I’ve never been a massive fan of the Wolfenstein series, and this isn’t to say I dislike it, it’s simply that as a franchise, it’s not something I’ve ever jumped into, despite the high level of praise it receives from critics and fans alike. However, when the latest in the rebooted series, Youngblood, was shown on stage at E3 2018 and announced as a co-operative experience involving the twin daughters of series mainstay protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, and was marketed in a truly 80s style with what appeared to be a strong narrative – much like the rest of the series – I was all in. Alongside supporting studio Arkane Lyon, the developers in charge of Dishonored 2, my interest was piqued, as I loved the first Dishonored game, and I am a huge fan of the immersive-sim genre in general. With developers speaking about more open-ended level design and more ways to tackle the missions at hand, this game looked set to be a great combination of top quality first-person shooting action, and creative, immersive play. Little did I know that by the end, this game would feel like a chore to complete, with some god awful game design choices, cookie cutter narrative and a switch to a level-based gameplay loop. So, even though this review is incredibly late, I still wanted to give my thoughts on the latest game from Machine Games and Arkane Studios, Wolfenstein Youngblood. So, let’s begin…
Story and Design
Wolfenstein Youngblood puts you in the shoes of either Jess or Soph Blazkovicz in a co-op shooter set in Nazi occupied Paris, in 1980, where the twins are tasked in tracking down their missing father, BJ. And this in itself sounds like a recipe for a fantastic title. Youngblood starts off with an emotional scene, introducing the player to the two protagonists, and the opening mission is actually wonderfully orchestrated and a hell of a lot of fun. However, once the game gets going, unfortunately the mission structure and design is a complete let down. The first few hours are roaring good fun; being set loose in the streets of Paris to tackle both side missions and the main quests which are confusing labeled as ‘raids’. We’ll get to that in a moment. And initially the DNA of Arkane Studios shines through with open ended areas to traverse, which gave me vibes of a game I thoroughly enjoyed – Deus Ex Mankind Divided. There is intel to find scattered throughout the streets of Paris. There are buildings to traverse through which give both depth and verticality to the level design. Your main base of operations lies within a retrofitted Paris Catacombs. And there are a ton of Nazis to butcher along the way. Again – this sounds great in theory, but once the new car smell of the game dissipates, the game is unfortunately repetitive, empty and at times broken.
Missions play out in the most standard fashion, being tasked to enter one of three main hub areas to hunt down intel or a specific enemy to aid the Resistance, and while on the way to these missions, your friend Abby will radio the twins with repeated and simple tasks to complete just to pad out the game with more content. And now I’ll give the game credit where its due, the gunplay is mostly very enjoyable, with, once all is said and done, an exciting arsenal of weaponry to tackle any combat encounter. However, this fun gunplay is hampered by two main issues;
The first, being that enemies are now level-based – a first for the series – and if you attempt to approach certain missions too early, you are very unlikely to be able to whittle down their health, and again it seems like this is done purely to pad out the gameplay and force the player to level up. Yes, that’s right, there are RPG-lite mechanics in Youngblood, and very lite for that matter, with a levelling system that to be honest, is entirely pointless. Why Machine Games decided to approach gameplay like this is beyond me, as it makes playing alongside a friend in co-op who hasn’t levelled up to your progress incredibly difficult and unbalanced. The skill points are doled out when levelling up, and a small selection of abilities are purchased, which don’t really change the gameplay significantly, and only serve, again, to potentially pad out the length of the game.
The second issue is that enemies are now complete and utter bullet sponges. Not only that, but certain enemies have light armour, and others have heavy armour, and specific guns are required to more easily break through it to take down their health. I can understand from a gameplay perspective, especially because some enemies are incredibly well armoured, like the Super Soldiers, Zitadelles and Panzerhunds, that these foes would require more damage output, but for every single enemy to require a hail of bullets, is just ridiculous. The two different types of armour also mean you are constantly swapping weapons, which on the surface is fine, but also constantly running out of ammunition, causing you to flail idiotically and attempt to drop enemies with unsuitable rounds. This becomes particularly frustrating throughout the middle of the game, where you may not have the entire weapon wheel at your disposal, and are constantly scrounging for the ammo type that you require. It becomes slightly less tiresome towards the ending of Youngblood because you have a lot more weapons, especially if you’ve selected the perk that allows you to hold onto heavy weapons, but switching weapons literally every few seconds is incredibly tiresome and a shocking piece of game design. All in all, although the combat is smooth to experience, and can be super fun at times, with some cool weapons at your disposal, this is a huge misstep for a series that as far as I can tell from reviews and friends who have played it, prides itself on its shooting mechanics.
