A Nazi-infested world crafted by Arkane looks exactly as you think it should.
Dishonored’s Dunwall excelled at polarity, its pomp and majesty juxtaposed with decay and death. Neu-Paris, too, echoes Arkane’s masterfully macabre world-building. But where Dunwall’s untold stories swam in the eyes of its dead and dying, Wolfenstein: Youngblood’s Neu-Paris has no time for such sentiment. It is a city ravaged by war, yes, but there are no survivors padding these cobbled streets. There are only the self-indulgent trappings of the Reich, the endless pageantry of polished mahogany and billowing banners and scarlet soft furnishings… all swastika-branded, naturally.
Whether I was two, 12, or 20 hours in, it never failed to surprise me – shock me, even – to explore this alternate timeline and happen across another interrogation room, its tools and weapons and torture devices stamped with Nazi branding. While it might not quite rival that of Dishonored, take the time to look, and the detail in Youngblood’s playsets is really quite extraordinary, especially if you cast your gaze upwards.
The story, however? That’s less robust. You inhabit either Jess or Soph Blazkowicz – a surname as synonymous with Wolfenstein now as Hitler himself. The twin sisters take on the terrifying force of a tech-savvy Third Reich in search of their father, B.J., who’s gone missing on the streets of “Little Berlin”.
It’s refreshing to experience a game that even attempts to instil a little personality in its protagonists – yes, I’m very tired of the mute and mindless iteration, thanks for asking – but you’ll likely love or loathe Jess and Soph. Though I initially appreciated my twin’s perky encouragements, their stupid one-liners and dorky dances and goofy greetings eventually felt contrived and misplaced.
A tissue-thin plot doesn’t help, but while I could see the major plot beats coming a mile off and drive a truck through some of the less forgivable holes, it’s undoubtedly a story with heart. And for all their adolescent irritations, it’s a nice change to see strong leads who differ from the male, pale and stale variety we see so often.
These dual protagonists point to Youngblood’s biggest change to the Wolfenstein template: co-operative play. Whilst it’s possible to complete the campaign with just an AI companion alongside you, I found their revival skills sorely lacking – especially in a firefight – and can report that your AI sis isn’t much cop in the final boss fight, either. That said, having a human pal for the closing battle isn’t much better; it’s a grossly unbalanced fight, so be sure you’re playing with someone who’ll forgive you after you yell at them (apologies to my brother Rich).
Final boss battle aside, the combat is – as we’ve come to expect from Wolfenstein and Machine Games – intensely satisfying. While your arsenal is surprisingly limited, a fully stocked weapon wheel can be gleefully destructive, disintegrating foes into chunks of meat and muscle. Youngblood wants you to experiment with your weaponry, of course, promising certain guns are best suited to certain enemies, but my customary spray-and-pray tactics worked well enough on normal difficulty, especially in the latter stages of the game when my Laserkraftwerk was gloriously maxed out.
Youngblood isn’t quite as open-world as it wants to be, and just because you can enter a certain area doesn’t mean you should. You’ll frequently find progress gated by outrageously overpowered enemies, particularly early gin the ame, which necessitates spending a little time in and around your side missions to bulk up – and level up – before you take on some of the tougher opponents. Stealth, too, didn’t play the role I’d hoped. Whilst you can opt for a stealth cloak from the off, the effect wears off so quickly it’s barely worth having. At endgame, I’ve managed to upgrade it so it’s considerably more useful, but I think anyone looking to ghost Youngblood is going to have a significantly and disproportionately harder time than those of you just happy to blow stuff up.
You can also reinvigorate your sibling with “peps”, a system of perks that encourages the sisters to stick together and help each other out when things get sticky (which they will; shockingly, Nazis don’t always play fair). By performing a cringeworthy emote, you or your sis can bestow a boost such as regenerating life or armour, or double damage. Once you’ve unlocked the perk to recover your HP or armour entirely, though, there seems little point in using the others.
There’s been a steady, and necessary, discourse about Youngblood’s microtransactions and boosters but I can, hand on heart, promise that you don’t need them. At all. Ostensibly they speed things up, but I ranked up regularly and without frustration without them. Silver coins – the in-game currency – are plentiful and everywhere, and the yellow currency crates routinely respawn, too, so you’ll rarely, if ever, feel hampered by a lack of coin.
A skill-tree has also been shoehorned into the game. Again, it’s not too egregious as, carrying heavy weapons aside, there was little that felt unfairly locked behind an upgradeable. But it’s an odd addition and not one that brings anything new to the table. Same goes for the RPG-esque health bars on the enemies; it’s good to know how much longer you have to go for the bullet-sponges that sport outrageously fortified armour, but for your everyday Nazi foot soldier, they’re not remotely necessary.
Oh my, it’s buggy, though. Playing on PS4 Pro, I experienced sound drops and distortions too numerous to count, and a good half-dozen occasions when – because of an infinitely-respawning enemy, or a phantom soldier, or a gate glitch, or a drone dispenser that kept dispensing even though I’d deactivated it – we were forced to restart the mission. I had to attempt the final main “raid” mission three times because the first didn’t save, and in the second try a key item fell through the floor into nowhere.
And yet I sincerely enjoyed my time with Wolfenstein: Youngblood. Where another recent co-developed project from Bethesda, Rage 2, fell short of expectations, Machine Games and Arkane have just about exceeded them. Like Rage 2, Youngblood is bloody and flamboyant and deliciously violent with touches of puerility. But it also offers a rich, if contained, world that’s ripe for exploration, packed with collectables and secrets and swastika-emblazoned robotic monstrosities to destroy. It’s unlikely that veteran Wolf fans will find much besides combat to enjoy in this story-starved iteration, but it’s possible it’ll entice new ones.