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.