Wolfenstein: Youngblood review – don’t listen to the doubters

Wolfenstein: Youngblood seems to have taken a bit of a pasting from reviewers and punters alike, and I don’t really know why. I’ve had an absolute blast playing it – and in fact I think I prefer it to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. I’ve already mentioned how the internet indignation about Youngblood‘s microtransactions has been fantastically overblown, and I reckon many of the other negative talking points around the game have been a bit exaggerated, too.

For a start, people have been grumbling about the AI for your computer-controlled team mate. If you’re not aware, Youngblood is the first game in the Wolfenstein series to feature two-player coop, as you and a friend take control of B. J. Blaskowicz’s twin daughters, Jess and Soph, who are on a quest to track down their missing daddy in 1980s Paris. But you can also play the game solo, in which case the computer takes control of the other twin.

Being online averse as I am – with the notable exception of Monster Hunter – I naturally opted to play the game solo, and the computer-controlled sister seemed OK to me. Some people have complained that the CPU player often won’t come over to heal you if you’re staggered, and this did happen to me a few times, but generally it’s just FINE. And you get three shared lives anyway, so it’s not a massive deal if you’re sister doesn’t heal you in time. In this sense, Youngblood is a lot more forgiving than earlier Wolfenstein games: before, you’d have to restart from a checkpoint if you ran out of health, but here you can usually get revived by your sis and carry on going. And even if you do bleed out, you still have three shared lives, which means you have three chances before potentially facing a restart.

As someone who found the previous game in the series punishingly and frustratingly difficult, this is a very welcome change indeed. With The New Colossus, I ended up whacking the difficulty right down because I just wasn’t having any fun being constantly mown down in seconds on ‘Bring ’em on’ (aka ‘normal’) difficulty. And I was also a bit affronted by the insulting names for the lower difficulty levels – for example, the lowest level was called ‘Can I play, daddy?’, and showed B. J. sucking a dummy. The names may have been a nostalgic carry over from the original Wolfenstein games, but they also carry a toxic ‘git gud’ attitude that feels out of place in modern gaming – and I’m not the only one who felt they were inappropriate. Thankfully, the developers have listened to the complaints, and in Youngblood the names have been changed to ‘easy’, ‘casual’, ‘normal’, and so on. I plumped for casual, and that suited me just fine.

Another thing that reviewers have been complaining about is the relative lack of story in Youngblood compared with the fully fledged Wolfenstein games that came before it. The plots and characters of The New Order and The New Colossus were undoubtedly the highlights of those games, with each chapter reaching new heights of absurdity and bombast. Youngblood doesn’t reach those extreme heights, and altogether it’s a much more compact game than its predecessors – but then again its smaller scope is reflected in the lower price. The game cost me £29.99 at launch, almost half the price of the previous entry, and I set my expectations accordingly.

You do get introduced to various characters in the resistance, but mostly they don’t have very much to say, unlike the previous game, which featured lengthy cut scenes where you couldn’t help but fall in love with the extended cast. There are relatively few story beats here by comparison, with the game instead featuring three Nazi towers that you have to ascend – which you can choose to do in any order – after which the fourth and final area is unlocked. It’s a much more simple set up than its prequels, which had you jetting off to various locations around the world – and even into space – but I actually really liked the way the smaller scale encouraged me to explore each area thoroughly.

And it’s in this area that Wolfenstein: Youngblood really excels. The game is a co-production between Machine Games and Arkane Studios, and Arkane’s experience with the sumptuous level design of the Dishonored series really shines through here. Each of the areas you visit in Paris is a warren of shortcuts and well-hidden back alleys, and I had a wonderful time just exploring the Parisian streets. There’s a great sense of verticality to it all, too, with many secrets hidden away in apartments above street level, leading to a bit of head scratching as you puzzle over how to reach that open window on the second storey. And the various routes through each level are wonderfully interwoven, so you get that great feeling of finding new paths through labyrinthine passageways, only to end up in a square you recognise with a an exclamation of ‘Oh, I’m back here!’ As a fan of Metroidvanias and immersive sims, this was probably my favourite part of Youngblood – whereas previous games were generally quite linear, here you have a proper city to explore and backtrack through.

