GameCentral plays the new co-op focused Wolfenstein spin-off and talks to its designer about split screen gaming and fighting Nazis.
Of all the many reboots and reimaginings that have appeared over the years the Wolfenstein games are easily our favourite. The reboot series started with The New Order in 2014, which reinterpreted Wolfenstein 3D in a modern style that payed homage to its origins but also mixed in elements of stealth and an exceptionally odd style of storytelling that managed to combine the most serious of subjects with complex, emotional characters and batshit crazy dialogue and humour.
The resulting mixture not only worked but turned out, initially purely by coincidence, to be a timely parable about the evils of fascism and bigotry. A sequel followed, with a full trilogy always the implied goal, but between the first two there was the smaller scale prequel The Old Blood. That’s how Youngblood started out too, until it’s vision for a co-op Wolfenstein turned it into a much bigger release than was originally intended.
We know all this because we met with MachineGames senior gameplay designer Andreas Öjerfors, who explained how the game came about and how it differs from the previous titles. Before we spoke to him though we also got to play the game ourselves, taking control of one of B.J. Blazkowicz’s two teenager daughters. The game is set 15 years after the mainline entries and although B.J. is in the opening cut scene the plot revolves around his girls trying to discover what happened to him after he goes missing during a mission to occupied Paris.
In the game’s alternative history storyline America has been freed from Nazi occupation but they still rule the whole of Europe, although the exact state of the world was not made plain in what we saw. The girls, Jess and Soph, have been trained since birth to be fighters but both are inexperienced and have never been in real combat.
One of the highlights of Wolfenstein is the sense of humanity it gives its otherwise highly exaggerated characters, and as the girls infiltrate a Nazi Zeppelin they try to hide their obvious nerves with false bravado. And when they do work up the courage to kill a guard it’s a clumsy, and extremely gory, mess that ends up with them puking their guts up at what they’ve done and yet still managing to celebrate at the same time.
Both are wearing protective body suits, of the sort seen in the previous games but which you’ve never been able to use as a player character. Although the two characters start off more or less the same the game has a wide range of customisation options, of a kind not seen in the series before. This allows you to unlock extra abilities, like the ability to use heavier weapons, but each character also has their own specialities, with one having a limited use stealth camouflage and the other a unique shotgun.
The basic gameplay is very similar to Wolfenstein II but there are also major differences, with the alarm-pulling commandants having been deemphasised and enemies having one of two armour types that are only susceptible to specific types of weapons, as indicated by a little onscreen icon. There also seems to be more 3D platforming, at least in the section we played, with the suits allowing you to be much more acrobatic than your dear old dad.
A lot of effort has also gone into making sure you’re rewarded for playing nicely, with lots of gadgets, like doors and loot chests, that can only be opened by both of you working together and set pieces where one player is encouraged to man a turret or otherwise provide cover while the other fights as normal. You can also pose or throw signs at each other and if you do them at the same time get a small health or armour bonus.
Many of the enemies are familiar from the previous games, but in all other respects this feels like a completely new game, especially as we’re promised that later levels are much larger and more open-ended than ever before – to the point where a resistance hub is apparently filled with allies giving you side quests. Although we never got to see that ourselves, so we can’t say exactly how it works.
To be honest, we were sold on the idea as soon as we knew MachineGames were still involved but what we played was highly enjoyable and a welcome attempt to vary the style of gameplay as much as possible from the single-player entries. With the clear implication that Wolfenstein III is still on its way those that don’t play well with others needn’t worry that they’re being left out but fighting fascism with friends looks to be a very welcome alternative.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Developer: MachineGames and Arkane Studios
Release Date: 26th July 2019
(Öjerfors happened to have been sitting next to us when we were playing Doom Eternal and we start the interview by comparing notes.)
GC: …in the middle, between where you’re jumping and going up the walls, I got turned around and ended up going back on myself.
AÖ: Yeah, yeah. But that last level with all the enemies in that arena, that was tricky.
GC: I was alright at that bit, it’s anything requiring a sense of a direction I have trouble with.
AÖ: [laughs] It’s actually the first time I’ve played the new Doom, yeah. I loved it.
GC: It’d be pretty embarrassing for all of us if you hated it.
AÖ: [laughs] I probably wouldn’t be entirely honest if that was the case, but I loved it. You get such a sense of flow in it, which I rarely get from games these days – because I play too many games I think. But I really got a huge sense of flow. I thought the mechanics where you have to make choices about how you attack the enemy, to get armour or health, was really interesting.
GC: Yes, I thought that worked really well. So… have you been working on all the recent Wolfenstein games?
AÖ: Yeah, I’ve been working on all the MachineGames ones. I started out at MachineGames as a gameplay scripter. Then I’ve been a game designer, working on game mechanic systems for two products.
GC: So do you work with Jens [Matthies]? I always liked him.
AÖ: Sure, yeah.
GC: Did he work on this one as well?
AÖ: He is not on this one, no. He also wasn’t on The Old Blood, so the person who’s doing the writing on Youngblood is his writing partner Tommy Tordsson Björk. They wrote Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus together. But for these kind of side stories that we do, that’s Tommy only.
