'Wolfenstein: Youngblood': Game Review

Wolfenstein Youngblood - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks

For a side-story that’s not as fully realized as it could be, 'Youngblood' still manages to get the most important aspects — the gunplay, level design, and spectacle — right.

In Wolfenstein: Youngblood's harrowing alternate version of the '80s, the Nazi regime still rules most of the world with an iron fist, but the Blazkowicz sisters are putting up a hell of a fight.

Following the Second American Revolution, which saw the Nazi occupation ousted from the United States, America has lived in a time of “peace,” at least in relation to the rest of the world, which is mostly still under Nazi control. Hero (and Wolfenstein mainstay) B.J. Blazkowicz lives with his wife Anya and two daughters in Texas, quietly training them to protect themselves in the event the Nazis make another move on America, or their way of life.

Jessie "Jess" and Zofia "Soph" Blazkowicz are the first playable lead female protagonists in the series (aside from Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus's DLC lead Jessica "Silent Death" Valiant), and while they’ve enjoyed a mostly safe and idyllic life in the South apart from the Nazi menace, they’ve quickly got to come into their own by the time Youngblood begins. 

Their father has inexplicably gone MIA while on what appears to be a covert mission to Paris. When their mother all but forbids them from embarking on a journey to find out what happened to Terror-Billy himself, they decide to take it upon themselves to steal a chopper to the city (by way of a family friend’s daughter) and do it themselves. What could possibly go wrong?

As either Jess or Soph (with a friend or AI handling the other character), you'll take on the whole of Paris as Nazis descend upon you like ants on a pool of melted ice cream. Luckily, both are outfitted with powerful Da'at Yichud exo-suits to help keep them alive, inspired by models manufactured by an ancient society (recreated by Grace Walker's daughter, Anna). With these svelte versions of power armor, the girls gain cloaking powers, enhanced physical strength, ground-pound attacks and a wealth of protective and offensive buffs to choose from that players can level up throughout the game.  

As soon as the girls touch down in Paris, they’re tasked with what feels like a million different tasks to complete in exchange for information on their father’s whereabouts. Thus begins a frenetic, violent ballet of whizzing bullets and whirring lasers rife with satisfying gunplay, slick co-op action and plenty of carnage for shooter buffs to take in. 

The sisters are up against a ridiculous amount of soldiers just about everywhere they go, from souped-up drone soldiers to Panzerhunds and everything in between, up to and including Nazis in mechs who won't stop coming at the twins until they've cleared out the entire area. Luckily, there are two of them. This may mean players get double the enemies to kill off, but playing as a duo opens up additional avenues, as well. 

The girls can make use of Peps — essentially emotes on steroids — abilities with cool downs masquerading as communications to use with one's partner player, whether they throw up metal horns for +25 armor, a thumbs-up for +50 health or do the robot to give both girls full armor. There are several to choose from, though a couple are unlocked at the start of the game. It’s an interesting mechanic that reinforces the “partner” aspect of the game, and it’s admittedly pretty fun to stop in the middle of a firefight to toss your “sister” a quick thumbs-up for a stat boost. 

On a similar note, the co-op elements are strong in Youngblood. Luckily, player's stealth AI partner is competent enough that they can revive you with little trouble and typically don't have issues falling in combat often enough to become problematic. Anyone who wishes to fly solo won’t have any trouble doing so. There’s never any real need for the handling of delicate situations (save for when both players need to hit a button or pull a switch), but an extra gun is definitely useful to have around to thin the crowds. 

Youngblood opts for a much different structure than what Wolfenstein fans may be used to. It's spread throughout multiple districts of Nazi-controlled "Neu Paris," united by the singular "hub" in the Paris catacombs. Here, you can stock upon ammo, weapons, listen to a variety of '80s music from fictional bands or even play video games (the original Wolfenstein 3D, redone as Wolfstone 3D starring the German character Elite Hans, as well as some English dialogue).

Arkane Studios' level design is immediately recognizable here, with an emphasis on verticality thanks to the double-jump ability, twisting, winding passages and different perspectives for areas you've traveled before, so the second (or third) time you see them, it feels like a whole new area. You can explore each area to your heart's content, occasionally uncovering the oddities of '80s Paris under Nazi rule, like a music-centric storefront, office building or even the neon-tinged hub area piled high with German pop culture references. 

There are tons of collectible items to hunt down across the campaign, including unlockable concept art by way of special containers, readables hidden throughout the game world, floppy disks that require decoding and contain notes and codes, cassette tapes to listen to new songs, 3D glasses to unlock 3D collectible models and UVK covers. These depict a variety of cult German flicks with tongue-in-cheek movie posters, and they’re pretty entertaining to track down. 

Unfortunately, what should be one of the game’s biggest draws is also one of its most disappointing aspects: the Terror Twins themselves. Wolfenstein fans have had game after game to get to know B.J. and his crew intimately, from Terror-Billy’s wife Anya to professional markswoman Mary Sue "Professor" Ellington. Even out-there personalities like Norman "Super Spesh" Caldwell are humanized and fleshed out in a way that other games can’t often accomplish.

Here, Jess and Soph are little more than lean, mean, Nazi-killing machines, just like their parents — but that’s hardly a substitute for personality. They do have subtle variations in their demeanors: Zofia is slightly more aggressive, while Jessie is decidedly even-keeled, and they both love the fictional English novel series featuring heroes Arthur and Kenneth (likely a reference to Arthur Kenneth Blaze, the father of Commander Keen himself). But, too often, it feels like their only defining characteristic is the fact that B.J. Blazkowicz is their father. The pair feel so interchangeable that it's easy to forget which twin one is playing as, but neither the twins, nor the game, fail to remind players at every turn that they were both born to kill Nazis. Thanks. 

It’s this rah-rah attitude that slowly but surely will grate on players' nerves as they work their way through the game. If there’s anything the Wolfenstein series has excelled at since 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, it is character development, weaving a rich tapestry of interpersonal relationships between complex players. Youngblood doesn’t seem to have time for that. Interestingly enough, Abby, the daughter of FBI Director Grace Walker, has more nuance and personality in her limited interactions than any players will get from Jess and Soph. Perhaps Abby should have taken point instead. 

Further, the game does little to offer answers to the million questions players will likely have about the nearly 20 years that have passed since Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Instead of addressing things early on, the game launches straight into the sisters search for B.J., which is frustrating given its typically excellent track record of setting the stage for newcomers and Wolfenstein veterans. A little context when almost two decades have passed for a cast of characters is sorely needed here, and without it, Youngblood begins to feel more like a fancy expansion pack than a stand-alone game. 

But most of this can likely be attributed to the fact that the game is very well meant to be a holdover for the eventual Wolfenstein III, whenever it finally makes its way to. For a side-story that’s not as fully realized as it could be, Youngblood still manages to get the most important aspects — the gunplay, level design and spectacle — right.

As far as the “Youngbloods” themselves? It would be nice if B.J. hadn’t raised such terribly boring daughters. Here’s to Jess and Soph finding themselves in future installments, and may they grow up to be as charming as their parents one day.

This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.