Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus.
We originally published this review the morning of July 25, but have since updated with our final thoughts and a score after having spent ample time with the online co-op.
It's almost impossible to feel optimistic about the state of the world when every morning is filled with headlines that are sadder than the day before. In Wolfenstein: Youngblood, its characters feel a similar fatigue to the state of everything. It's set 18-something years after the events of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, wherein B.J. Blazkowicz and his comrades assassinated a Nazi commander on national television, and incited America as a country to fight back against Nazi rule.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood's opening moments put B.J., his wife Anya, and their twin daughters Soph and Jess in Mesquite, Texas in relative happiness. They're not wholly in domestic bliss though: the two daughters have trained all their lives to learn how to fight, because you never know when things can go sideways. In other regions of the world, the Nazis are very much still in power, even after Adolf Hitler's alleged death at the hands of B.J. sometime in the gap between The New Colossus and Youngblood.
Fast forward to the ruined streets of Paris, France, where Jess and Soph are in the heat of Nazi-slaughtering action in search of their missing father. Walking out of a dilapidated metro station, Jess expresses to Soph her worry that everything they're fighting for is for nothing. For every Nazi they kill, another just sprouts up, she says.
And it's true: Youngblood has a new embrace of open-ended level design, courtesy of help from Dishonored developers Arkane Studios. The game is separated into three large hub worlds, rather than the strictly linear nature of the past two games. You take on main story missions or side quests in your hub at the Catacombs from the French Resistance, and pursue the waypoints when you enter the area. In each mini-world, you can clear out a small area of Nazis, but the next time you return, they're always back. Is fighting back even making a lasting impact? Is it worth it to fight back against evil if it always comes back—sometimes even bigger and stronger than before?
The answer is yes, of course. Just like the terrible events of the world, it's always worth speaking up about and pushing back against. That's the message that courses through Youngblood.
In Youngblood, you're rewarded literally for your persistence with ability points and currency. The former can be used for abilities like boosting your armor; the latter on upgrading your guns' accuracy, firing rate, or damage, or unlocking new cosmetic power suits. And unlike its predecessors, Youngblood encourages you to fight alongside another player.
Youngblood is the first co-op game for the series. Instead of moping around as B.J., like the first two games in the series (and the standalone prequel The Old Blood), Soph and Jess are mostly excited about their new duty as Nazi killers. They gas each other up if one takes down a heavily armored foe, like a Panzerhund. They fist bump or dance mid-combat, an in-game move called a "Pep Signal," which rewards both sisters some sort of designated boost. (Playing as Jess, I had her do a robot dance Pep Signal which replenishes both characters' armor entirely. It felt a little bit like cheating sometimes.) It's a more boisterous tone for Wolfenstein, though it's not like the series has ever been completely serious in the past. It's just campier now, with some pointed '80s movie-esque flair for good measure.
Grace, the most memorable character introduced in The New Colossus, even has some blood in the game, with her daughter Abby joining Jess and Soph for the ride. The trio have believable chemistry, with the voice acting and writing for them perfectly selling their friendship and how they're reckoning with coming into adulthood in this Nazi-dominated world.
Unfortunately, where Youngblood doesn't work is in the solo experience. When I was whining about having to play a co-op game with a—god forbid—A.I. companion due to a co-worker on the opposite side of the world having our other code, my partner joked, "You never know, they could be super fuckin' chill."
But the A.I. was the opposite of chill. The A.I. controlled-Soph would constantly put herself directly in danger in chaotic situations, leading me to have to put myself in harm's way to revive her when she got downed so that we didn't lose one of our allotted lives. You can have up to three lives on retention, but they're shared. If you lose all your lives, you're sent back to the start of an area, which in the longer critical path missions is a painful setback. In the giant boss fights at the end of main story missions, it feels like it's essential to coordinate with your co-op companion. But in solo play, even marking who Soph should target did basically nothing.
It's unfortunate for fans who want to enjoy the latest Wolfenstein game in solitude. While I'm looking forward to cleaning up the last mission of the primary story and doing lots of side quests with an actual co-op partner upon its PC launch, the rough A.I. of Soph made the solo experience more frustrating than I would have liked it to be. In the best cases, she barely felt like she was there, and occasionally helped with a useful Pep Signal. In the worst, she negatively impacted my rhythm. Wolfenstein is at its best—action-wise—when you're challenged and know that eventually you can overcome it. Instead, I just felt challenged by the A.I. getting herself killed.
