Are you considering buying the newly released multiplatform game Wolfenstein Youngblood? Please stop! Don’t do it! Let my purchase and playthrough serve as the warning beacon that saves you from unnecessarily wasting time and money on one of the worst shooters I have ever played, one that highlights some of the core issues with formerly great Bethesda Software and with current shooters in general.
Here is the basic description of the game:
Wolfenstein®: Youngblood is a brand-new co-op experience from MachineGames, the award-winning studio that developed the critically acclaimed Wolfenstein® II: The New Colossus.
Set in 1980, 19 years after BJ Blazkowicz ignited the second American Revolution, Wolfenstein®: Youngblood introduces the next Blazkowicz generation to the fight against the Nazis. Play as one of BJ’s twin daughters, Jess and Soph, as you search for your missing father in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Before getting to my review, a bit of history about Wolfenstein. Way back in 1981 Muse software released Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple ][, as a sort of stealth-action top-down shooter. It was awesome and I loved it and my friends and I played it again and again in college. The next major entry came from id Software in 1992 as a retelling of the 1981 classic and was the first major First Person Shooter (FPS) game more than a year before id released DOOM. In 2001 the sequel Return to Castle Wolfenstein was released to solid reviews, one of the first games making use of the id Tech 3 (aka Quake III) engine that powered the majority of early 2000s shooters (Jedi Knight II, Star Trek Elite Force, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Soldier of Fortune, etc.) – and remains a fun game to play today.
2009 saw an attempt to reboot the series as Wolfenstein, and to quote a review I wrote for a long defunct site “Wolfenstein is a fun romp with some interesting sci-fi / occult overtones and elements, but ultimately a throwaway in every respect.” The plot is a rehash, the gameplay is mediocre … and as a result the franchise was shelved again for five years. Suddenly in 2014 MachineGames was brought in to reboot the franchise again along an alternate timeline where the Nazis won World War II and took over the world – and this time it worked pretty well! The New Order was solid, The Old Blood was a smaller game but still pretty good, and The New Colossus was the best of all the new games. The new series has been praised for gameplay, but also for the narrative style and characters. The main character for nearly forty years has been BJ Blazkowicz, so when a new entry was teased involving his children as the main protagonists, it made sense and was an intriguing new direction that could sustain a new generation of games.
In terms of basic plot setup, the game happens in a world where America and much of the world is now free from Nazi occupation, and Blazkowicz and his wife Anya are raising twin daughters Jessica and Sophia and teaching them survival and fighting skills. Suddenly Blazkowicz goes missing, and the twins believe they know where he is and that they alone can locate him, so off we go on a grand adventure to Paris!
Since nobody is interested in reading a 10,000 word detailed screed about the specifics of everything this game does poorly, here are five key reasons that Wolfenstein Youngblood is a milestone in everything you can do wrong with a game while still releasing it in a finished and relatively bug-free state.
- 1. In a series known for thin plots and minimal characters … this game stands out for bad writing and characters: Look, I wasn’t thrilled by the cutscene heavy narrative style of Wolfenstein® II: The New Colossus because I tend to prefer organically unfolding plots, but by the end I was immersed in everything that was happening and it was one of the better developed shooters of the last decade.Let me be blunt – the writers of the game were woefully inept at writing teenagers and siblings, as the banter is artificial and stilted and forced as if it was written by someone who searched the internet for ‘how do teen siblings talk’ and came across a parody site instead. The plot is workable for the smaller scope of the game – but it is hampered by the lack a true antagonist for nearly the entire game – making ‘finding dad’ your entire purpose, and a weakly fleshed out one at that. There have been way too many arguments on various internet sites about whether critiques are based on the gender of the protagonists, and counter-arguments that the poor characters are a sign of what happens when you try to be ‘woke’ … and both of those things woefully miss the point of the dismal writing and characterizations. There are tons of examples of great female protagonists – and many more examples of poorly written characters. The failure of this game is related to abysmal writing, not gender.
Also, you will never care about anyone – not the protagonists, not the mission-givers, not the enemies, not even your parents. You shoot stuff and get some stylized nonsensical banter in a cutscene and then move on … with the problem for me being that the banter and cutscenes get in the way. When you make non-interactive cutscenes your primary narrative tool, you need to deliver something worthwhile since you have pulled the player out of the game to watch your little movie. Not a single cutscene in Youngblood was worth watching.
