Will Wolfenstein Work As Co-Op? After Hands-On With Wolfenstein: Youngblood, We're Still Unsure

Our first hands-on with Wolfenstein's co-op debut leaves us with a lot of questions.

When news first hit last year that Wolfenstein: Youngblood was going to be a two-player cooperative game, I was confused. Wolfenstein's hallways are famously narrow; its playspaces relatively straight forward. It's never really lent itself to working alongside another person. Despite loving the newly interchangeable dual-wielding and topsy-turvy plot in Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, I found that the lackluster level design suffered in turn.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood, it seems, is vying to be a direct answer to that particular criticism. Youngblood will be the "most open-ended Wolfenstein to date," a group of us in the press are told at a demo event. (MachineGames even enlisted Dishonored developer Arkane Studios to help with development.) It's a sequel heralding the longest gameplay time in the series so far; though judging from its new systems, that might be heavily counting in replayability rather than campaign length.

It's also introducing light character classes and progression to the series, which goes up to level 40. The changes separate both characters from one another, and with each level up, you earn points that can be used for specific abilities. Weapon customization is being upped a notch from previous entries too.

For our demo, we play through the first mission of Wolfenstein: Youngblood. In it, Wolfenstein hero B.J. Blazkowicz and his wife Anya's daughters head out of America in search of their father, who has gone missing after a suspicious covert operation in Europe.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood opens on two parallel scenes: B.J. teaching his teenage daughter Jess how to hunt, and Anya training their daughter Soph to fight. The scenes happen at the same time, establishing each twin daughter's singular connection with a parent. When they return to their home later, they goof off with each other and call each other by the names of the fictional heroes of a series of detective novels. You'd almost think that Nazi rule was eradicated with the semi-mundane quality of the scenes; but the truth is more believable: Nazi rule may be gone in America, but it's not elsewhere. They are always a threat.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a distant sequel to Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, 2017's critically acclaimed shooter. Unlike The New Colossus, which kicked off right where its predecessor ended, Youngblood is set 19 years later. Where we last saw Anya pregnant with twins as B.J. and company incited an American Revolution on live TV, we now see the parents with graying hair and 18-year-old daughters in the 1980s.

Grace, my favorite of the new characters introduced in The New Colossus, is revealed to be the head of the FBI now. Her daughter Abby (last seen in The New Colossus as a baby) is just a teensy bit older than B.J. and Anya's daughters, and the three are shown to be close friends. They end up hijacking a helicopter with the goal of heading to Paris, where B.J. was last seen. Soph and Jess, despite having no actual combat experience, think they can find him.

You can play with A.I. controlling the other twin too, but what fun would that be? | MachineGames/Bethesda

Upon arriving, Soph and Jess are sent on a mission by Paris' resistance leader to kill a Nazi general named Winkler in exchange for information on their father. They lie and say they have experience in assassinations, which they get away with. Following this intro quest, players will be able to tackle a variety of missions in a non-linear order. Thus, we embark on our first mission, flying up to an airship with all-metal Da'at Yichud power suits on.

We watch as the two sisters clumsily kill their first Nazi in a cutscene. After, they vomit and rambunctiously cheer at their own triumph. It's morbid, but light in the way only Wolfenstein can really be. From there, two players take control of the newly-minted Nazi slayers.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood introduces loadouts, each serving particular playstyles. I play as Jess, opting for abilities and a loadout that better-serves sneakiness with long-range guns. One of the abilities I choose for her is a special invisibility cloak, which is good for getting the drop on enemies. (When you attack, the invisibility goes away.)

There's also customization, wherein your power suit and helmet can take on different styles. There's an especially cool Hammerhead-shaped helmet I spot in the menu, but it's devilishly expensive. The currency to buy new power suits, helmets, and even gun upgrades is silver coins that you can find in-game. The coins are plentiful, as I see in my demo. And even though you're playing co-op, the armor, health, and coins you come across aren't shared. For instance, my partner broke open a box at one point, and while they took what was inside, I was still able to bust it open myself to plunder its goods. So at the very least, there won't be real-life bickering starting over a greedy companion snagging all the health in a room.

The demo is shockingly easy, which is strange considering the brutal difficulty the Wolfenstein reboot series has become known for. With the new "Pep Signals" ability, players can overload each other's health or armor at any given moment. (Throwing up metal horns or fist bumps boost your co-op companion's health or armor; myself and my colleague chose them each individually, though you can double up on Pep Signals too if you don't care about one of the boosts.) Ammo and armor in general seem more common in environments too, but you can now only overload your health and armor via Pep Signals rather than picking up a bunch of extra armor or food.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood's setting is 1980s Nazi-occupied Paris. | MachineGames/Bethesda

A lives system also returns to Youngblood. Yourself and your co-op partner share a pool of lives, so when your comrade is downed, you'd best revive them in a timely fashion. However, the only time my co-op partner and I really struggle is the end of the airship part of the demo, when we encounter a boss who, scarily, has the same power suit we have on. They cloak themselves to be invisible and zip around quickly. We overcome it though; and in a cool co-op manner as the foe dangles off the edge of the airship's wing, we each shoot one hand and watch them fly into the jet propeller.

We survive the ensuing crash-landing of the airship somehow, and find ourselves in the midst of a ruined Paris. It's a lot grimier down here than from up high, where you could gaze out and see how the Nazis have uglified landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. My co-op partner and I admire some nearby graffiti art, and continue on our way through the streets heading toward the headquarters for the Resistance in the metro station—our central headquarters for this game. Unfortunately, we run out of time before we can see it.

Despite Wolfenstein: Youngblood's developers assuring us this was a more open-ended sort of game adjacent to Dishonored, we really didn't get a taste of how that is. The levels, while slightly wider, still feel very new era Wolfenstein-y; and in that respect, not especially conducive to co-op gameplay. The foes we faced, like those annoying armored guys who charge at you, were still widely familiar despite the nearly two decades since the direct predecessor in-game. There is still a "take down the commander so the alarm doesn't go off" component, making stealth at least some necessity. While I'm compelled by the quirky characters and mystery at the center of Youngblood, I can't say the new progression system or the level design has me as enthused to see the adventure through.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood, of course, is playable entirely solo too (with A.I. controlling the other sister), but that would take away the chief intrigue of the renewed experience. I came away from Wolfenstein: Youngblood still curious by the idea of having a new way to experience a Wolfenstein story. But not really having an idea about how the "open-ended" level design that sounds more co-op friendly shakes out, I'm at the moment just cautiously optimistic.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood will be out July 26 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. If you pay $10 more than the base price at $39.99, you'll be able to play with a friend who doesn't even own the game in its entirety too. For more on the Blazkowicz twins' adventure, check out our Wolfenstein: Youngblood guide for additional coverage and details.

Tagged with Arkane Studios, Bethesda Softworks, Blockbuster, Co-op, E3 2019, FPS, MachineGames, Opinions, PC, PlayStation 4, Shooters, Switch, Xbox One.

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