Monday, August 5, 2019

Wolfenstein Youngblood (PS4) Review

2017's Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a polarizing experience.  After Wolfenstein: The New Order revitalized the granddaddy of shooting games, the sequel attempted to up the ante with more action, a bigger focus on storytelling, and an aim to dive deeper into the psyche of Nazi killer B.J. Blaskowitz.  The end result was a mixed bag.  The New Colossus ends with B.J. planting an axe into Frau Engel, the fearsome Nazi general who made a life a living hell for not just him, but all of America.  Her death signaled a call to revolution, and in Wolfenstein Youngblood, the country is free from the Third Reich's grasp.  However, B.J. Blaskowitz has disappeared, and the only people who can find him are his twin daughters.

20 years have passed since the events of the previous entry.  B.J. and Anya are older, but they take solace knowing they are able to raise their children in a society free from the Nazi's influence.  They train their kids, Jessica and Sophia, to be fighters like they were.  Thing are going well for the family when B.J. unexpectedly disappears.  Anya has no idea where he went, but the sisters think something is up.  With the help of their friend Abby, the three decipher B.J's last known location, Paris, which is still controlled by the Nazis.  Jessica, Sophia, and Abby steal a VTOL aircraft and set off for France to find him.

Unlike the New Order and the New Colossus, story takes a backseat in Youngblood.  After a lengthy introduction, the focus is on gameplay and gameplay alone, and only during the final act does the story come back.  Those who were turned off by the last game's stronger focus on narrative will appreciate the scaled-back approach of the plot, though its reduction is a double-edged sword.  There's nothing to get in the way of the action, but in the back of your mind you wonder when the plot will resume, and when it does, it feels sudden.  It's also towards the end that the villain, a cliche Nazi general, shows up to serve as the final boss.  The ending is the most interesting part, as it hints at where this rebooted series will go come the next entry.

No, this isn't a shotgun that shoots ketchup.
While the story and antagonist are lacking, the Blaskowitz sisters aren't half bad.  Youngblood is considerably more lighthearted than its predecessor, and the budding personality the twins have keeps the game energetic and lively.  For example, when they enter an elevator, the game cuts to the security camera to show the two goofing off.  The emphasis on adventure and fun means Youngblood has a consistent tone, unlike the New Colossus where it flip-flopped between drama and comedy.

If you've played any of the Wolfenstein games from the New Order and onwards, the gameplay is incredibly familiar, but some tweaks have been applied to shake up the routine.  To figure out B.J.'s location, Jess and Soph team up with the French resistance to disable three towers dotted around Paris.  These towers are heavily guarded, and since the girls aren't as combat savvy as their father, they need experience.  This explanation is how the developers are able to weave in the experience system.  Killing enemies, finding collectibles, and completing missions rewards you with experience.  Earn enough, and you level up and earn a skill point.

Three skill trees allow the player to spend skill points to increase health and armor or unlock the ability to dual-wield and pick up heavy weapons.  If you're hoping Jess and Soph have their own unique traits, they don't, as they share the same loadouts and powers.  Before the game starts, you can choose to either use cloak or crush, but can still unlock the other ability you didn't choose.  Cloak renders the sisters invisible for a brief period of time, while crush lets them charge into obstacles and turn Nazis into bloody messes.  At the end of the game, you unlock a third ability that allows them to grab bullets and grenades in mid-air to throw them back at opponents.

Let me AXE you a question!!
Youngblood's RPG elements are competent, and like Borderlands, enemies are more susceptible to certain types of weapons than others.  On that note, the weapon selection is diverse, and by collecting coins, you can upgrade different components of each gun to improve their usefulness.  Instead of progressing through the campaign linearly, the twins accept missions from resistance members in the underground catacombs.  From there, they can travel to a handful of locations around Paris to accomplish whatever tasks need to be done.  The semi-open world calls to mind the 2009 Wolfenstein game, which used a similar concept.  Traveling back and forth between the lair and outside is a little tedious, but it also increases your familiarity with the layout of each area.

To be an effective Nazi killer requires teamwork, and whether you're playing solo or with a friend, the game emphasizes cooperation.  After all, giant metal doors can't open themselves.  If you choose to play by yourself, the AI controlling the other sister is fine.  It's capable of holding its own against soldiers and mechs and it saved my life on more than one occasion, but there are also plenty of times where it fails to keep up with you and will instead warp to your current location.

Other problems, like the lack of checkpoints, are more puzzling than annoying.  The game autosaves all the time, but if you die, you'll have to start at the beginning of the level.  This can be especially frustrating during the tower missions since those are long, treacherous affairs that culminate in a challenging boss fight, and dying near the end and going back to square one is not fun at all.  The catch is that the game uses a life system.  Jess and Soph share lives.  If either of them goes down, they can revive the other, or use a life.  Once, they're all gone, though, it's game over.  It's an interesting concept, but checkpoints and manual saves would have been a lot better.

In a first for the series, Youngblood features micro-transactions.  Before you raise your pitchforks in anger, let's clarify some details.  First, they only apply to gold bars, which are used to purchase costumes and a couple of boosters that increase health and ammo drops for a limited time.  As for silver coins, those are found in-game and are used to upgrade weapons and unlock special perks you can pull off during combat.  In short, the micro-transactions don't affect the gameplay itself, and never once did I bother with purchasing gold.  Is it unfortunate they're present?  Yes, but it's not like the developers are holding all the gear behind a paywall, unlike a recent remake of a popular kart racer.

It takes to two to make it right, it takes two to defeat giant robots.
Wolfenstein Youngblood is on par with the New Colossus regarding graphical quality.  Character models and locales look excellent, and the gunplay is visceral and satisfying.  Because the game is set in 1980, expect plenty of callbacks to the decade via its visual style and sound design.  In keeping with the times, collectibles include floppy discs, VHS boxes, and cassette tapes, plus the soundtrack is synth-heavy.  However, I encountered numerous technical issues.

On the opening level, the audio phased in and out, and during the second tower mission, I experienced a lot of graphical flickering, resulting in muddy textures and crazy lighting, but everything stabilized after crossing over into a different zone halfway through the stage.  Sound design is also top-notch.  Guns sound meaty and the voice acting is good.   Jess and Soph's dialogue are amusing enough, though they tend to frequently repeat a handful of one-liners in combat.

Wolfenstein Youngblood is a fun spin-off that offers more of the same Nazi-killing action people have come to expect, except this time the mayhem can be accomplished with a partner.  The story is paper-thin and doesn't do anything interesting until the finale, if only then to hint at what's to come.  On the other hand, the gameplay is satisfying, and the RPG elements put a spin on familiar mechanics.  Taking on bad guys with an assorted arsenal of weapons and powers is fun, and the sandbox nature of levels means there are a lot of paths to take to reach an objective or bypass potentially difficult firefights.  It's iterative but satisfying to play.


No comments:

Post a Comment