It's fitting that a game about cooperation is itself the result of two studios collaborating. MachineGames have brought in the lauded Arkane Studios to assist on this new entry in the Wolfenstein series and their fingerprints are all over it. For better and for worse.
I got to play through the first two levels of Youngblood and there's a lot to take in with just that initial hour or two. It centres not on brooding BJ but his daughters, out on a mission to Paris to find him after he goes missing. I had some fears that the shifts in design would lead to the story, the previous two games' main strength, taking a back seat but senior game designer Andreas Öjerfors assures me otherwise. "I think there's quite a lot of story content, but it's probably told in a slightly different fashion," he explains. "Because we want to give more room for two players to interact and tell their own story."
Andreas is referring to the game's shift to a hub-based world where players can launch missions though the game's "metro system", primary and secondary, from the resistance HQ in the catacombs of Paris, to various different districts which can also be visited outside missions too.
"In the main missions of the game you're gonna have more of a focus on the narrative and the storytelling and cutscenes, but in many of the side missions the game is gonna give you more room to express the story yourself."
Apparently you can tackle the game's missions, including the main ones in an order of your choosing though this won't alter the story much. I didn't actually get to try any of those side missions as they unlock after the section we played, but a shift to a hub world does have me a little concerned, giving unpleasant flashbacks to the naff Wolfenstein reboot from 2009 even if nothing I played suggests anything as dull as that on the horizon.
"Freedom is a big word for the game," says Andreas. "Freedom in how you progress, freedom in how you move through the levels and how you attack combat scenarios, freedom in how you upgrade your weapons and your power armour suit."
Much of this new emphasis seems owed to Arkane's involvement. "When it comes to level design, Arkane has shown us the way, how to do it. We have learned a ton from Arkane in this."
The co-op action is the biggest change and while nothing revolutionary, is well considered. Both in the new, sprawling level design and in the abilities offered to players. Youngblood's levels are positively sprawling compared with the previous Wolfenstein games. Their mix of stealth and action lends itself well to Arkane's penchant for rooftops and twisted alleyways, all winding round each other to give you the means to ambush and flank. Handy, when there's a second person running about to help make those pushes happen. Some of the symmetrical spaces, especially on the Zeppelin that acts as the game's tutorial level, feel a little uninspired in their push to make players cooperate, but once you're on the streets of Paris things do settle into something a little more natural.
It's still perfectly possible to play solo should you desire – Andreas is confident the AI of a second partner holds up. "I've been playing the game a lot at work by myself. I've been doing it with an AI partner. I'm actually surprised how well it works. It's difficult to make AI partners in games and I think we had three goals. The first goal is she should never be annoying. She shouldn't mess up your combat encounter so she kind of follows your lead in what you do. If she goes down and bleeds out it's going to be because you put both of you in a bad situation."
And the other goals?
"The second goal is to make sure she actually contributes. She doesn't steal your kills or anything but she does her part in it. And the third is we want her to feel like a person. That she acts pretty natural, and a big part of that is the banter between the sisters that triggers dynamically."
No Wolfenstein game is anything without its shooting and Youngblood feels much more robust than the floaty feel of New Colossus' gunplay. The accompanying mechanics of cooperation are what make it more engaging though. Not only do the sisters each have armoured suits, with customisable loadouts and special abilities, they get "peps", little gestures like a thumbs up that can restore health or boost damage. It's utterly preposterous that a little gesture is going to revive a sister from death, but it certainly goes hand in hand with the playful nature brought about by the two sisters' personality.
"I think the game is more playful," says Andreas. "Both in gameplay mechanics, like the double jump, we didn't have that in [New Order and New Colossus], it just didn't really fit and I think the sisters are more lighthearted than BJ."
If it sounds like I'm rattling down a lot of different things here then that's where the problems begin to come in. Youngblood is a bit overwhelming with its skill trees, customisable guns, loadouts, abilities and peps. It's quite a bit to manage, and given the lack of really dramatic differences between certain options (is 50 per cent more health all that different from 50 per cent more armour?), it's hard to distinguish a lot of it. It feels unfocused, like the developers weren't quite sure what they wanted the game to be and have instead made it a hybrid of several games – not quite perfecting any of them but not messing them up either.
This messiness extends to the moment-to-moment play too. Stealth has never felt particularly robust as a feature in the recent Wolfenstein games, but that was less noticeable when the levels were more linear. Now the clumsiness of its sneaky bits come to the forefront in an uncomfortable way. It's so tricky to understand lines of sight that sometimes you get away with what seems like walking right in front of the enemy's eyes, and other times you're spotted while crouched on a balcony across the street. It's certainly easier to decide when and where to be sneaky with more room to manoeuvre, it's just keeping undetected that's difficult to pull off. There is an ability that lets you turn invisible that helps, but it feels like a cheap fix rather than an elegant solution to the issue. Though the assumption is never that you will be sneaking your way through the whole game.
