As a series, Wolfenstein has always been predicated on the expectation of consensus. It operates on the assumption that everyone knows Nazis are the bad guys. In the past this was a pretty safe bet; in the decades after World War II, hating Nazis was all but an American pastime. It was from this spirit that Wolfenstein was born, justifying its celebration of violence by choosing an acceptable target. But a lot can change in just a short time, and in the three years since the last Wolfenstein game came out, the entire political landscape of several countries has changed. How relevant is a Nazi killing fantasy in this day and age, with Neo-Nazism on the rise? When fascism is only an arm’s length away, can the catharsis still be found?
Wolfenstein: Youngblood introduces the duo of Jessica and Sophia, twin daughters of B.J. Blazkowicz, who are now all grown up and ready to do some Nazi killing of their own. They are on a mission to find their missing father in Nazi-occupied 1980s France, and must work together to support the French Resistance (with help from their friend Abby Walker) in order to track him down. The partnering of the twins, either with a live co-op or A.I. partner, allows for some new combat features that freshen up the gameplay of the previous games. Jess and Soph can revive each other in battle, boost each other’s health levels, engage in strategic flanking and back each other up in ways that subtly revitalize stealth and shooting aspects of the game. As they set out to gain access to B.J.’s last known location, the girls rescue resistance fighters, retrieve intel, and sabotage Nazi operations while aided by their power suits and a new character skill tree to augment their abilities. Together they establish their birthright and legacies as Nazi killers, giving us a glimpse at what’s in store for the third game as our intrepid group prepares for the rise of the Fourth Reich.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood, like many not-sequels that serve as a stop-gap between numbered installments in a series, is a chance for the developers to try out something new before the next big game. And if this is a sign of what’s to come, there are some great improvements potentially on the horizon. While the new co-op elements may seem shallow or gimmicky, for me they were the highlight of the game. Wolfenstein: Youngblood is reminiscent of the many spirited hours I used to spend playing Left 4 Dead and Perfect Dark with my own sisters. There’s something about having a blood relative as a teammate that makes you more intense and protective, and that loyal instinct shone through every moment as I watched Jess and Soph interact, whether flipping each other off in an elevator or picking each other up in battle. There are few things as pure and wholesome and good as the friendship between teenage girls, and the one between Jess, Soph and Abby is utterly endearing. Hanging out with them is enormous fun.
The heartwarming thrill of playing as sisters, however, doesn’t compensate for the game’s toothlessness and lack of energy. Gone are the lengthy, over-the-top cut scenes and mission sequences that personified Wolfenstein II. Instead, Jess and Soph go on a series of non-linear errands and quests at the behest of other resistance fighters in the catacombs beneath Neu Paris. This method of mission delivery is a disappointing let-down from the chaos of the previous games; Wolfenstein needs a certain amount of adrenaline to sell its campy brand of outdated violence, and without it it’s just another shooting game. There’s nothing to carry the game forward once the sheer therapeutic glee of killing Nazis wears off.
As I think back on my time with Wolfenstein II and compare it to Youngblood, I have to wonder how much of my original enjoyment was carried by the catharsis of killing Nazis. It’s the antics of Wolfenstein that allow them to get away with the darkness of their subject matter. And maybe those antics were a distraction from my own despair. Wolfenstein has always had the benefit of timing, and when the reboot sequel came out in 2016, its audience, hot off of President Trump’s election, was ready to blow off some steam. But this time around, it just doesn’t feel the same. In the week I played this game for review, there were three mass shootings. At least one of them was demonstrably the work of a white supremacist. With the rise in racist violence, with Trump still in office, and with right-wing extremism on the rise worldwide, it feels delusional to indulge the fantasy that Nazism is not a real threat. The Wolfenstein games are built on the presumption that a majority of people are on the same page with their worldview. And that doesn’t feel true anymore. Maybe it never was.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a stylish detour that allows the series to safely explore some new directions while setting the scene before the next game. But it’s not taking the risks where it really counts. In an era where right-wing extremism is an increasing threat, and the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred, the visible politics of Wolfenstein can’t shoulder the weight of the game alone.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood was developed by Machine Games and Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for PC, Xbox One and the Switch.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.