Thunder Wolves (TW) sets out to do one thing and it does so very well. This is a fast paced, arcade-style helicopter action game with more explosions per minute than some games have total. There is an actual story with several main characters, too. The story is told across thirteen missions, mostly in the Middle East in the year 1991, but there are a few flashback missions set in South America in 1986. Regardless of the mission or whether you play it solo or with a local buddy, the gameplay is all about blasting the living heck out of hundreds of enemy personnel, tanks, helicopters, ships, AA guns, etc.
Controls are accessible and work well. L3 gives your chopper a very short ‘turbo’ boost, perfect for a quick evade. R3 deploys homing missile countermeasures. R2, which you can practically tape down, fires your infinite ammo gatling gun. R1 is used to fire your rockets; each chopper has three types of these that are hard-set to that particular chopper. To scroll through your different rockets, simply press left and right on the d-pad. The L1 button, which is never actually required to be used, enables a green or gray overlay on screen to simulate night-vision. Finally, Triangle and Square are for ascending and descending. If you play co-op, one player controls the chopper while the other shoots.
Knowing where to go and what to do within the missions is never a problem thanks to clear on screen indicators. Objects marked in red need to be destroyed; the shape of the marker tells you what type of object it is, infantry or tank or enemy helicopter, for example. Enemy structures, which you are often tasked to level, are also marked clearly. Friendly forces, whom you will have to protect and escort on many occasions, are clearly visible thanks to a green marker, while waypoint markers are shown in white. As with the controls, the mission objectives and visual markers are built for accessibility and speed. Each of the thirteen missions takes between ten and fifteen minutes to complete, including short in-game cutscenes that separate turning points in the mission. I played through the game on Normal and literally died just one time. If anything, the game may be too easy thanks to it’s self-healing health system that only requires you avoid taking fire for a very short period of time to restore health.
Another aspect that makes TW easy — although absolutely more fun because of the type of game this is — is the infinite bullet and rocket ammo. The three types of rockets you carry do have infinite ammo, but they also have a cooldown timer or restriction on what they can be used on (as is the case with the laser tag weapon for bombing runs). Generally, you have one generic, “no features” rocket that have the shortest cooldown period, followed by a more advanced rocket like a homing missile, followed by a sort of “super weapon” that has a the longest cooldown period. None of these are interchangeable or upgradeable in any way; you simply unlock new helicopters as you play through the campaign and generally speaking, the latest helicopter that you unlock is the best one to use. Missions restrict which helicopters you can use based on types, which include attack, recon, or supply. Ultimately, the Crocodile ends up being the most powerful, or at least it was my favorite, by others like the Leopard and Scorpion are cool too. For the most part, there’s really no difference which helicopter you use as they all behave so similarly.
Most missions feature at least one segment in which the gameplay varies from all out helicopter action. These moments include ‘on rails’ scenarios where the camera shifts to first person view and you are armed with only your infinite ammo gatling gun. You are then flown around in a predetermined pattern and tasked with dispatching as many enemies as you can. Other instances have you in your helicopter, but sniping individual enemies at long range. I enjoyed the guidance missile sequences too, in which the screen goes grayscale and you control the path of a missile from a first person view. And in one mission, you actually abandon your helicopter entirely and take the action to the ground inside an enemy APC.
These change-ups are welcome, but the primary form of play is in your chopper, and it really doesn’t get old. I completed TW in one day, although it took around five to six hours. Even though the gameplay varied relatively little and the objectives were always seek and destroy (or escort), I was having a relaxing blast. Were this game significantly harder, I’m sure its fun factor for me would have declined a lot because, despite the effort put in with the story and multiple helicopters and so forth, this game is not of the caliber that deserves much of an investment from you. In other words, because I was marching through the missions steadily, I felt my time was being well spent, but were the opposite true, it would have been much more of a chore, rather than a welcomed challenge, to continue, if that makes sense.
As for presentation, TW does more than you might expect. It’s clear they put an effort into the story and main characters, and while they’re cliched, they at least have unique names, voices, and faces. You shouldn’t expect to feel any investment towards them, but it was nice taking Max and Blister into one mission after another rather than playing as a faceless and speechless character. I thought Most Wanted did a good job with the voice overs and lines of dialogue, too. Sound effects — mostly the constant chatter of machine gun fire and explosions — were well done. The soundtrack, which is all instrumental rock that fits the 90s action movie theme, is a big plus. Graphically, it’s not the prettiest game and there are a lot of not-so-detailed textures and aliasing, especially in cutscenes, but it plays very smooth and it looks good, just not quite great. The immense amount of explosions and crumbling structures is pretty sweet though, so there’s always plenty of on screen action to keep your eyes honed in.
Thunder Wolves may not win any awards so to speak, but it’s really fun diversion from more robust and demanding games.