The rebooted Wolfenstein games have always had a great eye for environmental storytelling, and Youngblood is no exception in that regard – in fact, I think it does a better job than the previous games. Each section of Paris has a silent story to tell if you pay attention. One district has been rebranded ‘Little Berlin’ and hosts an interrupted ceremony to unveil a new statue of Hitler. Another has been turned into a ghetto for resistance fighters who had risen up against the regime a few months before the game begins. Yet another has been partially destroyed by a resistance raid, a story covered in Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, the VR spinoff that was released on the same day as Youngblood. And the closer you look, the more details you spot. The resistance enclave that has recently been raided by the authorities, leaving bodies and scattered belongings behind. The spy’s hideout overlooking a Nazi compound. The apartment that’s been taken over by Nazi high command. Yes, I really had a fantastic time just wandering around and taking it all in. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t play in coop, as I spent most of my play sessions just poking my nose into shop windows and loitering in alleys on the hunt for collectibles, which no doubt would have mightily annoyed anyone unlucky enough to partner with me.

And speaking of collectibles, they set a high bar for the series – so much so that I ended up hunting down every single one. The New Colossus was a bit of a disappointment in this regard, with its dull collectible ‘star cards’, but in Youngblood I loved reading all the little bits of lore you find, as well as listening to the cassettes (which replace the records from previous games, seeing as we’re in the 1980s now). The beautiful concept sketches and schlocky VHS movies you find are also a highlight. In fact, the only bum note as far as collectibles are concerned is the 3D glasses, which unlock dull character models. I’ve never understood why developers bother putting character models as collectibles in games – I mean, why would you want to just sit there and stare at a model of an enemy or bit of furniture you’ve already seen countless times while playing the game itself?

In terms of combat, Youngblood is very similar to the previous games, with its selection of ridiculous and overpowered weapons, but this time around we get more RPG-like progression. You earn experience points in combat, and with every level you gain, your damage output increases by 2%. And in addition, you’ll come across silver coins stuffed everywhere, which you can use to buy upgrades for your guns. This part in particular is very neat, as the upgrades can make a big difference to how you play. For example, for the first part of the game, you’re mostly limited to a rifle and a shotgun – but with the right upgrades, the rifle can be turned into sniper rifle with an X-ray scope and the ability to shoot through walls, or you could opt to make it into a rapid-fire machine gun with devastating damage output at the expense of accuracy.

It’s a great system, and the upgrades give you a good excuse to poke into every cranny on the hunt for coins. Not only that, the fact you’re constantly earning experience whatever you do means that I always felt like I was making progress, even when I was circling around aimlessly in the hunt for a pick-up I could see on the map but couldn’t quick work out how to get to.

Another thing that has got some people’s goats is the twins themselves, who are constantly coming out with quips as they gun down Nazis. And pressing up on the D-pad kicks off a ‘pep’, where you perform a gesture that gives your sister a boost (like replenishing her health) along with an encouraging phrase like, ‘You’re slaying it, sis!’

Some people have said that they’ve found the twins’ chatter annoying, but I for one totally fell in love with their goofy banter, constantly referring to each other as ‘dude’ and generally behaving like teenagers on their first trip abroad – which is exactly what they are. And they have some great cut scenes, too, like the brilliant moment where they kill their first Nazi in a slightly botched attempt, eliciting fear, cheers and vomiting in equal measure. Oh, and you just have to watch the goofy elevator scenes, where the sisters tease each other, play stupid games and break into impromptu robot dancing. All in all, Jess and Soph are a wonderful change of pace from B. J.’s grumpy monologing, and I heartily hope we’ll see more of them in future.

The downsides? Well, probably my biggest gripe with the game is the lack of a pause function. I can understand why you can’t pause the game in multiplayer, but I have no idea why a pause wasn’t implemented in single-player mode. Still, it wasn’t the end of the world – it just meant that if I wanted to make a cup of tea, I had to stuff the girls in a quiet bit of the level and hope that a nosey Nazi didn’t come along while I was in the kitchen.

I said above that the computer controlled player is fine, but there was one point where I found the AI a bit frustrating, which was during the final boss fight. At one point you have to target a weak spot on the boss’s back, ideally by having one sister draw fire while the other circles around behind – but the CPU insisted on sticking by my side, making the fight much harder than it had to be. Otherwise, the only slight frustration I faced was with the repetition in some of the side missions, which often see you revisiting the same old areas, and the underground levels in particular can get a bit repetitive. Even so, I was enjoying myself enough to happily play through every single mission in the game.

So yes, Youngblood is perhaps a bit shorter than previous Wolfenstein games, and it has a much less fully featured story – but the budget price more takes the edge off those complaints. And more importantly, the level design – and the new main characters – are top notch, making this one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played this year.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood was developed by Machine Games and Arkane Studios, and is available on PC, Switch, Xbox One and PS4. We reviewed the PS4 version.