Sometimes change is good! In the fad-obsessed world of video games, real change is certainly rare, but when it comes it can be nice. We wouldn’t have had the glorious collectathon years of several generations ago if Super Mario 64 hadn’t shaken things up, for instance, and for all the ragging I do on me-toos, I really can’t complain about the latest series of deckbuilding games inspired by Slay the Spire.
Sometimes, however, change doesn’t always work out so well. Sometimes the call for innovation and something “new” can trip up even the best intentions. We can see this in Wolfenstein: Youngblood, a cooperative-focused shooter from Bethesda with one foot in its famous namesake’s past and another awkwardly trying to find footing elsewhere. It’s not a pairing that always works, especially when there’s endless Nazis that need killing.
After killing off Hitler, having his head lopped off (and reattached) and helping the resistance live to fight another day in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, BJ Blaskowicz goes missing. It now falls to his twin daughters Sofia and Jessie (also last seen in W2, albeit in utero) to track down their beloved daddy before it’s too late. Rather than being a rollicking teen adventure, this amounts to blasting bunches of Nazis while wearing power armor and wielding ridiculous future-tech weapons. In the process, the Blaskowicz sisters will tear through a 1980s-set occupied Paris; no baguette will remain unshot.
Youngblood takes the enjoyable, kinetic gunplay from the post-reboot Wolfenstein games and almost does it a disservice by grafting an awkward set of additional systems and nonlinear missions to the mix. Enemies now have hard and soft armor that takes approximate damage from different weapons, for instance, which adds another layer of complexity to the process of choosing which gun to use. That’d be fine in a more tactical-based shooter, but in a crazy, action-fueled frenzy like Wolfenstein it just feels odd.
The game’s biggest addition, cooperative play, should have meant a lot of things that never quite manifest here. You’d almost expect that each sister would specialize in certain weapons or skills, or levels that didn’t seem conveniently designed for two exuberantly positive sisters to demolish their way through them. Regardless if you traipse through them with a buddy or using the game’s decent AI, the concept feels more like an undercooked annoyance.
More than that, though, it’s the progression system that often causes the biggest problems. Gone is the straightforward, brainless Nazi blasting of Wolfensteins past; Youngblood is all about the levels. Your character has a level, enemies have levels, weapons have stats and customizable levels… there’s numbers flying around everywhere in a series that didn’t really follow that formula before. Sometimes this can work – see Darksiders II for a great example where it did – but here, again, complexity is added where it doesn’t need to be.
Unmodded weapons are so weak as to be useless, while even basic abilities like dual-wielding weapons are now locked behind a skill tree and it’s possible to enter areas beyond your level and find yourself outmatched. BJ never ran into a Nazi he couldn’t kill – why does that happen to his dance-happy daughters?
Naturally, Bethesda’s more than willing to sell you currency for weapon upgrades via microtransactions, and while the game never feels especially grindy to the point where you’re forced to buy them, that’s still a bit distasteful. It’s especially strange given that Youngblood isn’t a very long game, a solid 20-hour experience or so. Would you really want to drop extra cash on something like that? Maybe the point is to customize your character to show off for your co-op partner, ala Fortnite or similar gimmicky shooters? The game’s influence is clearly all over the experience here, but who knows?
At least Youngblood looks nice and plays well. Naturally, these graphics are some of the best in class, a continuation of the silkiness we saw in Wolfenstein 2, where just about everything looks fantastic and runs like butter. The game’s engine is so impressive that it somehow even works on hardware like the Switch, a remarkable achievement by any estimate. The Wolfenstein charm is present and accounted for as well, largely staying away from the laying-it-on-too-thick that New Order ran into here and there.
This means the larger problems with Wolfenstein: Youngblood are mostly on the gameplay side of things, which were supposed to be its biggest innovations. That’s not to say it’s unplayable, or that the overall experience isn’t mostly enjoyable. But these “new” additions make playing more irritating than interesting, meaning hardcore Wolfenstein fans, ironically, might be the ones who have the most trouble enjoying the myriad of changes to the tried-and-true formula. Newcomers and co-op fans are likely to have a better time here, though we can only hope that Bethesda doesn’t take the wrong lessons from this decent, but slightly flawed, experiment.