- 2. Small world with same old stuff to do again and again: Frankly I was impressed when I first hit Paris – lots of details and interlocking areas to clear, transport between zones and so on. Then I started the third hour of the game and realized I had seen it all – and for the rest of the game all you do is revisit the same areas over and over again sometimes being tasked to vanquish an enemy in the same enemy you just returned from. Once you have completed the first mission and destroyed the first boss you might well be excited … and then you will slowly discover you’ve seen the best the game has to offer. There are a couple of other self-contained areas that are decent, but for me the game never reached the heights of what was essentially the tutorial level.For the most part you feel like you are in a Far Cry type of experience with a central hub and various mission-givers. This is very un-Wolfenstein, and is not done very well. The areas are gorgeous and loaded with details and shifting weather and … stuff you will get to study over and over again. With each iteration the areas feel smaller and more boring, and with no real incentive to clear the area you tend to just run through and get to the target. In a shooter – just think about that for a second.
- 3. Welcome to Loot Box Hell: as you wander around the opening area you will watch a bar slowly fill up and you will occasionally find non-weapon loot to grab. This at first makes the game feel like a ‘looter-shooter’ or as if it has RPG elements – but don’t be fooled. What is happening is you are being primed to buy stuff with actual money. You gain levels that allow you to handle and deal more damage and gain perk points to advance skills, and you pick up silver coins that let you upgrade components of your weapons and armor.This is not like Borderlands where you get special weapons as drops from boss battles, you just upgrade your favorites by spending coins – virtual or (eventually) real. I say eventually because when the game was released you could only buy cosmetic elements such as skins, but already you can buy consumables to help with experience rate advances and health and armor boosts on some platforms. It is only a matter of time until you will be able to buy perks and weapon upgrades – Bethesda has starting adding new microtransactions to the dismal Fallout 76 after saying they ‘never would’ based on initial backlash.
Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE RPG elements in shooters when done well, and the mechanics as currently implemented are well balanced and useful (things like mod-sets that give extra boosts are extra-nice) but constantly seeing the obvious framework for the ‘pay to win’ future is disheartening … particularly in a 15-20 hour long single or two player experience.
- 4. The Toughest Boss is … Your Sister: as you can read in the description above, Wolfenstein Youngblood is a co-op game. Two sisters, two players – ok, that makes sense. Also two options – two humans, or single player with AI companion. Makes sense. Personally I have not attempted two-person mode, as I have always been a single player gamer.So I have had adequate time to evaluate the AI companion – and I am simply stunned that someone would release a game where it is possible to fail a mission multiple times, having to completely restart the entire 30+ minute mission each time, because you are unable to stop your utter idiot of an AI companion from getting herself killed. I was reminded of the obligatory ‘escort missions’ of shooters from the 2000s where you would need to keep an unarmed person safe from point A to B, often in spite of that person’s seeming lack of regard for their own safety!
You have the option to spend perk points and silver coins improving your stealth movement and kill skills – but it is an absolute waste of time as I discovered early on! When you go stealth, your sibling might or might not also engage stealth mode, but once enemies arrive they run screaming and shooting into the fray, which costs your own stealth bonus and typically turns the fight for the worse! On the first mission I heard shooting and should from the other side of a divided pathway and was thrilled that we could split the enemy, then after taking out a large stream of Nazis I head to the other side and she has killed … one. Just as I arrived. I thought – aside from wasting ammo, what has she been doing?
This repeated throughout the game – your AI partner is a terrible shot who seems uninterested in things like taking cover, crouching when being shot at, actually shooting at enemies, learning the proper weapons to use for a given enemy (more on that soon), and generally not getting killed. About the only positive trait is fearlessly running over to assist me when I got injured – unfortunately ‘fearless’ often meant ‘reckless’, and so she would occasionally get taken down either just before or just after healing my character.
And as noted, boss battled were the worst! You would come to a boss that does massive damage in an area with cover, and devise a strategy of how you’d pop in and out of cover to slowly whittle down the armor of the boss and then retreat to collect health and ammo pickups. Sadly, faster than you can say Leeroy Jenkins your partner is right out in the open shooting whatever weapon they happen to have equipped until they die … again. And unlike in many RPGs, you cannot leave your companions wounded while you complete the boss battle and worry about healing them later. And because of the lack of checkpoints or any type of manual save system, this means staring all over again.
