This ain’t your Gen X daddy’s “Wolfenstein.” Just few hours in, the latest installment of “Wolfenstein” — a series that has long lived on the single-tracked rails of a first-person shooting game — opens up. There’s a hub area, quest givers, a branching open-world map with secrets and hidden high-level enemies.
The “Wolfenstein” games, the progenitor of the most popular gaming genre in the world, have usually been straightforward point-and-shoot affairs. “Wolfenstein: Youngblood” is breaking down walls and peering into spaces owned by games like Destiny and The Division, and it sounds as if this could be the future for the franchise.
“We try to reward our game developers a little bit and tried a few things outside of our comfort zone,” MachineGames Executive Producer and co-founder Jerk Gustafsson told The Washington Post.
“Youngblood” is innately a lower-risk effort for experimentation. It’s a much shorter game than previous entries, and has been priced accordingly at $30. Developer MachineGames partnered with sibling outfit Arkane Studios, most famous for the “Dishonored” stealth series and more recently, the open-ended survival horror game “Prey.”
MachineGames also has roots in open-ended gameplay. The studio was founded in 2009 by seven former employees of Starbreeze Studios, which created the “The Chronicles of Riddick” games, starring Vin Diesel. That series won acclaim for its more visceral, intimate approach to first-person combat. The DNA of both studios is built into Youngblood. But it’s the pivot from the core dynamics of an FPS to something more intricate that stands out the most in this title.
“We wanted to combine that with our key strengths that we’ve iterated for so many years, with the immersive combat and strong focus on story,” said Gustaffson.
The change could be a striking one for fans looking for the simplicity of a traditional first-person shooter. Even though Gustaffson acknowledges it was a risk, the role-playing elements in “Youngblood” — like a skill tree and weapon customization — may show up in future “Wolfenstein” games.
“It’s a step in a direction where we might absolutely use this in future products,” Gustaffson said. “It’s likely we might do something similar.”
Arkane Studios’s knack for level design is evident, with secret indoor areas to discover (with some atmospheric storytelling), and a feeling of verticality that keeps you running and jumping up into third-story floors of certain buildings.
Beyond the introduction of the aforementioned RPG dynamics, there are smaller differences, too. The enemy Nazis have numbers and “health bars” floating over their heads. You need different types of ammo to kill certain types of enemies.
The game’s biggest issues in an initial four-hour playthrough was how the stealth mechanics and role-playing elements often clashed with classic, fast-paced gameplay of a “Wolfenstein” title. Worrying about juggling enemy types and health bars can feel counterintuitive to how frantic the combat can seem. And even if the game can be played solo, those number-crunching logistics seem more suited to an online cooperative shooter, like the games that inspired “Youngblood.”
Speaking of which ... for the first time, “Wolfenstein” can be played online with another friend. In fact, for the $40 version, your friend can join you for free to play as either Soph or Jess — the twin daughters of B.J. Blazkowicz, the Adam of first-person shooter heroes — even if they don’t own the game.
The focus on cooperative online play, it seems, is not just a narrative change either. It’s also an attempt to catch the series up to gaming’s streaming culture.
“We see how the business is evolving and we see how a new generation of gamers consumes games in different ways. There’s a lot of viewing games, participation,” Gustaffson said. “MachineGames will always be solo, we will always make solo experiences. They must be fun to play, but also fun to watch. We wanted more opportunities for variation and scenarios to play out, not only in the linear fashion we’ve done previously.”
Since the game’s release late last month, it’s received mixed feedback. While it’s garnered decent praise from critics, some prominent online reviewers like YouTuber Skill Up called it an “absolute catastrophe.”
Based on my play to date, “catastrophe” seems like a stretch. The addition of microtransactions might be worrying, but they’re not at all intrusive, and mean almost nothing for a relatively short game. It’d be better to judge MachineGames’s ambition in a larger title with more story, more levels, and more ways to let these new “RPG lite” elements stretch their legs. That game isn’t “Youngblood,” however. And so, we look to the future.
While there’s need for improvement, it seems smart for the studio to tinker with the formula and iron out its kinks before the inevitable “Wolfenstein 3.” No fans will agonize (much) over an offshoot story, but a miss with the main franchise would lead to a far greater outcry. Just how bold will the developers be when B.J. Blazkowicz is back in the picture?