It’s natural for a franchise to evolve and expand beyond its roots to stay relevant — just look at 2018’s God of War as a perfect example. While the beloved road trip felt like a necessary change to not slip into territory that had become too familiar over three numbered entries, one underwhelming prologue, and two underrated portable experiences, there are other franchises that are changing their DNA to jump on trends that simply don’t suit them.
Far Cry is one such game that diverted too much away from the liberating nonsense with New Dawn: a budget sojourn that crammed in RPG mechanics where they didn’t belong, turning the chaotic violence of the series into a looter shooter of sorts without much charm. Bethesda and MachineGames have done something eerily similar with the recent Wolfenstein: Youngblood, which could not feel like a bigger departure from the refreshing, no-frills nature of the near perfect The New Order if it tried.
Released in 2014, The New Order was one of the biggest surprises of the year, an unexpected revolution for a franchise that had been pulled in every direction with 2009’s Wolfenstein barely registering critically and commercially, with its failure resulting in the series being put on ice.
With MachineGames behind the wheel, they took the franchise back to its simple roots five years later: pure Nazi-killing power fantasy. Those tired by the FPS conventions at the time (cover shooting, regenerating health) found plenty to love, all backed by super tight gunplay that felt great no matter what you had in your hands, mouse or controller. The tone was struck just right, a wave of misery and attrition tempered by some light-hearted B movie ridiculousness, helping BJ to become a far fuller protagonist than he ever had been along the way.
Shortly following the sales success of The New Order, a spin-off by the name of The Old Blood was released, which served as a prologue that stuck to the same principles as the 2014 surprise hit. In 2017, the mainline The New Colossus was released, which, while still a sturdy FPS that was critically successful, sent the series into a sillier direction that was not universally loved by fans. Sales took a hit, also not helped by a busy release schedule.
Following the pattern set by The New Order, The New Colossus also received its own standalone side content with Wolfenstein: Youngblood and Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot. The bigger of the two games, Youngblood was announced as a co-op experience with players assuming control of one of BJ’s dorky teen daughters. Available at a budget price, Youngblood has so far not set the world alight, debuting to middling critical reception and a less than ecstatic response on Steam, where it currently sits on Mixed reviews.
Having played and reviewed the game, along with every modern Wolfenstein entry, it’s easy to see why the faithful have largely turned their back on Youngblood. It’s just not Wolfenstein. It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of too many cynically-minded modern mechanics that strips away the core of what made The New Order such a success.
The most obvious change comes with the heroes of the story, who, while not as unlikeable in my eyes as they are for others, are no BJ. They spend their time guffawing at themselves and repeating the same goofy surfer dude one-liners, and while there’s nothing wrong with an irreverent tone, they offer so little to connect to emotionally that any dramatic moments fall utterly flat. Beyond Zofia puking after her first kill before returning to celebrating, nothing else about the pair has stuck in my mind.
The polarising duo are just about the least of Youngblood’s concerns, however. Everything about it screams of an attempt to shoehorn the franchise into a live service future that feels entirely misjudged and somewhat desperate. From the random challenges to the bullet sponge enemies to the microtransactions, Youngblood is a depressing concoction of the industry’s most vapid habits and a complete antithesis to the originality offered by The New Order. It’s only taken five years for the franchise to lose its sense of self.
Where Wolfenstein once allowed you to kill Nazis in any way you saw fit, Youngblood gives even simple soldiers health bars with different ammo types doing different damage. Bizarrely, a pistol can sometimes be more effective than Wolfenstein’s version of the BFG. Each enemy now also comes with a level, which autoscales with your level once you reach their initial level, making it all feel entirely pointless. What is the purpose of pouring hours into levelling up if you can never really feel that progression?
Youngblood also goes down the pseudo-open world route with a handful of environments with almost the same enemy placements each time. Considering that you will find yourself traipsing through the few environments over and over to complete objectives, it’s just tiring. While this allows Youngblood to give the player a tonne of collectibles to discover, it strips the series of its laser-focused gameplay. This, in combination with the bullet sponge enemies, makes it feel like too much of a slog, even at just ten hours of gameplay to dust off the campaign. There is absolutely nothing wrong with linearity — not all AAA franchises have to shove in open environments to pad things out.
The unnecessary modernisation is completed by microtransactions, which have been crowbarred in to the experience to further suit the live service oriented experience. Live service games are ten a penny nowadays, but there’s a reason so many utterly fail — time is precious, and with so many games vying for a shrinking share of the market, there are only so many hours players can invest.
Wolfenstein doesn’t need to and shouldn’t change itself to fit trends, an ironic situation considering how little The New Order gave a damn about being the next Call of Duty. Bethesda not along boldly proclaimed that they wanted to #SavePlayer1, yet everything they’ve released since then just makes it appear like they’re doing their best Ubisoft impression with a startlingly similar model. Fallout’s reputation has gone down the drain following the laughing stock of 76, Commander Keen was revived to be shunted onto mobiles, and The Elder Scrolls was expanded with a mobile game laden with game-changing microtransactions.
Following the less than stellar reaction to Wolfenstein: Youngblood, it could go down as an unsuccessful experiment that Bethesda shrug off for the third main game or even possibly the catalyst for it to be put back on ice after consecutive poor sales for the franchise. If Youngblood is to serve as the basis for the next game (which the ending seems to suggest), maybe the latter option is best for everyone involved.