in anticipation for that game.
Now to address the elephant in the room; Wolfenstein is known for being a linear, single player game with the modern iterations also having focusing heavily on narrative elements, but Youngblood is a non-linear, co-op focused live-service spin off, which is the complete opposite of what fans loved about the series. Surprisingly though, that’s not what makes this game such a disappointment; don’t get me wrong, it is a part of why this game is such a letdown, but I was expecting it to be the main reason, not just a part of it. The live-service aspects in particular are egregious and lead to the unnecessary grind that bogs the mid-game down; you will want to do a lot of daily/weekly missions and all of the side quests, so you can get experience points, ability points, and silver coins, so you can buy the upgrades, cosmetics, and abilities. Problem is that everything you can upgrade or buy is not worth the grind; they just make the game more tolerable and most should have been available from the beginning. Furthermore, most of them are stat upgrades, which are the lamest kind of upgrade to grind for. However, in a normal Wolfenstein game with more than 6 levels and a proper story, this could be a good enough reason for players to go back and find all the collectibles or go for certain achievements etc. Likewise, co-op is mostly poorly implemented in the game; playing with another human is annoying because there are so many distractions in any given level, it’s impossible not to annoy the other person (i.e. searching for collectibles or breaking stealth), but playing with the AI is boring because they break stealth for you, do little or no damage, but at least they are a reliable way to be revived if you go down. However, the idea of having two sisters with each one having a distinct personality and playstyle (you chose your starting weapon and ability alongside the sister you prefer when starting the game), and having to work together with your co-op buddy to get through the level is actually kind of interesting (but, since this can be played alone, you can just get both abilities and starting weapons within minutes). Furthermore, the new levels (courtesy of Arkane studios, makers of the Dishonored series) provide multiple routes, shortcuts, and verticality that makes the encounters, the combat skirmishes, and exploration feel fresh and freeing.
So, do all of these points make Youngblood a bad game? No, but they make it an incredibly disappointing and frustrating one. Just like the game taking a step forward and then a step back, I started my time with Youngblood excited by the changes, hopeful for what’s to come, but ended it with a frown and a sigh. I hope the developers don’t abandon all the ideas from Youngblood, but take the time to develop them and re-use them later on; I hope they keep working on it, to make it a better game and worthy of the Wolfenstein name; most of all, I hope that Youngblood is an experiment, a way to blow off steam and try new ideas, and hopefully when Wolfenstein 3 comes, it is something very different. What disappoints me the most, is the fact that I paid 40 euros to be a playtester to what is clearly a prototype; a very polished, very pretty, proof of concept, where most of the details and most of the work required to make an excellent game is simply missing.