It's hard to take risks with an established franchise, let alone one as sophisticated as Bethesda's fan-favourite, Wolfenstein.
Because of the powerful stories it spins around an alternate timeline, Wolfenstein is content to draw upon unusual – even supernatural – themes that posit a world in which the Nazis won the second world war. Though set in the 1980s, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, just like its predecessors, is full of disturbing Nazi technology, an alternative reality where retro is fused with science-fiction in a world of killer robots and laser-firing behemoths.
In a perfect balance of "back then" and "what-ifs", Youngblood continues to deliver both nostalgia and terrifying soothsaying, but despite its "spin-off" identity, this new approach is likely to be too great a departure for some veteran fans.
A BLOODY, GOOD GAME
While prior Wolfenstein games have been forged on strong narrative foundations, Wolfenstein: Youngblood lacks its predecessors' flair for storytelling, and although we are – tangentially – back with the Blazkowiczs, this spin-off tale lacks the polish and purpose you might expect from a story set within the Wolfenstein universe.
You play as either Soph or Jess Blazkowicz, teen twin daughters of series stalwarts, BJ and Anya. After a quiet life learning the family business of shootin' 'n' stuff in Texas, BJ inexplicably goes missing in Youngblood's stark imagining of a Nazi-occupied Paris.
"Neu-Paris" looks neither new nor particularly Parisian any more, but thanks to Arkane Studios – yes, the same Arkane behind Dishonored – it's a joy to explore. Dunwall taught us to look up when surveying how best to infiltrate enemy premises, and while the tale itself lacks sense cohesion, Little Berlin's environmental storytelling is surprisingly effective, especially when you learn to put that double-jump to good use and explore the open balconies above you.
That said, the sisters' chemistry is simultaneously both cute and cringey, and yes, it's refreshing to play a shooter as a youthful, energetic female lead, but their mid-battle cries of encouragement and groan-inducing antics when standing around in lifts – something the girls do way too much of, incidentally – fall on just the wrong side of entertaining. We're still not entirely sure how a thumbs-up emote can magically regen health or armour points for the sisters, either, but they say twins have special bonds…
Talking of which: Wolfenstein: Youngblood is one of few shooters to offer a full, cooperative campaign. While you can lone wolf it and leave an adequate if unimaginative AI to manage your sibling player, Youngblood is a game that cries out for you to partner up with a pal. That said, the AI isn't very adventurous when it comes to combat, forever defaulting to crap guns with low-DPS, and she can't always be relied upon to revive you if she too is in the middle of a firefight.
The gameplay itself, too, lacks cohesion. Magpieing ideas from several genres – there are RPG-lite health bars, a skill tree, and live service-esque daily challenges just for starters – Youngblood doesn't seem to know what it is. You're forced to play near your sibling to utilise your "pep" boosts, but this is often easier said than done if you're desperately trying to clear out an expansive space.
The game provides a central "hub" and offers open-world options, but your exploration is gated by grossly overpowered enemies, particularly in the early hours, so venture into new environs before the game thinks you're ready and it'll feel as though a Nazi killing machine can down you by a cold, hard stare alone.
That said, the combat is every bit as meaty as you'd expect a Machine Games' Wolfenstein to be, and whilst you'll see plenty of complaints about the bullet-sponge enemies, it's to the developers credit that whilst limited, there are plenty of ways in which your arsenal can be upgraded and improved, especially when you unlock the ability to hang onto the heavy weapons dropped by your stronger foes.
However, stealth is a bit of a non-starter; only by unlocking three (or four, depending on your choices whilst selecting your load-out) skill points will your cloaking mechanic be any good and even then, get too close and the enemies will see you, anyway.
It's a shame because it feels the game wants you to play creatively, but when a guard sees you even when you're cloaked and a suppressed firearm somehow sets off alarms, you'll learn the hard way that despite a small XP boost for getting through an area unspotted, you might as well just chuck in a grenade and be done with it.
It's unforgivably buggy, too. Not all games are shipped in a perfect condition, granted, and we appreciate Youngblood comes at a budget price, but when you're forced to replay missions because of glitching key items or broken spawns or an inexplicable bug that prevents either sister from opening sewer gates (there's a LOT of co-operative opening sewer gates and lift doors in this), something's amiss.
Playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro the sound continually glitches out, going from hideous static blasts to deathly silence and everything in between. Twice we experienced save issues (we'd complete a mission in co-op only to be forced to replay it when returning to the game later that day), and sometimes the subway fast-travel system wouldn't activate because of phantom enemies that either didn't exist... or did exist but had spawned behind unreachable walls.
There are microtransactions, too. The dismay at their inclusion varies from player to player, but from our perspective, we found they were entirely unnecessary, and it was easy – quick, even – to routinely "rank up" Soph or Jess without spending a penny of your hard-earned IRL cash.
All weapons can be upgraded with in-game currency silver coins, and all but three of the girls' Power Suit skin were, at the time of writing, purchasable with in-game cash, too. No, we can't work out why they're there, either – especially given the thousands of silver coins that regularly spawn, and respawn, throughout the world – but some are intimating publisher Bethesda may have silently withdrawn the more egregious offerings...
WOLFENSTEIN: YOUNGBLOOD VERDICT
While there's a lot that could, and should be improved in Wolfenstein: Youngblood, we couldn't help but enjoy ourselves anyway. Maybe it's the co-operative missions or Arkane's gorgeous, if constrained, world-building, but beyond the humdrum of the side quests and respawning Nazi machines there's a lot to see along the streets of Neu-Paris, with plenty of secrets and collectables stashed away, just aching to be discovered.
No, Jess and Soph won't be to everyone's liking and yes, it's unlikely this'll appeal to hardcore fans of the Wolfenstein brand. But if you're looking for a reasonably inexpensive co-op shooter and don't take yourselves too seriously, you could do a lot worse than invest some time with the next generation of Blazkowiczs in Wolfenstein: Youngblood.