People looking for their next helping of gruesome Nazi-demolishing action will surely find it in Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the next installment in MachineGames’ alt-history shooter series, but there’s also exceptional character work underneath all the blood and guts. New leads Jess and Soph Blazkowicz, daughters of the franchise’s infamous killing machine, B.J., star as a new generation of scene-stealing heroes who have to wrestle with their father’s violent legacy while carving a new path for themselves. That path leads the young heroes to German-occupied Paris, another city waiting for that signature Blazkowicz brand of liberation.
Jess and Soph do not disappoint as ultra-violent action heroes, armed to the teeth with assault rifles, bayonets, Da’at Yichud Power Suits, and a spectacularly dark sense of humor. The hour-long demo I played at E3 2019 didn’t just jump into the combat sequences, though. Instead, the first couple of minutes introduced a new status quo for the Blazkowicz family: B.J. and Anya have settled down with their daughters in Texas, but that doesn’t mean they’ve let their guard down.
From the very first cutscene, we see how the graying war heroes are preparing their daughters for the fights to come, as Jess and Soph undergo both close-quarters combat and sniper training under the sunlit backdrop of a liberated Lone Star State. These scenes also help establish Jess and Soph’s history in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation in the U.S., primarily how the war feels foreign to them, a conflict they might one day have to participate in but haven’t yet brushed with.
We also see through their eyes a semi-retired B.J., who is somewhat of a relic of the past, at least in ’80s America. In fact, we get the sense that B.J.’s fighting days are almost over and see how he struggles with that reality. The former protagonist is downright depressed about living in the country while the rest of the world still suffers under German tyranny. At some point — Bethesda didn’t include all the opening cutscenes in the demo I played, presumably to limit the spoilers — B.J. decides to take on a secret assignment, this time in Paris, where he goes missing in action.
Thus begins a daring rescue mission into the heart of Nazi-controlled France led by Jess and Soph, who are ready to jump into the fight. At least they think so. MachineGames and Dishonored developer Arkane Studios’ (they’re collaborating on this spinoff) do a great job of showing us just how new this territory is for the Blazkowicz twins, even if it’s all too familiar to us. As soon as they drop down behind enemy lines, after flying off in a stolen FBI VTOL helicopter piloted by Abby Walker (who we first met as an infant in The New Colossus; her mother, Grace, is now the head of the FBI), Jess and Soph begin to second guess themselves. They’ve never been in a real combat situation and have never taken a life.
Fortunately, the opportunity quickly presents itself when the twins infiltrate a Nazi zeppelin flying over Paris. After hurriedly pumping each other up and a little hesitation, Jess and Soph’s first kill plays out to hilarious effect, as they clumsily blow an enemy’s head off, leaving one sister in a fit of nervous laughter and the other vomiting at the sight of a headless corpse. It’s these little moments that distinguish the twins from their dad and make their adventure feel unique, even when much of the combat follows a familiar formula.
“We wanted to do something a bit lighter this time,” MachineGames executive producer Jerk Gustafsson said in an interview after the demo. He also explained that the studios wanted to show a contrast between B.J. and the twins’ upbringing and how that informs their adventures, the latter being a more lighthearted journey. “It’s a good contrast to what we did in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In that game, we put a lot of effort into telling the story of B.J. Blazkowicz and his childhood and his abusive father. It was a very dark story, while in [Youngblood]…the twin daughters have been growing up in a quiet environment with loving parents, so it’s a lot lighter in that sense from the ground up.”
Of course, the twins don’t just offer a new angle with which to explore the Wolfenstein story. They also facilitate a whole new way to play Wolfenstein, as Youngblood introduces co-op to the reboot series. The inclusion of cooperative multiplayer was born out of a desire to try something new, according to Gustafsson, who explained that the studio had used the “same formula” since back when they were still at Starbreeze Studios and working on the excellent The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.
“When we decided to do something with Arkane, we talked about trying to broaden our portfolio [and] learning more as game developers. At the same time, we also felt so comfortable with the gun experience and the shooting we had done over the years that we thought adding another playing into that would be super fun.”
During the demo, I teamed up with another journalist to shoot our way through the aforementioned zeppelin and had a blast while doing it. As I mentioned, there’s not much innovation when it comes to the shooting, as you take down familiar waves of armored and technologically-enhanced soldiers, but there’s no point in fixing what isn’t broken. Additionally, MachineGames and Arkane make the combat challenging enough to make a teammate feel necessary, even as direct co-op prompts (pressing switches or turning valves at the same time) feel a bit superficial. It’s helpful as hell to have a teammate to revive you when under siege by another enemy wave.
The zeppelin level also features a platforming section, which, while not particularly inspired, is at the very least notable for existing at all. The latest Wolfenstein series hasn’t really delved into this type of gameplay and it feels kind of odd in Youngblood, as we navigated a maze of platforms that broke up the shooting in a not so satisfying way. There’s nothing offensive or broken in this section, it’s just a bit odd, and further evidence of how MachineGames is experimenting with the spinoff.
After stumbling through the thug portions of the zeppelin (I preferred a more stealthy approach but my partner was a mad man), we finally confronted the level’s boss, an enhanced and speedy general with the ability to turn invisible and lots of bad guys at his disposal. While defeating the general does involve a bit of communication between teammates, mostly to let the other know when you’ve spotted the invisible Nazi, it really comes down to just pumping him full of bullets. I never felt that the co-op shooting involved much strategy.
Leaving the zeppelin a fiery ruin, we headed to the surface on a mission to find the French Resistance. Standing in our way were waves of stronger German enemies, including the massive Super Soldiers that have become a Wolfenstein staple. Taking these baddies down was the biggest challenge of the demo and involved a few Game Over screens. Fortunately, we pushed forward, eventually finding a turret that made dispatching enemies a little easier. This is where our demo ended.
The hour also allowed a few minutes to explore the game’s customization options. While character appearance is preset, I could choose between two different colored power suits — a gold and a bluish black — as well as two abilities: Cloak and Crush. The former grants you invisibility for a limited time, perfect for stealth kills, while the latter sends enemies flying when you run into them. Using the Cloak was a nice way to experiment in the tight hallways of the zeppelin, even though the game still definitely emphasizes action over stealth, and it’s impossible not to get into a gunfight in certain sections.
You can also choose your “pep” ability — a thumbs up and devil horns hand gesture that heals your partner and grants them more armor respectively. While a cool idea, these pep actions aren’t practical during a firefight, especially when Super Soldiers are rushing towards you.
In terms of weaponry, you won’t spot many new toys in Jess and Soph’s initial loadouts, which you can customize before missions as well. That said, Gustafsson did confirm that Youngblood will feature a new gun called the Elektrokraftwerk, an homage to the Tesla Gun from Return to Castle Wolfenstein. You’ll also be able to upgrade and customize weapons by collecting silver coins scattered around the levels.
So far, Wolfenstein: Youngblood feels like a definite step forward for the series, even if it’s a light step and not a major overhaul of the formula. But that’s just fine, especially when the shooting still feels as good as when MachineGames brought the franchise back to life in 2014. Five years later, Wolfenstein is still as fun as ever, with just the right amount of new features to keep things interesting and two protagonists who may very well upstage their famous dad by the time their adventure is over.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is out on July 26 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and Google Stadia.