GC: There must have been a point where you were deciding what kind of games the Wolfenstein reboots were going to be and given how similar the original Wolfenstein and Doom are it’s interesting to see the different directions that were taken. Why is it that Wolfenstein became the story-focused shooter rather than Doom?
AÖ: I think that the design and writing and art track that we ended up on, when it comes to our Wolfenstein games, has a lot to do with the Starbreeze history of many of the people who work at MachineGames. There was a pretty strong design ethos in games like The Darkness and games like Riddick, and those games are… a lot about the narrative and the world and a certain type of first person experience that’s really… it tries to be this immersive experience and tries to be pretty intense and gritty. And violent and loud.
GC: But there’s really no more story in Wolfenstein 3D than there is in the original Doom. So is there any particular reason why you think that works for Wolfenstein and it wasn’t thought relevant for Doom?
AÖ: In a way Wolfenstein 3D is more of an empty vessel than Doom was. Doom was a much more complete product. If you look at them, they were just released a year apart and I think Doom is actually a much better game than Wolf 3D, if you play them now. I still really enjoy playing Doom 1, Wolf 3D is a maze game where the combat isn’t great. I met John Romero a year ago and I asked him, ‘What was the difference in design here? Why was there such a huge leap just in that year?’
He said it was because of the engine and what the engine allowed them to do. Because they were sophisticated designers already, it’s just that they were held back with Wolf 3D by the engine. When we started thinking about The New Order and deciding what our Wolfenstein should be it’s less about how Wolfenstein 3D plays today. It’s more about the experience we remember having back in 1992, when we were basically kids and it was the first first person shooter we played, and you enter this castle and you’re trying to flee and you’re fighting the Nazis.
We remember it as this intense, violent story of us trying to flee from this castle. So it’s that feeling that we tried to bring back, but how we brought it back was informed by this tradition from stories. The type of stories we like to tell, the type of combat we like to create.
GC: So in terms of Youngblood – and you can totally lie here and I’ll never know…
GC: Was Youngblood always part of the plan? It always seemed obvious you were setting up a trilogy, so at what point did Youngblood become a thing?
AÖ: We don’t have… [laughs] We don’t think that far ahead.
AÖ: At the very end of a product you have to start thinking about what do we do next. What are we going to tell Bethesda we want to do next? So at the end of Wolf II we started thinking about that. We didn’t have a plan that we were going to do this, we didn’t have a plan, early on, that we were going to do The Old Blood while we were doing the other games. We were just trying to make a game and ship it, you know?
So these ideas came pretty late, when we were still doing Wolf II and we started working on some ideas and some designs. And it came together pretty quickly, actually… and probably way too late!
GC: So you weren’t purposefully taking a break from not going straight into Wolfenstein III?
AÖ: What was probably always part of the plan was to have something else in-between the main games. We did that with The Old Blood and we thought that worked really well, so we wanted to do it again. And thought maybe some people can start with R&D on the next one while we do this game based on the game systems of The New Colossus.
So we had an idea that we should do something like that, but when we started thinking about what we wanted for the next game, which became Youngblood, we realised that, ‘OK we want to do something with co-op, because we hadn’t done that before’. And when we started building a design and thinking about levels of structure we started realising that this is growing much bigger than The Old Blood. So it became a much bigger game than what we had probably initially planned.
And that was because, I think, the design the type of game we’re trying to make demands all the content and all that customisation. But we believed in the game we were making, so spending more time on it felt right.
GC: I’ve always enjoyed MachineGames’ work, including the Starbreeze stuff, as the approach to storytelling is so unique compared to other action games. The mix of tones, the silliness with the serious subjects, and heartfelt emotion – that’s very difficult to pull off.
AÖ: It is, it is.
GC: I was a little worried when I heard this would be co-op focused, as I thought it’d mean less storytelling, but that opening cut scene is great, emotional and real and… slightly absurd.
AÖ: Youngblood is probably a little bit more lighthearted than the story of Wolf II. For example, B.J. Is this very brooding figure and the sisters are still teenagers. They’re not necessarily as brooding and dark in the same way, but it’s still a story about oppression and fascism and Nazis and so in that way it’s not a lighthearted story. It’s about the oppression of the city of Paris.
GC: That tonal mix isn’t really present in your previous games though. In fact, I can’t think of any other example in media that does something like that. And I mean that as a great compliment.
AÖ: Yeah. Maybe we’re just lucky that we can make it work. Maybe that’s just the answer. [laughs] But the truth is that this is the type of storytelling our writers enjoy writing, it’s what they like to do. And I think, quite honestly, that us getting Wolfenstein was, in a way, a lucky coincidence. I think the traditions that MachineGames has, that started in Starbreeze, just fits very well with Wolfenstein. So I think that was almost the perfect IP for us to work with at that time.
GC: The worrying thing is how topical it is as well. You could see how Bethesda were trying to almost shy away from the relevance at first and then, to their credit, they embraced it and made it clear that the political message was entirely intentional. It’s such a welcome difference from other publishers.