Additionally, the characters and narrative in Youngblood are supremely disappointing. Jess and Soph act like loud-mouthed frat bros throughout the entire campaign, constantly bantering back and forth, and disappointingly lack any real emotion and seem to not grasp the magnitude of the situation they’re involved in. The supporting casts are, somehow, even worse, and this goes for the overarching plot as well. There is a big plot twist towards the end of the game, and obviously I won’t spoil it here, but there is no foreshadowing – even though it’s a pretty obvious turn of events – and as you progress through the story, there is no drive against a dangerous antagonist or villain, which makes the ending of the game feel like you’ve barely accomplished anything. Yes, you’re searching for your father, and this is the main drive towards results and completion, but the narrative twist and the ending itself just feels out-of-place and forced in every conceivable way.
If you’ve watched my latest video, I recently, and finally, got around to experiencing id Software’s Doom from 2016, and something that stands out in that game, something that is inescapable and constantly driving your progress, is the music. Jumping straight from that game into Youngblood was a very strange experience. I was expecting 80s synth-wave tunes to be pumping throughout the combat scenarios – which seemed to be a focus in the trailers leading up to release – and I was expecting to be wowed by the soundtrack as I was with Doom, and actually have been with quite a few titles this year. But Youngblood is entirely devoid of a soundtrack, and it’s not just that the soundtrack isn’t memorable, it is literally non-existent. There is diegetic music that plays from tape players or radios as you venture through the game, but there is no back beat to combat, and after playing Doom, this was a huge let down. Audio in general, but very much so the in game music, is such an integral part of a game, especially where it is used to build tension and create emotion throughout a story, but just as the story in Youngblood feels bland and devoid, so too does the soundtrack. In a year where we’ve had smaller titles and indies like Katana Zero or A Plague Tale beautifully weave their soundtracks into the game play experience, Machine Games have severely dropped the ball in regards to their score.
A Raid by Any Other Name
As I mentioned before, the three main ‘quests’ (if you will) are labelled as ‘raids’ and require Jess and Soph to infiltrate heavily guarded compounds in order to kill a big boss, some Nazi commandants and secure some Intel for the Resistance. With the game’s open ended game design, you can tackle these missions in any order one hitting level 20, and a couple of ways to find a way into the complex for the raid mission. The main entrance will be incredibly hostile and swarming with Nazis, but another entrance method will be more stealthy but require a little more searching and questing. For the first and second raid missions I found the alternate path into these levels, and these were somewhat interesting little missions that made approaching the main quest slightly deeper, but by the time I got to Brother 3 – yeah they’re super creatively named as well – I just couldn’t be bothered and wanted it to be over, so I went through the front gate and took on a load of Nazi scum. And these Brother missions are fine, but again unfortunately, repetitive. They literally all play out like this; infiltrate the base, kill everything in your way, find a specific new Kraftwerk weapon that will allow you to progress, fight a big ass Ubergarde boss and kill two commanders, take their keys and send this info to the Resistance. Then instead of doing a typical video game thing, where the mission ends, cut scene, and you’re back in the Catacombs, the sisters are required to go all the way back through the building they infiltrated, and escape to safety. There is literally no story here, and it is so incredibly frustrating. But what is more frustrating is what happens if you die during a raid mission.
