The modern incarnation of Wolfenstein has always been a wicked world to inhabit; a deliciously bloody alt-history full of technologically-advanced Nazis, giant mechanical dogs and the kind of well-fleshed out villains who creep right off the screen. Always driven by a compelling and purposefully shocking story beats, the murderous career of one BJ Blazkowicz has proved to be one of the best single-player shooters money can buy.
The latest instalment in the series, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, carries some of these ideals forwards with pride and gusto. More than ever, Wolfie plays like a proper ultraviolent playground full of Nazis and mechanical monstrosities to eviscerate. It boldly tries new ideas and mechanics for this sequel of sorts, but it also loses some of its intrinsic essence along the way, and you’re left with something that’s fun to play, but far less memorable as a result.
It’s important to note that Youngblood isn’t a proper, full sequel to the brilliant ode to violence that was Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It certainly carries on the story of the Blazkowicz clan from the disco death-dealing of the ’70s to the synthwave slaughter of the ’80s; however, this time the focus of the narrative has shifted from the grizzled veteran to his twin daughters, Soph and Jess. BJ has disappeared into occupied Neu-Paris and it’s up to his military-trained yet juvenile offspring to suit up and rescue their papa.
And if there’s one area that Youngblood fails to deliver on when compared to its predecessors, it's in its story. In an effort to embrace a non-linear approach to mission structures and level design - and do all this on a smaller budget and a diminished scale - this follow-up sacrifices one of the calling cards that’s made Wolfie defiantly stand out from the rest of the shooter crowd. Without the internal monologues that fleshed our BJ’s inner turmoil, neither sister is ever really fleshed out. And you’ll meet quite a few allies in the Paris catacombs, but rarely learn much about, bar a love of giving you side-missions. But, this is more of a spin-off, and while some of the personality that makes the franchise what it is has been lost, it’s been traded off in exchange for some 'new' gameplay ideas.
Co-op, of course, is the biggest change and brings with it a different approach to difficulty. Enemies are significantly tougher this time around, with five levels of toughness for each type of foe. From Medizinsoldats (who heal other injured foes) and Neosoldats to Robotersoldats and those great-hulking Panzerhund, each enemy also has a rank based on the area in which they’re based. These baddies don’t scale to your current level rank, so it’s often about avoiding areas with a high density of Nazis that are predestined to kill you instantly. You can play through the entire game solo (with an AI companion), play locally, or host/join a game online. The latter does require a mandatory Bethesda account, otherwise you’ll be locked to playing solo/local when away from a Wi-Fi connection.
Larger and more heavily armoured enemies can be taken down easier, however, if you know which weapon to use against them and where to target. Everything from a Panzerhund to a hulking great Zitadelle can be defeated by destroying armour plates and helmets to reveal weak spots. Ammunition is also a little scarcer, so landing your headshots more often really makes a difference. If one of your team is downed you can revive them in a few short seconds, but XP will be halved until both of your are on your feet - a neat approach to teamwork that will stop lone wolves running off to find objectives while their partner gets slaughtered.
This plays directly into the more open and non-linear approach to mission structures and level design. Once you’ve cleared the opening level aboard a Nazi blimp, you’ll begin your mission proper amid and beneath the streets of Paris. Rather than simply giving you a home base and a set of consecutive and self-contained missions, Youngblood turns Paris itself into one large, explorable hub. With the resistance using the catacombs beneath the city as a base of operations, you’ll now use the metro system and the sewers respectively as a means of fast travelling and manually navigating between different districts.
There’s only a limited number of main missions on offer, but they’re gated (quite literally) by high level enemies so you’ll need to grind away before attempting to breach them. Thankfully, there are lots of avenues for farming XP, silver coins (for upgrading weapons) and perk points (for unlocking and enhancing abilities) for your respective skill trees. Most characters in the catacombs will have side-missions for you to undertake, and these often come in multiple phases that require you to visit more than one location (such as following clues to locate a secret entrance to one of the bosses, thus bypassing a massive fight to open a gate, or collecting a battery to power up a powerful new laser weapon).
