Of all the eerie sights in recent games, few things rival the spectacle of an Arkane world decked with the pageantry of the Third Reich.
The Dishonored developer has teamed up with MachineGames to create Wolfenstein: Youngblood‘s alternate-history occupied Paris, and the result is a familiar, and magnificent, play of light and masonry, antiquity and high technology. Monstrous monorails rumble above streets of wrought iron and bloodied cobblestone; terraced boulevards that date back to the Enlightenment shake to the footfalls of Nazi war machines painted silver and scarlet.
It’s unnerving, of course, because it makes perfect sense. Dishonored’s universe has always found inspiration in the architecture and machinery of 20th century fascism – and Wolfenstein under MachineGames has always felt a little like an Arkane game, albeit a very angry one, with multiple routes through areas, environments drenched in backstory artefacts, and a growing taste for gadgets and stealth. Youngblood takes this further than ever before, though it takes a few steps back in the process.
The game is the story of Jess and Sophie Blazkowicz, potty-mouthed daughters of Wolfenstein’s venerable posterboy BJ and The New Order’s Anya, who throw in with the French resistance after their grizzled pop goes AWOL in Paris. Spread across three districts, plus a number of Nazi megastructures, it trades the previous two games’ linear narratives for an open-ended mission-based format.
This sees players venturing out from a hideaway in the Parisian catacombs – a beautifully macabre hub area, where retro jukeboxes illuminate piles of mouldering skulls – to each district in pursuit of main and optional missions. While touring the city you’ll also sponge up randomly generated sidequests for bonus XP, such as nailing a VIP or freeing some prisoners.
The back-and-forth between safehouse and metropolis encourages you to get to know each district’s shortcuts, boltholes and tactical props, rather than blasting straight through every time. Jess and Soph begin the game sporting powersuits that allow them to double-jump, and one of the opening unlocks is a camo cloak. This makes it fairly easy to bypass guards and rove the dense layouts in search of the commanders who, once again, summon waves of reinforcements unless you nobble them first.
The breadth of routes within levels is important because Youngblood is all about co-op, though you can play offline with the AI. It’s no Rainbow-Six-style exercise in coordination, but there’s a useful and satisfying teamplay “Pep” mechanic that lets you confer a boost on yourself and the other sister, such as temporary double damage or bonus armour.
“After a few hours of this toil we were ready to give Youngblood a thumbs down, but the Brother missions are the game’s saving graces.”
Players share a pool of lives, so reviving each other before you bleed out is paramount; in this way, the game keeps roping you back together, even as the environment design encourages you to split up. The AI just about cuts the mustard, though it can be picky about reviving you when under fire; usefully, its cloak ability lasts forever, which means it’ll never give you away when you’re sneaking about.
Human companions are naturally better at taking the initiative, but the drawback is that you’ll generally have less luxury to pick over the lore docs and detail of each decadently-made level. One downside of the new mission format is a narrative that has been stamped to pieces. Youngblood starts quite strong, with BJ and Anya putting the sisters through antifa training out in the wilderness. There’s a great early scene where Jess and Soph kill their very first Nazi, which sets the tone for the story: little of the poignancy of The New Colossus, all of the bellicose buffoonery.
From there, though, it dissipates into a thin broth of incidental dialogue and cutscenes that are all plot device and no character development. Youngblood’s story is resolutely barebones: you’re here to infiltrate and conquer three towers, the “Brothers”, in order to access the secret lab BJ was hunting for before he vanished. There’s none of the momentum and surprise of the previous Wolfenstein games, though Soph and Jess are raucous company, kids running amok in their daddy’s clothes.
Youngblood’s biggest sore point, though, is its startling character levelling system, which obliges you to grind those side missions for XP and coins to unlock more powerful weapon mods. The weapons themselves are absolute monsters, like oil derricks strapped to your forearms, belching flame. How disappointing it is, then, when you shoot a higher-level opponent in the head and are rewarded with a tiny chunk of health bar.
Carrying out side missions also unlocks different, and easier ways of assaulting the Brother missions, but mostly you’ll do it so that you can dismantle a stormtrooper with one shotgun blast rather than 10. The weapon customisation is quite nifty, in fairness: mods don’t merely boost stats but unlock new properties, such as sticky grenades that leave a trail of napalm, or an electricity cannon that coughs up a defensive shield. It’s not enough to compensate, however, for the trudging attrition of getting guns up to spec.
“For every moment we’ve spent admiring a layout or rejoicing in some feat of cartoon evisceration, there’s a moment we’ve spent raging at the obstinacy of the level curve (or shaking our head a little at the threadbare plot).”
After a few hours of this toil we were ready to give Youngblood a thumbs down, but the Brother missions are the game’s saving graces. They all play out the same, with a special weapon to find that unlocks new routes, but each tower is very much its own space.
One Brother is a ruin, obliging you to slip-slide over hills of shattered marble in search of the basement entrance. Another sees you clambering around the exterior while lowering zeppelins blot out the sun. For a game that’s at least 60% corridor, Youngblood does an amazing job of engrossing you, leveraging its 80s backdrop to good effect. There are mahogany-panelled antechambers, red-carpeted casinos, and dingy backroom offices plastered with posters of Nazi movie stars.
It all adds up to something of an undecided work, an action game of great range and artistry that feels like it’s punishing you for the privilege of playing it like, well, an action game. For every moment we’ve spent admiring a layout or rejoicing in some feat of cartoon evisceration, there’s a moment we’ve spent raging at the obstinacy of the level curve (or shaking our head a little at the threadbare plot).
Brace yourself for that frustration, however, and you’ll find Youngblood to be as gripping a Wolfenstein as any before. It makes you wonder what might happen if Arkane took full command of the series – perhaps the Blazkowicz family’s finest hour is yet to come.
New Colossus fans will probably dislike its unfocused narrative and fussy levelling system, but Youngblood offers plenty of blood and thunder if you give it time.
- A beautiful , unnerving game world
- Brothers missions are a real highlight
- A distinctly barebones plot compared to previous games
- The character levelling system is a pain