When you are down-but-not-out, your sister can revive you relatively quickly, but if you both go down, or your sister fails to reach you in time, you lose a Shared Life. You can have a maximum of three shared lives, and once they are depleted, you’re back at your last checkpoint. This is fine when traversing the streets of Paris, as the game seems to checkpoint pretty regularly, but you also keep any items or coins or whatever you find if you die. However in a raid mission, if you die, even at the final encounter with the Ubergarde, you have to start the entire mission from the start. This is what pushed this game over the edge from enjoyment to pure frustration. I played the game mostly solo with an AI partner – and yeah this is probably my first mistake, but I didn’t want to play with randoms, and my partner and I didn’t get a chance to play together much at all. And in the second raid mission my AI sister refused to get out of the firing line against the Ubergarde, and upon trying to revive her, I got shot down, and we ran out of our Shared Lives. And back to the start of the mission I go. This was over 30 minutes of gameplay down the drain, and this is probably the reason my review is so late. I just had to put the controller down and quit. Shockingly stupid game design, which I’m sorry you can’t just get away with by calling the mission a raid. What’s more frustrating is that you still have everything you’ve collected, so you don’t even need to retrieve the Kraftwerk weapon anymore, you just power on through the level with it already in your arsenal. Thankfully when the final boss glitched out on me and dematerialized, failing to trigger the next part of the encounter, forcing me to quit to the main menu and reload my save, it loaded from a checkpoint, but even in these raid missions I personally think this is a huge design flaw.
No, Not You Too, Bethesda…
Because it’s 2019, and because video game publishers are video game publishers, I regret to inform you that Wolfenstein Youngblood, a co-operative story-based shooter, has micro-transactions. Throughout your time in Paris you find silver coins, and these are used to purchase weapon mods, skins, helmets and boosts – they are in abundance, but not really enough to actually upgrade everything entirely, unless you choose to grind out side missions and tasks and keep playing for much longer than the story itself would take. However, if you choose to sign in with your Bethesda Net account, which unfortunately you are forced to do to play online in any way, shape or form, you’re able to purchase Gold Bars from a micro transaction store to purchase cosmetic upgrades. Now, I know some people don’t care if it’s ‘just cosmetic’ (cue the disembodied voice of Jim Sterling), but I have issue with publishers like Bethesda feeling the need to add micro transactions to a game like Wolfenstein when there is simply no need. I hate to see publishers who used to be such paragons of the industry resorting to nickel and diming customers in almost every single game now, and although online games occasionally get a pass from the community, to put them in a game like Wolfenstein is just deplorable. Wolfenstein Youngblood is, in Australia, a $50 game, and I thought that was quite reasonable given the scope of the title and the well-respected teams behind the development, but if the cost of saving money on the initial purchase is outweighed by in-game purchases, I’d prefer to pay the usual full price and get these trash mechanics out of a game which is ostensibly a narrative experience.
If you plan to play Wolfenstein Youngblood, even after seeing this review, or the reviews from many other people with similar sentiments, and you don’t want to play with friends or online, I highly recommend you do not even sign into Bethesda Net. When you’re not signed in, the micro transactions just don’t exist. There is no store, there is no Gold Bar currency option in your face when you want to spend silver coins to upgrade your cosmetic appearance, and even though the obnoxious ‘Message of the Day’ will repeatedly advise you of the option to purchase, you won’t have to deal with this huge disappointment of a feature.
I went into Youngblood with a big smile, a fresh-faced and naive player ready to experience everything Machine Games and Arkane Studios had to offer in a gritty co-op shooter in an alternate 80s dystopia, ready to find my dad and save the day whilst killing uncountable amounts of Nazi scum, and I was disappointed at every hurdle. Youngblood had the chance to do something different with the series, especially with the support from Arkane, but seemed to trip up on every obstacle. A disappointing plot, with bland characters, bland gameplay, bland world, and many design choice mistakes, has turned what could’ve been a hugely successful and enjoyable co-operative romp in a series that has so far been a massive success, into a boring and tiresome title that, even for a reduced price, should probably be skipped entirely. I was having a great time for the first few hours, and I still had high hopes, but its repetitive structure and almost entire lack of story wore away the further I dove into Wolfenstein Youngblood. I sincerely hope that Machine Games have learned from this experience and endeavor to return to their usual form in the inevitable sequel that is still to come, and I hope this isn’t the downfall of the series as a whole.
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