Still, it very much feels like Wolfenstein, only with less narrative glue and exciting setpieces holding it all together. It's still useless to aim down gun sights due to their largeness, unless you have a scoped rifle suited for it. You can dual wield too, but only if you get the upgrade for it, thanks to the new abilities and leveling up system. The gun-feel overall just isn't quite as tight as what you might find in other first-person shooters.
But the level design, thankfully, is Youngblood's chief improvement for the series. It's definitely economical in reusing spaces, like this year's Resident Evil 2. It has three large hubs that missions and side quests weave you through; both in large Nazi facilities to extensive underground areas. The underground sections often have you navigating with a flashlight, and actually reminded me a lot of the Metro series.
Wolfenstein has never had level design that's been conducive to its intense action. Its narrow corridors have never been ideal for the stealth it encourages, nor are they great for the loud approach. In Youngblood, the stealth returns, but a new invisibility cloaking ability that you can equip on one of the sisters makes it already feel more useful.
The levels themselves, too, have a lot more variety. The same slim passageways return, but there are now-wide spaces with lots of verticality as well. In the open streets of Paris, there are of balconies that you can even leap up to, or alternatively you can duck into alleyways. You can find hidden collectibles (like '80s German pop music on cassette or miscellaneous notes written by Nazis) if you take the time to explore deeper. You can go loud in combat with the LaserKraftWerk, or quietly headshot unsuspecting soldiers with your silenced pistol from behind a car. When entering a Brother facility, you can sneak in around the side and get into small skirmishes along the way, or you can take down the giant robot guarding its front door if you think you have the fire power for it. There are options.
The new Wolfensteins have always encouraged multiple playstyles, but Youngblood is the first time they've actually felt viable. I'm looking forward to actually experiencing it with another person at my side at launch, and not with A.I. that doesn't know to stay away from the feet of a Nazi robot stomping around.
When I left off on my last review check-in, I was feeling mixed about Wolfenstein: Youngblood. The level design is the best it's ever been and the new characters are endearing, but I found the single-player experience to be frustrating. After exploring even more sidequests and finishing up the main story with a human companion at my side, I still feel largely the same way.
While Wolfenstein: Youngblood is more fun with an actual gal at my side, it still stumbles in big ways. As you reach the higher levels and work toward the final mission, the enemies in turn scale with your strength. Their armor becomes near-impenetrable, and rather than enemies feeling like they're harder to fight, they just take much longer to take down. I hoped that bringing another player along with me, both at a friend capacity and a random stranger, would help alleviate this bullet sponge feeling, but it was still present. After finishing some brutal encounters, I realized that even being rid of my wonky A.I. buddy couldn't salvage Youngblood's cooperative core.
It's an unfortunate letdown. You see the potential for co-op throughout; from the symmetry of its environments to how jovial Soph and Jess are when they talk to one another. When I was playing with a friend and later with a random player, I found myself wishing it felt more like we were actually working together to take down the waves of Nazis. Instead, it just felt like we were coincidentally shooting in the same direction. And when I was playing with A.I., I wished the bot wasn't as dumb as one of the Nazis on the receiving end of that very laser.
Still, at a bargain price point, there's a fair amount of game in Wolfenstein: Youngblood. You can play it solo, invite a friend along for the journey, or even just open up your game to random matchmaking so a stranger can join you. You can even turn off voice chat if you want a solo experience that isn't really solo. There are dozens of side missions to tackle along the three major hub worlds too, in addition to timed challenges Abby offers up in your base. If you critical path it, you can finish in under ten hours, easily; and for diehard fans, I'd reckon it's at least worth the journey, even with its faults.
All in all, Youngblood doesn't have as much of the gripping narrative dressing that makes its immediate predecessors so absorbing. It relies almost completely on the action itself to drive you onward. Thanks to the Arkane Studios-infused level design, it's a much more rewarding experience in that regard, but it also fumbles on its biggest selling point: being a co-op adventure. While it's fun enough to play with a friend, the action never necessitates strategizing with a companion outside of some hard boss fights. It's run and gun always, as Wolfenstein has always been at its best at.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood improves the series in key areas—namely in level design—but it doesn't capitalize enough on it being a co-op experience. Working with your sister is limited to pulling a switch at the same time, and not much else. You can split up in combat to confuse your enemies, but situations barely call for such finesse. At the very least, new characters Soph, Jess, and Abby all infuse a welcome goofy '80s adventure movie enthusiasm that makes Youngblood an entertaining romp through the world of Wolfenstein, with Nazis aplenty to eviscerate along the journey.