AÖ: I think we’re just really happy that we can talk about the subject seriously. I mean, Wolfenstein has always been about fighting fascism! [laughs] But it wasn’t really that relevant to current news when we started. It just started bubbling under during the development of Wolf II.
But going back to what you were saying about Wolfenstein and finding that kind of balance between the comedy and the darker aspects, I think that was something… I think the writers had a pretty good idea how to do that. But that was actually something, when we were doing The New Order, that we kind of had to tweak during development. Because sometimes we went overboard with the comedy. Like Blazkowicz had a lot of 80s action hero one-liners that didn’t at all fit with the darker themes and the subject we were talking about.
So we started cutting those back and in the end almost all of it went away before we launched the game, because it was too jarring, you know? So there was a while there, during the development of The New Order, where the writers explored how to tell this story.
GC: Why do you think so many other companies are so afraid of having any kind of message to their game? It’s not like that in any other medium. Even mainstream blockbusters, like the Marvel movies, have very clear things to say about things like equality and racism.
AÖ: All I know is that we were happy that Bethesda has made it very clear what they think and that that matches exactly with how we look at this matter. So yeah.
AÖ: You understand I’m not going to comment on other publishers.
GC: No, I know you’re not allowed to. That’s why I didn’t even name them. But we all know who I’m talking about. I should get into some gameplay stuff before I finish. Was the trailer implying there’s a splitscreen mode?
AÖ: No, no splitscreen. That would’ve been great, and a lot of people at MachineGames would’ve loved it, but that would’ve…
GC: Needed a PS5?
AÖ: [laughs] It’s really difficult to make split screen because you render the game twice and it affects how you do your art assets… So we would have loved to do it but there’s a big reason why you almost never see it. It’s very difficult to do nowadays.
GC: Yes, I realise that.
AÖ: And our games always run in 60 friends per second. We have to do that.
GC: Actually before we finish, I remember I spoke to another of your guys and mentioned GoldenEye, which I assumed had inspired a lot of the game, but he denied it entirely.
AÖ: It’s never occurred to me either! What do you mean it’s been inspired by?
GC: It’s virtually a spiritual successor? The slow-paced exploration and semi-optional stealth, the open-ended objectives, even the leaning seemed straight out of GoldenEye.
AÖ: Wow, that’s interesting. I honestly never thought of it like that. Maybe we should do a Bond game next?
GC: Please do!
AÖ: [laughs] I know the game [GoldenEye 007] well but I’ve never actually played it.
GC: But anyway, the big question I have about the gameplay is how you balance the stealth aspects. I saw commandants but didn’t see any of them running for the alarm. So has that whole element been dropped for Youngblood?
AÖ: The commanders are still there but they’ve been decoupled from the reinforcements. So if an enemy sees you and you don’t manage to kill him before a small time frame you’ve been spotted and there’s gonna be reinforcements. Now, something you didn’t see in this build, but is in the latest version, is we have a stealth bonus system. So if you manage to stealth through a common encounter and you take out the enemies and stealth them and they don’t spot you you’re gonna get bonus experience for all the enemies who didn’t spawn, so that you won’t be punished by using stealth.
GC: Right. I also wonder what happens if one person is playing stealthily but the other is just running around making noise. He’s kind of ruining it for the other player.
AÖ: That’s just the curse of co-op, I’m afraid.
GC: So, just get better friends?
AÖ: Yeah. [laughs] But if one guy wants to go in and be aggressive, and you get the reinforcements and everything, the other player can still be stealthy and the enemies won’t know where he is, and he can still do takedowns from behind. So you can still combine those two worlds that way. You can have the alarm going on but you can still play stealthily while the other guy runs around and kills people and draws the aggro.
GC: The only other thing I wasn’t entirely clear on was the open world stuff. I got to the map for the catacombs, which I assume was going to open up new areas?
AÖ: It’s basically a way to choose which level to load. So you get into the catacombs and that’s the hub of the game and you have a lot of resistance fighters there that have lots of side missions for you. When you get to the catacombs the game opens up and a big chunk of the game will be you basically going where you want to and doing what you want to.
You have several districts of Paris available to you and these districts are, in level design, pretty similar to what Dishonored used to do with the open-ended parts of the city. And you’re going to be able to do plenty of different side missions in any order you want in these different districts that you have available too.
And if you want to continue playing once you’ve finished the campaign you can go back to the harbour. There are still side missions for you to do. There’s gonna be daily and weekly challenges for you to do too. So if you want to keep playing after the campaign there’s tons of content still to do. In playtime this is a much longer game than we’ve ever done. So the main campaign itself, those missions are shorter than Wolf I or Wolf II. But with all the side missions that we have it’s a much longer game.
GC: I assume there’s no PvP?
AÖ: Competitive play? No, no. This is such a big game for us to produce that it was only possible because we were working together with Arkane. But if we had done competitive as well we would’ve needed three studios!
GC: You’ve never done competitive before have you?
AÖ: No, that would have been a huge challenge to add on top of everything else we need to do.
GC: I’m happy with what we good.
AÖ: I’m glad!
GC: Okay, that’s great, nice to speak to you.
AÖ: You too, thanks.
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