While you’re out in the field exploring Paris, you’ll also have random Action Points pop up, which serve as quick missions on the fly. One second you might be saving civilians from execution, the next you’re assassinating a key Nazi scientist or rigging a car with an explosive device. There are also daily and weekly challenges (which usually require killing X number of enemy types in with a time limit), so there has been some effort made to make up for the much smaller number of main missions. However, as this is an online-focused experience, Neo-Paris can sometimes be a chore to explore.
Ammunition counts are persistent between areas (there are usually gates you need to open together to move from one to another) and enemies respawn regularly throughout the hub, so you’ll soon be sprinting through districts as most enemies ignore you once you’ve left their immediate area. Neu-Paris is fun for a while until you see the exploits in its design, and soon it’s just a means of grinding XP and small amounts of silver coins for your weapons. Silver coins are also a little too abundant at launch, enabling you to upgrade the stats of your core weapons early on. There are also skins to purchase, although some of them are locked behind microtransactions.
Then, of course, there’s more open-ended approach to levels themselves. Both the streets of occupied Neu-Paris and the specific mission areas you’ll visit throughout the game have all been designed with multiple routes and paths in mind. There are now more vents and basement approaches than previous Wolfies, where stealth always had a frustratingly short shelf life. You even have a cloaking ability, although it’s next to useless until it’s been significantly upgraded. Paris itself also has a lot of verticality to it, so you choose to bypass a heavily defended street by leaping between apartment balconies, or leap atop a guard station and use the heavy weaponry on top to cause untold carnage below.
You can really see the influence of Dishonored developer Arkane Studios here, with the amount of agency you have as a player greatly increased thanks to the added verticality and greater support for quiet tactics. This agency doesn’t quite compare to the freedom you had on the streets of Karnaca in Dishonored 2, but a lot of that comes down to the fact you don’t have access to the time and space bending powers at the disposal of Corvo and Emily. In fact, Youngblood is more reminiscent in visual design and level structure of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and of the hugely underrated Killzone: Mercenary in its favour of XP and currency grinding over pure story.
That familiar heft and weight to gunfights is still present and correct, and there's really nothing quite like running around with a giant shotgun (this is a Bethesda game, some things are a given) blasting Nazis across a room and painting the wall with their viscera. Hit boxes are still hyper accurate and getting knocked onto your back by a grenade blast is a thrill as you battle back to your feet. Some of that pure instant satisfaction has been tempered somewhat by the introduction of health bars above each enemy and that aforementioned levelling system. These mechanics have crept into practically every genre now - just look at how it slowed down progress and gated content in Assassin's Creed Odyssey last year - and it has a similar effect that sadly takes the edge off the moment-to-moment carnage that makes Wolfenstein's signature gunplay so addictive.
As a Nintendo Switch port - and one that’s launched on the same day as its siblings on other platforms - Youngblood continues to showcase just how powerful Switch can be when in the hands of the developers/witchcraft practitioners at Panic Button. Character models retain most of their detail, and every area, room and corridor is packed with artistic flourishes to enjoy should you stop moving and reduce the motion blur. Even a great deal of the lighting effects remain, even if they do pale in comparison to what you can see on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Loading times are mercifully short, and we found little to no issues joining or sharing sessions online.
There’s support for voice chat as well, so you can your partner (you can choose to play solo, with one of your friends or with a rando) can work together effectively to take down some of the tougher bosses (such as the heavily-protected Brothers who control much of Paris). There’s always going to be some texture pop-ins and blurring - that’s just part of the sacrifice we make to the porting gods - and the frame rate can sometimes (and we mean sometimes, not always) get a little choppy. We did experience a full freeze that forced us to hard reset the game, but apart from these isolated issues, Youngblood really is another technical marvel on portable hardware.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is an odd little thing that evokes the smaller scale approach given to Far Cry: New Dawn earlier this year. Like New Dawn, Youngblood is a spin-off that focuses more on gameplay freedom while losing the focus on story. In some ways, it takes the series forward in the way it tries new ideas and mechanics - such as co-op and more open-ended level designs - and we hope a number of these features return for the next full sequel, but without the mind-bending twists and turns of its narrative, Youngblood pales in comparison to The New Order and The New Colossus. A fun and enjoyable co-op shooter (and another porting masterclass), but one that both improves and diminishes its own winning formula.
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