Five years ago, Wolfenstein: The New Order took a gloriously silly, decades old game about shooting Nazis and turned it into a gloriously silly, throughly modern game about shooting Nazis.
It married lightning-quick gunplay with a pulpy, sci-fi yarn about monstrous mechanical Panzerhunds and fascist moon bases, while somehow making a nuanced hero of protagonist BJ Blazkowicz.
But after three lauded titles, developer Machine Games has torn up the playbook, creating an often bizarre, occasionally brilliant and frequently confounding co-op shooter that’s as formally experimental as any triple-A release in recent memory.
For starters, BJ has gone missing, with his fierce but immature twin daughters following his trail to Nazi-occupied Neu-Paris. You play as either Jess or Soph, with an online buddy taking control of the other sibling (it’s possible to play with a computer-controlled companion, but the AI is so infuriating it’s not much fun).
Every encounter requires tactics and communication – run in all guns blazing and unforgiving Nazis will soon splash your gizzards to the wind. Even early areas require one player to draw fire while the other picks off enemies from distance, and larger baddies are virtually impossible to tackle head-on.
The other major departure is the world design. Gone is the linear structure, replaced by a quasi-open world with areas you can revisit as new missions emerge. Machine Games called upon the world-building expertise of Arkane, the studio behind Dishonored, and it shows in every inch of Youngblood’s dense, vertical environments.
The various locales of Neu-Paris aren’t just battle arenas, they’re rich with environmental story-telling, from a grotty rebel’s flat tucked away in a dilapidated neighbourhood, to an apartment block converted into sadistic Nazi interrogation chambers. Exploring Wolfenstein has never been so compelling, though its frantic pace does tend to discourage tourism.
It’s not all good news, however. The central story is weak and unfocused, told by characters so forgettable I’ve already forgotten most of them. I’m also unconvinced about the new RPG-lite levelling system, which frequently brings the action to a halt, something that’s especially problematic when you’re playing with a friend.
But it’s hard to fault a developer for taking risks. When Youngblood’s disparate elements come together – when you and a mate somehow drag yourselves through an impossible encounter, cheering as the last Nazi falls to his knees – it’s genuinely thrilling.