Wolfenstein: Youngblood assumes you already know that Nazis are bad.
That’s not the worst thing in the world; previous games in the series nearly edged into torture-porn territory to show you that the Nazis — and those who sympathized with their goals — were sadistic and evil. Youngblood takes place in a world where Adolf Hitler has been killed by B.J. Blazkowicz, but the Nazi threat has not been completely wiped out. And now Blazkowicz is missing. The game’s story doesn’t really concern itself with making the point that Nazis are still bad; it trusts you to bring that context in with you.
Blazkowicz’s two daughters, Jess and Soph, leave home to search for him, complete with high-tech super suits that look like something out of Warframe. They fall in with a group of French resistance fighters who promise to help find their father, as long as they do a few favors in return. Youngblood takes place in an alternate-history version of the 1980s, but rarely has fun with the time period outside of the old-fashioned computers and collectible 3D glasses that are strewn around the levels.
The entire campaign can be played in co-op, but don’t worry if you want to go it alone; the AI does a competent job of attacking the enemies, healing you when you fall, and providing you with buffs. Playing with a friend is great fun, but I spent most of my time playing solo and had no problems. It took a little while before I was used to watching out for the sisters’ three shared lives — I lose one if both sisters get knocked down before one can rescue the other, and I restart at the last save point if I lose all three — but there are few other serious deviations from the basic first-person shooter gameplay of past Wolfenstein titles.
That isn’t a knock against Youngblood, which is a far simpler, more immediately satisfying game than its predecessors. You don’t learn as much about the other characters in your resistance cell, although putting their base in the French catacombs, surrounded by skulls and leg bones, is a nice touch. There are few cutscenes and very little characterization of any kind. The narrative moves at a good pace, and there is always something to do.
Which is what is so impressive about this $29.99 release: There’s so much to do. There are missions, side missions, challenges, and ways to level up your character and your weapons. Youngblood is organized around a fast-travel system that is ostensibly linked to the Paris subways, and you’ll be moving around the city to kill important Nazis, recover stolen and re-stolen intelligence, and do whatever it takes to find your father.
But there are few actual environments in the game — I keep traveling around the same limited number of levels that I can explore in more detail as I unlock new weapons and abilities, and more sections of each area open up as the missions demand them. The whole thing is structured almost like a Metroidvania, but the missions and story keep me bouncing around the map in such a way that it’s easy to forget I’m always headed to one of the five or six areas in the game. It’s a clever way to mix some of the stronger parts of open-world titles with the more linear structure of first-person shooters, while still offering levels that are large enough to tackle in multiple ways. In some ways, the setup reminded me of Halo 3: ODST.
While I miss the stronger story and twisted freakouts of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, there is something to be said for a first-person shooter that just wants to deliver the bare minimum of story and characterization while relying on the strength of the play itself to keep me interested.
And Youngblood features some very good shooting, complete with a wide array of enjoyable weapons that can be upgraded and shaped to provide a good variety of offensive options. Melee attacks also remain one of the most satisfying way to take out your enemies, which meant I often stuck with throwing axes even when I had the option of more fantastical weapons that make the Nazis explode into a shower of guts and sparks.
That’s a long way of saying that if you just want to murder or mutilate fascists in all sorts of bloody ways, Youngblood has you covered. The addition of a new weapon-matching system where you have to make sure your gun is strong against the correct type of enemy by looking at their armor icons and matching them to your gun type doesn’t add much to the action, but it’s also not annoying enough to be a problem. I’m not sure why it’s there other than to offer a new idea of some kind. It isn’t necessary; the core game is enjoyable enough without such a thin wrinkle added.
Youngblood also seems fan-friendly in a way you don’t see from many big-name first-person shooters. You can pay real money for weapon skins, but the upgrade path using in-game currency feels fair and satisfying by itself; I was never tempted to pay into the system to get ahead. The $39.99 Deluxe Edition comes with a “Buddy Pass” that lets you invite as many friends as you’d like to play co-op with you, although only one of them can be playing with you at any time, and they can’t play by themselves without buying their own copy. Still, it’s a nice feature to make sure you always have someone to play with, and the game’s size easily justifies the price point.
And while this all may seem just serviceable in description, the basic building blocks of the Wolfenstein franchise are so good, and everything from the animations to the rhythmic flow of the battles themselves are so rewarding on their own, that I found it hard to walk away to do anything else. Youngblood grabbed me and held tight, and while there aren’t many interesting new ideas in it that shake things up, there is also almost nothing the game does poorly. While I have plenty of nits to pick, the entire package left me smitten; the formula works.
The opening scenes of the sisters training to survive in combat, matched with the vomiting and joy that comes from their first time actually killing a Nazi, provide a hint at an interesting story that the game quickly backs away from. Youngblood is a meat-and-potatoes first-person shooter where all the systems work well, the enemies provide a brutal challenge, and a friend can come along with you through the whole thing. It seems like it was designed as a relatively inexpensive crowd-pleaser of an FPS, and I will admit that I was very entertained.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood will be released July 26 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a final “retail” download code provided by Bethesda Softworks. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.