We have to confess that before we sat down to play Wolfenstein: Youngblood, we were unaware that Arkane Studios was co-developing the project with Machine Games. It's an interesting partnership to be sure, with the masters of action-stealth teaming up with the studio that gave us the excellent Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus as recently as late 2017.
It doesn't take too long for the fruits of this partnership to become obvious either, as the level design and environmental art style that Arkane has been perfecting for years in Dishonored is immediately apparent here. Exploration around Dunwall and Karnaca is one of the best things about the immersive sim series, as Arkane has the knack of creating interesting playspaces. Furthermore, environmental versatility is something that we've seen in Wolfenstein before, with different routes built into the various levels, and that seems to be the case here too, although it felt a little less prescriptive in Youngblood, the upcoming Wolfenstein threequel that we sat down to play ahead of this year's E3.
We should probably stick a pencil in and rewind this cassette a little because this new Wolfenstein game takes place in 1980, many years after the events depicted in The New Colossus. By now BJ and Anya are living in a free country, where the Nazis have been pushed back, but that's not the case everywhere, and once again BJ is called back into action. And so off he heads to France, but for reasons that remain unclear, not everything goes according to plan and reinforcements are required. That's where you come in.
As we mentioned before, the game is set in 1980 (which, incidentally, is the year that the first Wolfenstein game came out), but this time we're playing as one of BJ and Anya's twin daughters, Jess and Soph. The sisters head out to Paris in search of Daddy BJ and, of course, to kill some Nazis - something they delight in telling people despite the fact that they've done no Nazi killing to speak of beforehand.
And so it's with these two Blazkowicz brats that we take on the Nazi threat in their own backyard in a game that, for the first time in the series' history, has a strong co-op focus. Either playing with a friend or supported by an AI-controlled sibling, you take on the role of one of the girls and do like dad would by blasting your way through waves of heavily-armed enemy soldiers as you search for your lost pops.
The girls play differently from one another, although the differences are more to do with abilities and weapons rather than more substantial changes to the way they traverse the environment. Jess, for example, comes with an upgraded battle rifle and an ability called 'crush', while Soph, on the other hand, has an upgraded shotgun and a cloaking ability. That said, the devs assured us that you can "have your cake and eat it" by adapting your loadout via a range of weapon upgrades that let you add silencers, scopes, and extended mags to your guns.
One of the big additions and a feature that feeds into the new-found co-op approach is the use of hands signs, or "pep signals" as they're called. These gestures are signals of encouragement between the sisters that can boost health, and the game is very much balanced against you actually using them, and failure to give your sis a thumbs up every now and then will surely lead to some unnecessary deaths. It's a nice idea that keeps the players constantly in touch with one another and gives you another thing to think about during combat.
Another interesting feature is the shared pool of lives. If one sister goes down during a gun battle, she can be revived. If there's a death in the family, however, the girls have a number of extra lives that can get them back in the fight, although you'll need to restart the whole level if you've run out and both Jess and Soph bite a proverbial bullet (as we discovered during the demo).
Experience points earned during battle level up the twins and can be spent on unlocking new abilities. There didn't seem to be a particularly expansive skill tree to explore, but we did note a range of abilities just waiting to be accessed, including one to knock down opponents and carry heavier weapons. Hardly revolutionary, but in a game about kicking the crap out of Nazis, there's not much point reinventing the wheel.
It's no longer strictly linear, and the game opens up after the introduction. Apparently, we'll be able to play missions in any order in different slices of the city, and that is more comparable to the level structure in Dishonored than it is The New Colossus and The New Order before it. Indeed, Bethesda is calling it the most open Wolfenstein game to date, and that should also extend to having a bigger pool of weapons, advanced tech befitting the futuristic gadgets of this alt-version of 1980, plus new weaponry and armour.
And you'll need improved gear because Wolfenstein: Youngblood presents quite the challenge. During our hands-on, we encountered plenty of bullet sponge enemies - the kind of naughty Nazis who won't go down even when you shoot them straight in the head. There seemed to be a system in place that requires players to match the right kind of ammo to the right kind of enemy, with your opponents tougher if you're trying to put square bullets in round holes. We only cottoned onto this new feature late on during the demo, so we didn't get to experience the full extent of it, but it seems like another way to push players towards different weapons and mixing up their tactics on the fly.
Our hands-on started with an infiltration mission set aboard an airship, and there were some entertaining story moments throughout that really tied Youngblood to its predecessors in terms of tone. The twins had to mix it up between first-person platforming and visceral combat sequences. As per usual, things start off sneaky with the girls moving in tandem and taking down guards with stealth kills where possible. Naturally, at some point, things will go loud and the gun battles begin, and then it's the usual mix of careful aiming, environmental awareness, and utilising your abilities (and pep signals) to stay alive and push ahead.
The second part of the demo took us back down to Earth, specifically to the streets of Paris. We were looking for the Resistance, who are hiding in the catacombs under the city, and along the way, there was plenty of enemy soldiers to deal with. It was when battling through the streets of occupied Paris that Arkane's design and style were most keenly felt, with tall imposing buildings, alternate routes built into the levels, and plenty of guards unknowingly taking their final patrol. As we moved through the level looking for trouble, we noted that the slightly larger areas were linked together by bottlenecks where much of the action seemed to focus. We tried to exploit the environment wherever we could, which sometimes meant sneaking around, while at other moments we were manning turrets and unleashing hellfire on those down below.
As we were cycling between weapons, alternating between stealthy takedowns and booming setpieces, and firing off round after round into heavily armoured Nazis, it all felt very Wolfenstein - maybe a touch quicker than before, but still in keeping with the tone of the series. Moreover, the co-op element seems to have been implemented well, although we're interested in seeing how the game handles when played solo with an AI-assistant (something we weren't able to do during the demo).
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is looking to mix '80s style and the series' signature blend of gameplay elements, with the whole thing held together by the new two-player focus that seemed to work well and reinforce the chemistry between the sisters. The demo we played was pretty solid save for a couple of rough edges, but with the co-op shooter set to land on PC and consoles on July 26, there's time enough for Machine Games and Arkane Studios to add more spit and polish.
Loading next content