Wolfenstein: Youngblood is desperate for you to know that it’s a game that wants Nazis dead. The levels consist of swastika-draped streets and buildings filled with seemingly endless waves of fascist soldiers. Its characters talk about little else than how much they want to find Nazis and kill Nazis. The most important among them are Jess and Soph Blazkowicz, the twin teenage daughters of previous series’ protagonist BJ Blazkowicz. As they fight through an alternate history 1980s Paris that, following the prior games’ timeline, is still occupied by German forces, they trade quips about killing Nazis, gather intelligence on important Nazis, and spend all their time shooting Nazis.
The twins work with a Parisian resistance group to thwart the plans of a jumped-up general whose goal is to reform the somewhat depleted, in-game Nazi party into a Fourth Reich. Youngblood, even by the standards of the desperate, madcap story arc kicked off by 2014’s The New Order, is a ridiculous game. Throughout it, there are self-serious discussions on whether to hop between dimensions of reality to find a better, Nazi-free world (as if the same neon-soaked, synth-pop-and-arcade-cabinet ‘80s of our real world was a time of global utopia). There is also, incredibly, a subplot that positions the game’s depiction of climate change as a nefarious, earth-ruining contingency plan designed by Hitler to avenge his death.
Mostly, though, Youngblood is a game of endless first-person shooting. The baffling decision to introduce systems that allow for role-playing-style experience points-gathering and levelling up are accompanied by a huge number of “side missions” whose forgettable objectives continue to repopulate the menu screens throughout—and beyond—the main story. Having introduced, at long last, the need to “grind levels” in a Wolfenstein game, the game offers little other sense of narrative progression than unlocking new combat abilities and systematically infiltrating enemy control points.
Youngblood’s action sequences, interrupted far less by cutscenes and narrative-heavy exploration segments than its recent predecessors, is more defined than ever before by repetitive shooting. There is some set-up—BJ has gone missing in Paris and Jess and Soph are out to find him, against the wishes of the adults in their lives—but, once it’s out of the way after the opening missions, the player is encouraged to relax into a goopy-brained trance of juggling between weapons and popping timed abilities to help her co-op partner kill Nazis.
This seems like the logical progression of the increasingly flimsy storytelling that’s filled The New Order and its direct sequel, 2017’s The New Colossus. Both of those games, despite the surface-level exceptions of The New Order’s multinational band of resistance fighters, are pop historical revisionism of an ugly sort. They eagerly reconfigure the nuances of the Second World War’s calamitous fighting into a simplistic core. Rather than confront less obvious facts about the War or the modern world, the games consist almost entirely of digestible moral outrage over a distant Nazi Germany; rather than acknowledge how fascism has slithered into today’s mainstream culture, Wolfenstein is is a series that dangerously attempts to both assert the mythological goodness of post-war America and gesture broadly toward a base acknowledgement of the country’s abhorrent 20th century history.
The only valid through line these games have managed to maintain is that Nazi Germany was bad and that, yes, it was justifiable to kill Nazi soldiers. Every other historical topic brought up by its WWII-influenced setting that requires a few more moments of thought, it seems, is up for grabs.
This helps explain a lot of Youngblood’s generalized, toothless approach to its increasingly tepid alt-history story. After the monumentally ill-timed reinforcement of American exceptionalism provided by The New Colossus, Youngblood is eager to tread more water exploring the puddle-deep thesis that Nazis—and Nazi ideology—existed (and, following this, exist) entirely within the realm of stahlhelms and iron crosses, of direct references to Hitler expressed in German. Jess and Soph come from an America that’s overthrown the previous game’s Nazi occupiers and, having grown up in a “normal” version of that country, seem to have identified the fascist threat as a purely external one, despite the game’s German empire still holding onto large swathes of the globe—and The New Colossus temporarily showing that many US citizens were eager collaborators with a regime gone from power only a few decades prior.
None of the larger questions of how global fascism (which is, in 2019, a tremendously important topic to explore) proliferates are brought up. Jess and Soph are tourists from a “free country” who have come to France help stamp out the Nazi infestation like idealist gap year students building new houses in Latin America without any understanding of the deeper, socioeconomic issues that require foreign house-building in the first place. In an inadvertent recommendation for selective genetic propagation, they’re also novice fighters who seem to have inherited their dad’s superhuman martial talents, destroying the enemy against overwhelming odds where the French Resistance has floundered for decades accomplishing nothing of note. They don’t have any special insight into the Nazis—they only know that they’re bad and that, per the game’s understanding, the world will be healed forevermore once they’re all dead.
Youngblood is so wholly ideologically adrift that it sees no contradiction in now making the character of Grace Walker—previously a leader in The New Colossus’ fictional Black Panther analogue—into the director of the FBI. If there’s a reason for this that fits the blank space where the previous story’s vision of the United States used to be, the game doesn’t supply it. Instead, alt- and real history are now haphazardly blended to such a mushy degree that trying to form a coherent understanding of the series’ views on the dangers of WWII fascism is largely useless.
There’s a sense that none of this matters anymore, no matter how generous a reading players may supply. The past, for Youngblood and the last few Wolfenstein games is, like its Nazis, nothing more than an aesthetic—no matter how politically charged it may have tricked its players into thinking its references to, and depictions of, a skewed 20th century history might have been. (An in-game collectible that details a rejected novel about an “unintelligent and incompetent” leader who gains power in the Reich and plans to erect a giant concrete border wall means nothing in the greater context of everything else here. Limp parodies that hold the American president up alongside Nazi officials are hardly biting political satire if no further commentary is added to the comparison.)
Instead of grappling with difficult questions about just how pernicious far-right ideology is, even in the case of seemingly “reasonable” people across the globe, Youngblood portrays Nazis as an antiquated phenomenon—an aesthetic defined by jackboots, swastikas, and German-speaking monsters, rather than the manifestations of a reprehensible outlook that by no means came to an end in 1945. If this is the best anti-fascist popular art videogames can currently muster, we shouldn’t expect the medium’s mainstream to contribute any substantial help in changing the terrifying direction of modern politics.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.,