Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Wolfenstein games are hard to dislike. Who doesn't like brutally snuffing out Nazis with the same ease of cracking a knuckle? I can't imagine there are many people who don't find that entertaining in a video game. But when the idea of massacring Nazis is the only thing your game relies on to be considered a good game, things can start to slide downhill. That's exactly what happened to Bethesda's latest entry to its flagship Nazi-slaying franchise—Wolfenstein: Youngblood.
While this game didn't ruin the franchise by any means, it's clear that the developers ran out of ideas at some point, and somehow, brace yourselves, they made Nazi-killing grow boring.
A horrible first impression
The worst part of Youngblood is the beginning. It took me several hours of gameplay (roughly 10) before I started really enjoying anything the game had to offer. Which is disappointing, because after you finish the tutorial level, you're already roughly 30 percent done with the main campaign, according to the stats menu.
The game opens with some charming flashback cutscenes, portraying the Blaztowicz sisters growing up with their mother and father, hunting and learning how to kickbox like normal Americans (little on the nose here, but they are being trained to survive). These cutscenes are...fine. I found myself more charmed by the writing and acting of the supporting cast than I did of the Blazcowicz systers, but they did throw out some zingy one-liners occasionally to reel me back in. After you're through a couple of cutscenes, the game preps you for the tutorial level, where you board a zeppelin with the intent of slaughtering a Nazi general on-board. There's one more cutscene once on the aircraft, which, to me, was the best part of the entire game as the sisters experienced their "first kill," and then you're off to the races.
In this tutorial level, you're walked past various how-to messages and rooms filled with niche mechanics made to drill certain mechanics of the game into your head, like a room filled with nothing but a giant jump puzzle to train you on double-jumping. These were all standard enough for the start of a game, if unimaginative, but what really left a sour taste in my mouth was the combat.
Right away in this tutorial level, it was easy to identify what I'd hate in this game. What was marketed as a fast game that rewards quick combat and brutal kills actually punishes you the faster you go. And yet, at the same time, there is no intuitive cover system beyond just crouching behind something and using the wonky tilt controls the game offers to support a more methodical approach. In other words, no style of combat feels satisfying even when done with efficiency, resulting in very awkward encounters that should otherwise feel epic and challenging. The trailers of the game all boasted this high-speed roller coaster of combat, which Bethesda has done very well in the past with Doom, but this game offers you absolutely none of the rewards or warm fuzzies you get for doing so in that title.
The actual act of shooting, despite the impressive array of badass guns and other weapons, is the worst part. Bullets go into enemies, but they don't actually look like they're being shot. They just stand there still like robots as you sink enough bullets into them to kill them. The sounds of gunfire from your own barrels are too quiet, too, which means not only do the enemies not seem to care that you're lighting them up with vengeance and fury, but your hellfire doesn't really feel like hellfire to you, either. Not to mention, you can sink hundreds of bullets into a beefy bad guy or boss, but they don't recoil from the damage or even change their mechanics as they become more damaged. They just feel like mannequins holding guns, standing there only to absorb your bullets like a sponge without giving you anything rewarding in return.
The rhythm of combat and the actual act of shooting bad guys is incredibly unsatisfying and clunky, which is a bummer, considering the concept of shooting Nazis was all this game had going for it.
When the game opens up
After the tutorial showed me how repetitive and horribly boring combat would be for the rest of the game, the first official chapter showed me that there are some redeeming qualities. The dystopian world of Nazi-occupied Paris is well designed and great fun to look at and poke around. The floods of boring enemies littering the streets blunt that a bit, but the good feeling is still there. This is where you start to get new skill points and use new weapons, too, like mounted laser turrets and incendiary grenade launchers. The weapons in this game are quite unique and a blast to experiment with, which just further bums me out that the enemies are so bland and built with such boredom in mind. It feels like a waste of really cool guns, more than anything else.
This is also the part of the game where you're left to your own devices. Pick up a side quest here, kill a bad guy there, investigate a command center, and the list goes on. I like this part of the game, don't get me wrong, but nothing about it stood out as unique to me when compared to other RPG-like shooters such as Borderlands or The Division. Dialogue with NPCs was typically stale and just as generic as the controls and game design, which means I'd almost always prefer to play either Borderlands or The Division given the option. One of the shortcomings this game has on those is enemy diversity and a clear-cut rhythm to combat, which, as I've mentioned, this game just doesn't have.
So despite the environment looking good and being fun to explore, it's only barely on-par with the competition, and it's not nearly enough to make up for the massive pitfalls of the game.
Hey, you have a sister
The combat is disappointing in its own right, but the game's co-op system is what left me scratching my head the most. The entire shtick of this game is playing together with a friend as the two sisters. And yet, some of the biggest flaws of the game revolve around that idea.
For starters, there's no couch co-op, which means if you want to take advantage of the buddy-cop dialogue the sisters share with one of your friends, you'll have to do so online. This isn't a huge deal, as most gaming nowadays is done online, but it seems like a game built for co-op would enable you to play co-op in as many ways as possible. This isn't the worst part, though. Far from it, in fact. The worst part is that when you do play with a friend and attempt to take advantage of the co-op, you get absolutely nothing rewarding from it. It is so unbelievably bland.
There were endless possibilities for creating a co-op driven skill-based shooter. You could have combo abilities, cool gadgets to use with one another, literally anything. But instead, what Bethesda gives the player are these very forced mechanics where, after combat is over entirely, you'll need to approach a switch or a button to open the next door, but you need to wait for the other player to hit the other button, too. That's all you get, and they're everywhere. Other games utilized a similar mechanic as a niche mini-puzzle to solve at one or two doors, but this game uses this mechanic for nearly every single door, and in every single quest. You also need it to open certain chests. And what does that do for the game, exactly? Nothing. It does nothing but remind you that there is, in fact, another player in your game, as if you didn't already know that, but it doesn't affect gameplay in any sort of positive or reactive way.
The game's audio is up there among the worst issues it faces, too. We mentioned the sound of bullets and combat being dull already, but the soundtrack is the real kicker. Or rather, the lack of a soundtrack. When you land in your first tutorial level, you'll notice there's this sort of low, quiet ambient background noise. Get used to that, because it doesn't go away. Aside from the over-used short yelling phrases that both the sisters and Nazis utilize mid-combat (it's clear they ran out of VO and had to start cycling lines very, very quickly), that ambient noise is all you're going to hear, even in the most intense circumstances.
There's no awesome old-school soundtrack like the trailers of the game might have led you to believe, there's just quiet. Awkward, horrible quiet that almost makes you not ever want to get into a fight in this bright world full of bullets, cussing, and murder. At most, you'll get a crescendo and a beat to the ambient noise when a fight breaks out, but before I even became aware of that crescendo happening, I was already several hours into the game, if that speaks to how little impact it has on the eardrums. When I turned on my own music behind the game (Rage Against the Machine), it felt so much more enjoyable, which makes me think of how much of a missed opportunity this incredibly lacking soundtrack could actually be.
With the right music, I wonder what other mundane or exciting things in Wolfenstein could have felt alive and fun? I'll never know, I suppose, because I'm stuck with this weird ambient music, instead.
All in all, there are only a couple of things this game does well, and when I say well, I only mean passable. The guns are diverse, but you'll still find more diverse guns in other similar games. Some of the characters are quite memorable, and the environment is pleasant to experience. That's about it.