Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review: Spinning Off in the Wrong Direction

Cracking, crushing, and collapsing Nazis is an American pastime that never gets old. And like the games before it, Wolfenstein: Youngblood has lots of Nazi heads to roll, but beyond this satisfying wholesale slaughter, it’s lacking in virtually every other department and feels glaringly out of place among its predecessors. The perfect balance between frenetic bloodletting and meticulous stealth and the marriage of facetious tone and touching personal moments that define modern Wolfenstein is either sullied with inconsistent writing or drowned in a bunch of superfluous and thoughtless additive content. At times, Youngblood hardly felt like a Wolfenstein game, but a shell of the experience stuffed with an amalgamation of design choices and systems that not only felt gratuitous, but poorly implemented.

Youngblood is set 19 years after the wild events of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. Nazi-killing machine, BJ Blazkowicz, is missing in action following a mission in Nazi-controlled Paris. Luckily, there's more Blazkowicz in the world, such as Jess and Soph, BJ's twin daughters who have been passed down the secret knowledge of how to murder an army of Nazis, Nazi dogs, and robot Nazis in the blink of an eye. While Soph and Jess undoubtedly have innate talents and have learned from the best, they are still a bit wet behind the ears like anyone their age, which MachineGames plays into quite a bit at first. That said, whether they're ready or not, the twins set out to track down their father.

After hijacking an FBI plane with one of their girlfriends, the twins set up shop in the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris. And it's here where all missions and activities funnel through. As you knock down Nazis and knock out missions, your progression and feats are awarded with experience, money, and skill points to level up your characters until they more resemble their battle-hardened father and less the girls they were at the beginning of the game.

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(Photo: Bethesda)

One of Youngblood's biggest issues is that while Jess and Soph have Blazkowicz in their name, they don't have any of the stamp or significance their father does. MachineGames does little to establish the characters, let alone impart why they have an entire spin-off game. The setup is a bit too commodious, and in a world full of already established and well-realized characters, it's odd MachineGames decided to force two new characters into the forefront of the series. And unfortunately for Soph and Jess, their voice acting and a lot of the writing around them doesn't do them any favors. I can still hear the deadpan, "hell, yeah dude," in my head as I write this. It actually haunts me.

The New Colossus was punctuated with zany and sometimes downright absurd moments that it mostly landed with little to no wobble. But when Youngblood tries to replicate this, it not only wobbles, but rolls an ankle, slams to the ground, and rolls around in agony. The writing is too often lubberly for a game with the name "Wolfenstein" on it, and the wacky character moments feel contrived. By the end of the game, I just wanted BJ back. Soph and Jess felt out of place as they hysterically celebrated and threw up over a dead body or danced in elevators doing their best country cousin impression. It feels like MachineGames was trying too hard in some scenes to replicate what people praised The New Colossus for. They once again rolled the dice and made a leap of faith, but this time they miss and fall somewhere between gawky and obnoxious.

While Youngblood's cutscenes had me praying Terror Billy would burst into the room and mistake my PS4 as a Nazi robot, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay was engaging enough to fuel me through the game. Wolfenstein has some of the best gunplay around, and unlike The New Colossus, Youngblood isn't held back with sub-par level design. In fact, there's a nice bit of verticality to the levels, which is surely the result of Arkane getting their hands on at least some part of the game.

However, Youngblood does make some tweaks here and there that dampen the enjoyment of what is otherwise one of my favorite hobbies: tomahawking Nazis in the feet. If you aren't Hitman-ing your way through each section, then the name of the game is still mowing down enemies as they rush and flank you with varied units. This gameplay loop is still very satisfying, but it's undercut with the addition of health bars that cheapen the thrills, and erode some of the game's spontaneity down to something that's not only more monotonous, but sluggish thanks to spongy enemies, additional armor types complicating the situation, and more design changes that are bewildering with how haphazardly they are added on to what was previously some of the best gunplay you'd find from a first-person shooter.

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(Photo: Bethesda)

Unfortunately, that's not the only thing bogging down the experience. Youngblood also introduces some sweeping RPG mechanics into the game that feel tacked on for the sake of being additive, without worrying about how they are complimentary. For example, enemies now have levels. Lower-level baddies feel like LARPers with how easily they die, while enemies above your level absorb more bullets than you sometimes have to give them.

RPG mechanics have also been dumped onto the player. For every level, you not only earn a boost towards your attack, but points to spend on a skill tree that has different abilities. Problem is, most of the abilities are minimal in impact, while the cooler ones are gated behind leveling milestones that you'll need to work away doing side missions in order to hit. And here's where the problem gets worse: the side missions are boring and repetitive. Alas, all of this creates a grindy cycle that feels stripped straight out of a bad RPG that doesn't value your time.

The nail in the coffin of bad changes is the switch from a more linear experience to a pseudo-open world that is divided into different districts, somewhat reminiscent of a Metroidvania game. It's a change that would be inoffensive if it weren't also plagued by bad design. For example, the way enemies spawn feels pretty broken. If you clear out a group from a certain area, and then leave it, even for a little bit, the enemies respawn like you didn't just slaughter everything in sight two minutes ago. Meanwhile, if you dip into the side missions and fetch quests, which you will need to do to unlock those better abilities, you're going to see a lot of the same places over and over and over again.

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(Photo: Bethesda Softworks)

Thankfully, you can explore this world with a friend with online co-op. There's no split-screen co-op though, so only an online friend. And this is yet another disappointing shortcoming that's inflamed by netcode issues. That said, the only thing better than mercilessly slaying Nazis in over-the-top, power-fantasy style, is doing it with a friend. It accentuates the hurly-burly havoc, but it doesn't really add any extra layers to the game. It feels like a complete game with co-op built into it, not an entire game built around co-op.

Even bad games can be fun with friends, and Youngblood is considerably more fun thanks to its co-op. So much so that playing without a friend is noticeably worse, especially since the AI scripting is pretty rudimentary. And stealth isn't as great of an option as in previous games, thanks to the level design. So more often than not you're going in guns blazin' with a partner who barely passed Nazi Killing 101.

Like New Colossus, Youngblood is graphically competent, and slightly elevated by some original and imaginative art design that piggybacks on the games before it. The game never stops you dead in your tracks and forces you to stare in reverence though. In fact, a lot of it looks familiar, but in motion, when things go haywire, and you’re buckin’ and truckin’ your way through exploding Nazis, it looks impressive. While Youngblood comes up short in the design department, it mostly excels in the technical department, which includes excellent audio design that pairs with a safe soundtrack that pumps some atmosphere into the game, but never stands out over the 12-hour experience.

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(Photo: Bethesda)

Youngblood simply feels like a middle-of-the-road affair, slightly elevated by AAA resources and the bells and whistles that come along with big publisher money. But polish and some AAA makeup can't cover up bad design, a platitudinous villain, terrible checkpointing, AI malfunctions, netcode problems, narrative holes, UI stripped from a mobile game, mollified killing animations, a weak ending, plus all the problems outlined above. And the rotten cherry on top of all this is that this isn't just your random average first-person shooter; it's a Wolfenstein game.

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Rating: 2 out of 5

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. A PS4 retail code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.