When I first heard the talents of Arkane Studios and Machine Gun Games were collaborating on a Wolfenstein game, it set the hairs on the back of my neck on-end.
The potential is ridiculous, almost unimaginable, and sets an extremely exciting precedent for the future of any Bethesda franchise.
But while Wolfenstein: Youngblood doesn’t completely fulfill my lofty expectations, it absolutely shows off some of the best of both studios, and delivers one of the most entertaining co-operative games in recent memory as a result.
Basically, you’ve got a game that has the quality combat Machine Gun Games is renowned for, in a universe full of lore and creativity, but the Arkane influence of stealth, clever level design, and stunning, imaginative environments. With the encouraged rooftop acrobatics and vast expansive rooms strewn with mess and lavish royalties, there’s a distinct Dishonored’ness about the place but done in a way that feels completely and utterly appropriate in the Wolfenstein world. It’s quite marvellous.
But if that doesn’t sell it to you, then perhaps the best way to describe Youngblood is a traditional Wolfenstein game that’s been meshed with a Destiny or Division. You level up, earn experience points to spend on a variety of powerups and new abilities, and can collect silver coins to upgrade your weapons – from rate of fire to damage dealt.
It’s different but good different.
And at the heart of it are two charismatic leads – the children of B.J Blazkowicz – Sophie and Jess. These two women boost one another’s morale with ‘devil horns’ and thumbs up. They praise each other during battle, shouting ‘Keep it up, sis’ and ‘You got this, dude’ – They are the very definition of picking each other up when the other is down and therefore look, act and feel like a team.
Sure, they like to banter and rib each other about the state of their bedrooms or the trouble they used to get up to as kids. But just as much joy as they get shooting, punching, burning, eviscerating and eradicating Nazis – almost as much as we get from watching it – we also get to see them bond and grow in their quest to reunite with their dad.
Even though this is absolutely, 100% a Wolfenstein game, complete with Panzerhunds and armored super soldiers scurrying out of every crack and crevice, there’s a really different vibe here. A refreshing one that is definitely best enjoyed with company.
Because, to be honest, Youngblood doesn’t quite match up to its new-age predecessors as a solo experience. The AI is a little bit hit and miss – though certainly not as bad as I’ve seen in other games – and the game often feels like you’re retreading your steps and going around in circles.
Your partner will sometimes forget you’re down and stare into space, seemingly glitched into the ground. Sometimes they’ll get a bit too gung-ho and distance themselves from you – which doesn’t help when they go down and you have to run into the lion’s den to save them. And sometimes they sit back and do nothing at all. But for the most part, your AI companion is a useful ally that can be the difference between life and death.
Repetition can also rear its head at times, running through the same areas, tearing through the same mobs – only slightly tougher than before – and samey objectives. The game does this on purpose, providing daily and weekly challenges, as well as varying side-objectives to help raise your level. But it’s definitely worth moving between different areas and mixing up between the main and side objectives to stop yourself getting bored.
Something else that’s a bit unfortunate is that the sisters don’t have individual abilities of their own and the differences are mostly just cosmetic, save for starting the game with different guns. It would have been cool to explore some puzzle possibilities, giving Soph and Jess’ a specialty in certain situations.
Maybe Jess could have been the designated hacker, which then leaves Sophie to fend off enemy attacks while her sister scrambles to figure out a code. Perhaps Sophie could be more gifted with strength and might need to lift up doors or push aside rubble while Jess leaves traps for oncoming attackers.
It would just add another dimension to the gameplay which, for the most part, is run and gun. And that’s absolutely fine – because, duh, Wolfenstein – and still very entertaining, but perhaps could have been taken up a notch.
That said, there is a tactical layer to the game in the way weapons are used. Some weapons will be a lot weaker against certain enemy types, like the bullets of an auto rifle will bounce off the solid metal cladding of a big bad, so a shotgun will naturally serve you better in piercing its outer shell.
And then, once the nut is cracked, you can spray ammunition from whatever blaster you choose. You’ll be able to tell by looking at the enemies health as its shield is represented by white bars on the bar. You’ll always need to keep paying attention as not all enemies will go down the same way, and more often than not, they will catch you out by steamrollering towards you or backpedalling out of range. And if not with their tactics, then almost certainly their durability.
I’m a fan of the game’s Buddy Pass concept, too. In principle, it could be the future of co-op with one of you buying a game, the other downloading a free trial and getting invited to get the full experience, albeit with no trophies or achievements. It’s a cool concept that other companies could certainly learn from. The next big hurdle, of course, is doing that cross-platform. Probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but we can dream, right?
It might even open the door up for a four-player Wolfenstein Co-Op next. I mean, why not get Zofia involved and have the Blazkowicz family team up to shoot fuck out of Nazis? I would absolutely be down for that. Not least because I definitely want to see Sophie and Jess again. I feel like they have plenty more stories of their own to tell.
Though, to be honest, it is a real shame this isn’t splitscreen co-op. For me, the experience of being sat next to your partner and talking through strategies there and then on the fly just doesn’t get old. Bethesda have absolutely gone further than most and must be commended for trying something different with the Buddy Pass. It’s just that, with Xbox going as far as three-player splitscreen for Gears 5, I can’t help feeling this was a slightly missed opportunity.
All that said, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, when played co-operatively – whether that’s with a random stranger seamlessly joining your game or a friend being invited – comes alive like no other Wolfenstein game before it. A Co-operative Wolfenstein adventure is an ambitious experiment but one, I feel, pays off. It reminds me a lot of the first couple of Army of Two games – not that third one, eesh. The nature of shared lives, meaning you’ll always have to pay attention to your partner, and the way you break down enemies, one of you on shield duty and the other on health, does necessitate communication and a constant need to pay attention to what’s happening.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a smartly designed, well polished, and – most importantly – an entertaining shooter that you can play online with your friend with only one copy of the game. It’s more than just your average spin-off and Buddy Pass works just great. In fact, it might just be a landmark moment for the industry as we transition to a bigger, bolder, new generation.
We know how much Bethesda like to trial and tinker with new things. Wolfenstein: Youngblood is definitely one of their better experiments.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is out now on Xbox, PS4 and Switch
Review code kindly provided by Bethesda
Tested on PS4