e3 2019

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

The Dangers Of Experimentation
by Javy Gwaltney on Jun 13, 2019 at 10:34 AM
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Machine Games
Release:
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC

Reader, I love Wolfenstein. I love it to the point that it's a running joke among my colleagues. I'm an absolute fanatic for MachineGames' version of the franchise, where resistance fighters take on insurmountable odds as they seek to topple an evil empire in an alternate timeline where the Nazis won World War II. I know the lore and every level of The New Order, The Old Blood, and The New Colossus like the back of my hand.

When Youngblood was announced at last year's E3, I was intrigued by the concept of playing as BJ's twin daughters in a co-op adventure that takes place after the events of The New Colossus. At this year's E3, I got to play an hour of Youngblood, which finds Jess and Soph Blazkowicz fighting Nazis in Reich-occupied France during the '80s. 

I came away from my time with the impression that Youngblood challenges and tweaks a lot of my favorite things about MachineGames' Wolfenstein series, and I'm not on board with a lot of them (at least within the context of my hour of gameplay).

So let's talk about what works and what doesn't.

The Universe Is Still Gripping

MachineGames has created one of the most dour and engaging settings in a modern first-person shooter, where a cast of complex characters fights to make the world a better place while struggling not to fall apart in the process. BJ and Anya are one of the few couples in games where their creators approach their relationship with poignancy and realism; they acknowledge the pair's emotional and sexual attraction to one another and explore how that changes over time. The series also goes to great lengths diving into the traumatic mentalities of those suffering under oppressive systems and how they find joy and delight in small yet vital interactions with friends and loved ones.

Youngblood continues that tradition of deep characterization with a long cutscene that does a great job of contrasting the differences in personality between Jess and Soph. Sure, they're both jubilant killing machines when it comes to Nazis, but their interactions thus far do a great job in making each feel like they're their unique own character as opposed to just a model swap. Jess is the more confident and brash of the two, while Soph is often anxious, but cautious and tactical. They also seem to have resentment and jealously issues regarding their parents as well as a competitive streak.

As far as storytelling goes, there was a lot to mine in the brief time I had, and even more enticing unanswered questions lay over the horizon concerning the fates of characters from The New Colossus and the state of the world in Youngblood.

I Don't Like The Combat

There's this moment early on in The New Colossus where you first get the rotor-operated shotgun and then proceed to run down a hall in a train, blasting into a line of Nazis pouring out of their rooms, decking the halls with what's left of them. To me, this is what defines Wolfenstein's action: You are a constantly moving tornado of death, sucking up and ripping anything that comes at you to pieces.

Youngblood goes in the opposite direction. Enemies now have lifebars and level numbers floating above their heads. A lot of them, from the lowly grunts to the Supersoldaten are bullet sponges compared to their counterparts in previous games. During my demo, I had to blow through an entire magazine of shells to kill a single medium-tier grunt (most of my shots being up-close headshots).

There's nothing wrong with experimenting with ideas or changing up a facet of a series. However, much of the reason I love Wolfenstein's combat is that it eschews the RPG-lite mechanics of shooter looters like Destiny, Borderlands, and The Division. Youngblood's hard pivot to that rigid design bums me out, and I did not enjoy a single moment of it during the demo.

The Leveling System Is Wonky (But Promising)

MachineGames' take on Wolfenstein has always had a slight smidge of RPG with its perk system. In the three previous games, you unlocked permanent buffs and inventory-slot increases by reaching certain milestones (killing a certain number of enemies with grenades will allow you to carry more, for example). In Youngblood, the perk system has been replaced with a more traditional skill tree and leveling system. You kill Nazis, you gain experience, you unlock skill points that let you buy abilities.

On paper, this sounds like a pretty cool idea. However, the execution of it (thus far) is uneven. Alongside some stat buffs, a number of the early abilities you can unlock in Youngblood are things you could already do in every previous Wolfenstein game, like dual-wielding weapons. Having to grind to unlock abilities you should already be able to perform from the outset isn't fun. Hopefully the later skills in the tree actually give you more novel powers and advantages so that they feel like rewards worth pursuing instead of gated content I resent.

The Co-Op Elements Seem Forced So Far

To be fair to the experience I had, I played my demo with a co-op buddy not well versed in first-person shooters. A lot of the dourness of my experience can be chalked up to having to constantly revive someone who struggled with the combat during that session. A co-op session with a good friend or someone else who understands the importance of communication and is skilled at shooters could dramatically improve my enjoyment of the experience.

However, outside of that experience, there are things on a design level that just aren't great. Similar to Left 4 Dead, there are segments where players have to work together to get past a gated area. Sometimes that means hitting two switches. Other times, it means fanning out to search for a floppy disc containing the key code you need for the door blocking you from progressing. These moments felt like chores more than anything else.

Hopefully the final version has fewer of these segments.

There Are Microtransactions

During the game, you collect currency that you can use to buy outfits for Jess and Soph, including suit colors and various helmets. You can buy gold bars with real-world money if you don't want to waste time looking around for the in-game currency. For a game that's never been particularly invested in fashion, it does seem like an odd enticement for players to spend money. 

Update: Based on information during our hands-on and interview with MachineGames, we originally said that microtransactions would be more than cosmetic. Bethesda has since clarified in a public statement that microtransactions are for cosmetic options only.

I'm Still Hopeful

A lot of what I've said here might sound like I'm coming down on the changes that Youngblood are making to the series rather hard. I don't do it in the spirit of someone grumpy that one of his favorite games is changing, but instead because I think a lot of what I saw are questionable design choices that directly impacted how enjoyable my experience was. All of that said, I still think there's a lot of potential with that skill tree (if the later skills are powerful) and the dullness of the spongy combat is probably lessened if you have a bud along for the ride. The bits of story I've seen have also suggested that, if nothing else, the narrative here will be an interesting continuation of where The New Colossus left things.

For more on Wolfenstein, check out our review of The New Colossus here.