- 5. The Armor – Ammo – Respawn Conundrum: I alluded to enemy respawns earlier, but this is only part of the problem. Games with bidirectional mission structure have always had to balance the frequency and amount of respawning enemies to keep the challenge going at a steady rate. Medal of Honor Allied Assault in 2002 had areas where that balance failed and caused issues.But much worse than dealing with respawn is simply figuring out what gun to use to take down each different enemy. Let me start by saying I love RPG and Strategy games, and how so many of them feature either an elemental strong/weak or ‘rock-paper-scissors’ system that dictates combat outcomes. For example in Civilization games you have mounted units that are strong against sword-based units but weak against lancer-based units. Those systems are fundamental to the entire structure of hundreds of turn-based and real-time with pause games … but not so much in action shooters.
Here is the system: your weapons have an icon in the lower right corner near the ammo count, and enemies have a health/armor indicator over their heads (health is red, armor is white). If there are no white icons, the enemy has no armor and you can easily one-hit kill them with a headshot. Everything else is proportional to the number of icons, which all makes sense and is something we’ve seen countless times. However, now enemies will have not only a different number of armor ratings based on icon count, but also different SHAPES of those icons indicating what weapon/ammo you should be using if you actually want to do a reasonable amount of damage.
Again, it isn’t the core system I object to – we’ve seen it before in shooters where you are told that a certain enemy is impervious to everything but one weapon type, and this is typically a boss or sub-boss so it is already a pitched battle and you’re scrambling around to survive and gather enough ammo to win. Half-Life 2 did that very well, as one example. The problem here is that you encounter this with EVERY battle, and will often be facing multiple enemies simultaneously with different armor ratings and types. This means that rather than engaging all enemies a little at a time using standard tactics, you will need to load up a specific weapon and take down the enemies who are weak to that weapon and run around gathering additional ammo … and then repeat that for the next enemy, and the next, and so on. Things feel so completely unrealistic and ‘gamified’ that it yanks you our of what should be an incredibly visceral experience. It is so bad that there were times when facing a massive armored foe and armed with fully upgraded shotguns and automatic weapons … my best choice was the initial silenced pistol I’d gotten at the very start! Also – it is easy to miss that you need to change weapons because most enemies are ‘bullet sponges’ and you are always just unloading clips to take everything down even when using the correct weapons!
So between the armor-matching game, the ridiculous bullet-sponges and the streams of endlessly respawning generic enemies, there was almost nothing that was memorable about the combat – and that is a huge let-down after the last few entries in the series! I might critique the over-reliance on cutscenes in those games, but once I was let loose, I had a blast with the core mechanics. Wolfenstein Youngblood is fundamentally unsatisfying as a shooter – and as a lifelong fan of the genre there is nothing worse I can say about a game.
OK, so while I said I would try to avoid an extended rant on this game – I failed. As you might be able to tell, even writing about the significant issues with this game got me irritated all over again! Some of it is expectations – after a few solid entries my assumption was that this would be a derivative offshoot that didn’t mess with what worked. Also, for a game that gave me no technical issues in a genre that has historically been fraught with day-of-release issues, that means the many problems are ones of fundamental design.
There are no patches to fix the weak character design and poor writing. No hot-fix is going to help the tiny world and repetitive quests. Sure, they could put some work into improving your AI partner, fixing the armor-ammo system and rebalancing the spawning system … but if you look at what has been talked about, you see that the priority is getting more people to play (or at least TRY to play) co-op mode together, getting people to buy stuff to improve their level-ups, health and armor – and eventually just to buy your way to an easier win.
And I left out the smaller annoyances I have with the game – I mentioned the lack of checkpoints, but also the fact that you can’t quit a mission even if you discover you’re too low-level to accomplish it, and the inability to actually pause the game (even in single-player mode!) are mind-bogglingly stupid yet pale compared to the others. Things that would ruin most games are an afterthought here.
I am intentionally skipping the typical ‘what works / what needs improvement’ section of the review, because instead I am going to flatly say: do not buy this game. If you haven’t played Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (or Wolfenstein: The New Order, or The Old Blood) grab those as they are frequently on sale on the various platforms. Even on the Nintendo Switch you can grab several shooters that are much better – The New Colossus, DOOM (2016), and the newly release original DOOM Trilogy. On twitter I noted that I’d replayed DOOM 3 BFG immediately after Youngblood, which threw all of the poor design, gameplay and writing choices into very stark relief.
So please – go home, hug your PC or console, and play a decent game.