If it weren’t for the Nazi flags hanging over this picturesque Parisian square – and the dieselpunk German super-soldiers I’m fighting – I could almost forget I’m playing a Wolfenstein game. The presence of two peppy teenagers and the warren-like level design are a far cry from the rest of the series. But then my shotgun gives off an ear-splitting boom, the Nazi in front of me bursts into flames, and for a moment, it’s like BJ Blazkowicz has never been away.
While developer MachineGames has made a name for itself with previous Wolfensteins, Youngblood is being co-developed by Dishonored studio Arkane. The result is a game imbued with the spirit of Bethesda’s stealthy immersive sim, but where Wolfenstein’s more bombastic nature is never far away.
BJ Blazkowicz may have been the brooding face of the Wolfenstein series since 1992, but Youngblood, set in 1980, focuses instead on his twin daughters, Jess and Soph. Their father has gone missing in Paris during a covert operation, and it’s down to his kids to find him. The twins are an instant breath of fresh air compared to their ageing and battle-weary father, providing not only a framework for the game’s co-op experience, but an altogether more playful approach to the series.
Kitted out with power suits, Jess and Soph are fast and agile, with a double-jump that lets them make use of the game’s increased verticality and winding corridors to get the drop on unsuspecting enemies. When health or armour runs low, they can use ‘peps’ – essentially, gestures – to give their sister a boost. In my demo, a thumbs-up granted health, while flashing The Horns offered armour. Extra life and pickup systems also mean that your sister is able to help you out in a pinch, and that the fight isn’t over just because you’ve been caught in a massive gout of flame from a Dieselsoldat.
A faster pace and lower stakes make them fun to play, but Jess and Soph offer more than just their arcadey new abilities. Conversations snatched in quiet moments may turn around animal ethics, or reveal a penchant for writing short stories. Killing comes naturally to BJ, but there’s an endearing naivety to his daughters as they line up their first hit on a Nazi grunt – at least until his head explodes and the twins erupt into peals of laughter. Their approach might be clumsier, but watching two novices fight their way through the Third Reich is more entertaining than BJ’s more traditional, and mute, onslaught.
The partnership with Arkane means that Youngblood is a more open-ended Wolfenstein game than anything that’s come before. Once Jess and Soph reach the French resistance in Paris’ catacombs, they gain access to three distinct city districts, and can use the Metro system to move freely between each one, letting players tackle missions in whichever order they please.
Youngblood’s greatest freedoms, however, stem from the opportunity to play the way you want. Silver coins scattered around levels can be spent on weapon upgrades – I poured resources into my shotgun, reveling in the increased magazine size as enemies buckled under an endless battering from my enhanced boomstick. If you prefer a stealthier approach, scopes and silencers can be added to your weapons, but Jess and Soph are able to help out on that front too. Killing enemies grants experience, and leveling up offers ability points; ‘Crush’, for example, lets you send Nazis flying just by sprinting into them, but if you want to sneak, ‘Cloak’ makes you entirely invisible for a short window. In the heat of combat, these abilities don’t have a huge impact, but when setting up for a fight, it’s nice to be able to even the odds a little.
When those battles start, though, Machine Games’ booming shotguns and spitting SMGs feel as powerful as ever. While it’s easy to get lost in the devs’ almost unparalleled gunplay, what really impressed me is the diverse number of ways that you can approach a fight. Arriving at a barricade, my co-op ally sprinted to the top of a nearby building, clearing out the Nazis above us while I took the fight to the Panzerhunds in the square below. In another skirmish, my sister took fire from a hulking Nazi brute, and I sprinted to a nearby turret to pepper his flank with auxiliary fire. Caught in a tight spot between two enemies, I was able to dash away through a corridor and out of the building, leading my pursuers straight into the path of my partner’s bullets.
As you cycle aggro and work to outmanoeuvre your enemies, with Jess and Soph bantering and bickering back and forth, Youngblood evolves into a more exhilarating, strategic, narrative shooter than the genre has produced in years. Now in his sixties, exactly what the future holds for BJ Blazkowicz is anybody’s guess, but if the next generation is anything to go by, Wolfenstein has plenty of life in it yet.