It’s said that a large part of the games industry is uninspired because developers don’t take risks. They stick to the same formula year after year because it’s one that they’re confident will both sell well and please players.
A lot of the time we shout at those developers, saying that their new game is “more of the same” or “uninspired” and yet many continue on that path because despite many of these complaints, it’ll probably still sell better than if they’d flipped it all on its head and tried something totally new. When it comes to sequels and spinoffs, there’s very little room for experimentation in the video game industry.
Perhaps I’m being lenient here, but for me, that’s what Wolfenstein Youngblood feels like: An experiment. An attempt to try something a little bit different and see what becomes of the end result and, unfortunately, the outcome isn’t as ground-breaking as I’d hoped.
For the sake of clarity, I adore the new Wolfenstein games. Their reimagining of hero BJ Blazkowicz as a tired, worn down war hero who ultimately fails at his one mission in life brought firm support to the often absurd story of an alternate history where the Nazis win World War 2. That was always the strengths of those games, the characters were incredibly realised, grounding the events in realistic human emotions and interactions in an otherwise far-fetched world (although in 2019, is it all that far-fetched anymore?) and while Youngblood starts off with hints of these human connections it very quickly ditches most of these themes and embraces a structure that’s far less impactful. Clearly drawing inspirations from more modern shooters, Youngblood attempts to merge the snappy action of traditional retro first-person shooters with more modern RPG systems and the result is a confused mess.
Dropped into Nazi-occupied Paris, you’ll take on the role of either Soph or Jess, BJ Blazkowicz’s twin daughters as they search for their father and attempt to overthrow the fascist rule of France. Borrowing from games such as Dishonored and Prey, no surprise considering Arkane Studios did work on the level design of Youngblood, Paris serves as a hub-world of sorts, allowing players to explore and tackle their three primary objectives in any way they please, all the while dashing around and completing side-quests for various resistance members.
On paper, it makes sense to open up Wolfenstein in such a way, offering players explorable locations that offer secrets and shortcuts to stumble upon, but it quickly becomes apparent that the map is window-dressing, never bringing much in the way of substance. Missions all boil down to the same formula of go here, kill everyone, push a button or some minor variation on that. The secret to offering players an open world is the variation that can be distributed throughout, yet Wolfenstein at its very core is a corridor shooter. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it feels like little consideration was given to how best utilise perhaps the biggest change to the series.
The other big change comes in the form of a role-playing levelling system that allows for some degree of character progression. Again, in theory, this is an interesting idea, but the ramifications of its implementation far outweigh whatever benefits it could provide. Enemies are now gated behind levels, turning many into bullet-sponges that require a full magazine of an automatic shotgun to blast down turning many combat encounters into a painful grind. What’s worse is that some locations are barred off my enemies that are nearly impossible to take down if you’re at lower levels forcing you to grind the monotonous side quests just to reach a point where you’re able to survive.
Put it this way, Wolfenstein should not, under any circumstances, making killing Nazi’s tedious, yet Youngblood does just that despite a decent level of enemy variation. Combat encounters quickly become drawn out slugfests of standing in front of enemies and holding down the trigger, watching their health bar inch ever closer to death.
What makes this whole situation worse, and what really broke my heart, is how Wolfenstein’s narrative gets pushed to the side-lines in order to accommodate this more grindy gameplay. Soph and Jesse have the potential to be really interesting characters, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find them charming in a dorky 80’s movie action hero kind of way, but they’re never given the attention they deserve. It’s a case of gameplay and story clashing; what could have been a tense, thrilling, linear adventure is abandoned by the game, often going for hours before any new narrative beat is established.
The twin’s desperate quest is never given the same importance as grinding for more XP or coins to upgrade weapons, losing out on what was arguably the most compelling aspect of New Order and New Colossus. While the story does reach a satisfying conclusion and set things up for future games, it was a real slog to finally get there.
I know I’ve ragged on Youngblood a great deal in this review, and believe me there’s no-one more disappointed about that than me. I went into this game blind, wanting to avoid any potential spoilers or moments of discovery in the marketing material, and I think this is one of the rare occasions where that was the wrong thing to do.
There’s fun to be had in Wolfenstein: Youngblood; Slaying Nazi’s is never not a good time, the gunplay is hefty and powerful, and joining up with a friend is always going to be a great time. This is a game designed for co-op play in mind, so do keep that in mind if you’re still thinking of picking it up. There’s no pause button and the game does its best to simulate online play even when offline, which can be frustrating.
This is what I mean when I say that I’m being generous when I call Youngblood an experiment, because that what it really feels like. An attempt to explore a different design space in the hopes of stumbling upon some kind of new gameplay loop that satisfies fans of both modern and older shooters. Unfortunately, the result is a confused experience that’s bogged down with incessant grind, uninspired mission design, tedious combat and an underwhelming story. I guess that’s the thing about experiments; when they work you invent the lightbulb.
But when they fail the lightbulb bursts.
Last Updated: July 30, 2019