"I think it's going to be difficult to stealth through the entire game. I think we expect players to mix. Sometimes you stealth, sometimes you shoot. We wanna provide you with the tools to play the game the way you want to and that's something we kind of tried to do with [New Colossus], I don't think we did it nearly well enough. That's something I think this game does much better."
Shooting fares much better but even this gets bogged down by bullet sponge enemies. Nasties that can soak up bullets is one thing, but the lack of feedback makes it a chore to whittle them down and worse, they're mostly tougher versions of existing enemies so they don't add an interesting challenge to encounters, they just take more ammo. When the player characters feel so vulnerable too – a couple of soldiers can easily take you out – it seems a little unfair to throw these health-buffed baddies into the fray. An attempt perhaps to balance out the presence of a second player – but a lazy one.
No matter what though, Youngblood has two things that will inevitably hold my interest regardless of how the rest turns out.
Firstly, just god, what a treat it is to have a big co-op game to dive into. We took these for granted over a decade ago when it seemed like every big budget title had a co-op campaign following the popularity of Halo, but nowadays they're extremely thin on the ground. "Everything is better with friends" can certainly be a cheap crutch for a game, but it doesn't make it any less true. It helps that Youngblood feels built for players who aren't speaking, so even playing with strangers should be fine, but the personality provided by the two sisters' ongoing banter throughout levels helps make it feel like a co-op experience at all times. This is a story with two leads – and it wants you to remember it.
Asked whether this might be the end of an era and a chance for a passing of the torch from BJ to his daughters to carry the franchise, Andreas sheds some interesting lighting on the shape of the series as planned. "That hasn't been our thinking at all. We just wanted to make this game, that's how we work. We don't save much for future games. When we have an idea for a game, we put everything into that game and do it the way we want to. We had an initial idea about BJ's story arc for example, when we did the first game and we continued that in [New Colossus], so this game in a way is a side story that happens after what we originally envisioned as the trilogy. So this is later on in the story of the Blazkowicz family."
Does this mean we're going to see a Wolfenstein game return to BJ's story?
"I'm not saying anything, I'm just saying… [laughs]… we've spoken a lot about this when we spoke about [New Colossus]. Yes we always had the idea of a trilogy in mind and I know our creative director [Jens Matthies], when he wrote the New Order, he knew where the story should move."
Secondly, perhaps more importantly, is the continuation of the story begun in Wolfenstein New Order (or arguably preceding that depending on how you interpret the series' canon), which has been home to some of my favourite characters of recent years. Invested in them as I am, I care about their ultimate fates, even if this switches the action to a mostly new cast lead by the two sisters. It's too early to make a call on the members of the French resistance, but the sisters' pal Abby is already a delight and her dynamic, while fresh, is every bit as engaging as the friendships of the previous games.
Youngblood is still interested in doing as much thematic heavy lifting as the previous two games, the early hours dominated by a tale which sees two traumatised, broken adults trying to prepare their kids for a world that has haunted them. Soph and Jess aren't much like their brooding, haunted father or their strict mother. Having never seen combat they have, despite rigorous training from their parents, been left with a lust for life and goofiness that imbues Youngblood with a very different feel. The game takes the sisters through their first kill, but subverts the trope of recent gritty reboots and does away with the two girls being left disturbed, instead having them laugh and squeal with elation. Their playful nature informs the game's tone, too.
Questions are hinted at over who exactly these two women have been raised to be. When your parents have spent their whole life fighting and don't really know how to stop, what parts of their trauma do you inherit? Whether it can live up to the possibilities is anyone's guess, but Youngblood definitely has fertile ground for something meaningful.
I am slightly concerned by the absence of a villain character like the last games had. The Nazi regime as a faceless empire can function, but Deathshead or Frau Engel helped illuminate the horror and folly of the Nazi mindset. Without them or someone like them, Youngblood's foes are without menace or anything meaningful to explore. I certainly felt like New Colossus lost any momentum or direction towards the end and the same may be true again here. Perhaps someone will be introduced later, but for now I have my concerns.
So, I'm a bit up in the air about just how well Youngblood will stick its landing, but it's got more going for it than the New Colossus and offers a mixture of story-driven campaign and co-op that doesn't exist elsewhere. That could be more than enough, but if the Arkane influence does pay off and the story does too, then Youngblood could be the highlight of an already very memorable rebooted series.