Thunder Wolves Review (PC)
I’m going to open with a bit of scene-setting nonsense. If you’re just interested in the game, skip the first three paragraphs.
I really love helicopters. I love them aesthetically. They are beautiful to me. And I don’t just love the nice ones that save people when they get trapped on an oil rig or want to see Central Park from high up. No, I love the ones with missiles and gatling guns. I love Cobra’s and Hind’s and Apache Longbows. I especially love Apache’s. To me, they have the same perfection of shape and form as a well made musical instrument.
I have always loved flying helicopters in games. In the Battlefield series I was a good pilot. My teammates relied on me, and I could land a chopper on a tiny piece of open ground with unnering accuracy.
I started feeling very bad about my helicopter love a few years ago though. You see, I’m as squishy a pacifist as you’re ever likely to meet, and when I saw those Wikileaks videos of trigger happy pilots shooting people…. well it didn’t quite sit with me. How could I love something that was fundamentally a murder machine, used to kill and terrorize at a distance?
I don’t think politics are best tackled in games reviews, but nor do I think that games are incapable of dealing with big issues. As a result, I’m going to mention some of the uncomfortable feelings Thunder Wolves evoked for me. Maybe I’d better tell you about the game first though.
Thunder Wolves is an arcade-inspired flight combat sim. You fly a range of different choppers and wipe out waves and waves of tanks, jeeps, AA missile batteries and other helicopters. It’s over the top, bombastic and everything explodes all the time. Fundamentally, the gameplay is great fun.
Most crucially, Most Wanted Entertainment have absolutely nailed the controls for flying a chopper. I played first with an XBox controller and it worked well enough, but after a while I started to develop hand cramps because I was using all of the buttons, and I’ve never found using my middle fingers for the trigger particularly comfortable. On a keyboard and mouse set up there’s no such issue, and strafing, turning, ascending/descending and switching weapons is all simple and intuitive. You can always make your chopper do what you want, and the feeling of weight and inertia is simplified but perfectly suited to the gameplay.
The visuals are good but for some reason there’s a smallness to the scale of everything. You can’t fly very high, so as a result there’s no high altitude combat of any sort. Most enemies are ground based, and the environments are varied, with night levels, sea levels and more. Everything feels a bit like a toy though, and whether its your own helicopter or the enemy vehicles, they all look like little models come to life. This isn’t a criticism though. In fact, the dinky nature of the vehicles in the game world lend everything a kind of cute charm. Particle effects, lighting and explosions meanwhile are all excellent.
The story is bare-bones and… well, terrible. It’s not clear to what extent the developers are trying to be funny, but the humour is completely flat. The dialogue is not only lacking in humour, it’s also some of the worst I’ve encountered in a game. Remember how bad voice acting and dialogue used to be? This ranks up there. The tone is absolutely all over the place. Conveyed mainly by voice overs and static text, at one point they make a joke about where the game takes place, saying its the Middle… somewhere, before coyly stating they won’t tell us but implying we already know. What? Just… WHAT?
This tone deafness continues throughout every line of dialogue. There’s a near-continuous string of quips and “jokes” from the games protagonist. These frequently cross the line into pure offensiveness. When enemies soldiers are caught in an explosion, he comments, “Die in a fire bitch!”. Not angrily. It’s delivered as a punch line. Later, as you mow down soldiers in a section that makes use of night vision (and hence looks chillingly like real life news footage), he jokes again “I see dead people” and “Like hitting a switch”. Disregarding the inherent rubbishness of referencing a fourteen year old movie out of context, this is just a horrible thing for the games “hero” to say. Am I supposed to identify with this homicidal sociopath?
And if you’ll forgive me for harping on about real life again, those Wikileaks videos were shocking not just because people were being killed. They were disturbing because of the blasé attitude of the pilot and gunner as they watched people die. They made jokes. It was bleakly horrible.
And now we have Thunder Wolves presenting the same kind of scene as a popcorn Hollywood blockbuster. Couple this with sexy female commanders and poorly written humour with caricatures of Middle Eastern leaders, complete with funny voices and names, and you have a simple, fun game that’s both unexpectedly offensive AND borderline racist.
And the sad thing is, if you strip away all the dubious presentation this really is a pretty decent game. It’s kind of like a modern, fully 3D reworking of Desert Strike. You pick up troops with your winch, fire off barrages of missiles and mow down enemies with your minigun. Battles with other helicopters are tenses, challenging affairs as you try to keep them in your sights, and a clever lock-on feature means that the aiming and targeting enemies is rewarding while still being a challenge.
It may be straightforward gameplay wise as you go from mission to mission blowing up every enemy base you come across, but there’s some nice variety baked in too. Sometimes you take over as gunner, and the whole thing plays out more cinematically as you controls the choppers weapon systems only. These parts play out a bit like a lightgun shooter, and are brief but enjoyable. There are also sections where you take up a sniper rifle and protect ground troops, and you even get out of the chopper to pilot other vehicles on occasion, such as a tank rolling through a valley fill with enemy emplacements. Throughout, the emphasis is on accessible action and big explosions, and you can even bring a friend along fro some local co-op with one gunner and one pilot. Great fun.
The music may be absolutely horrible (poorly sampled guitars and scuzzy rawk), but if you put on some of your own banging tunes there’s a degree of satisfaction to be had from playing Thunder Wolves in short bursts. It’s cathartic to fire hundreds of missiles at thousands of enemies, and while prolonged play might highlight the games repetitive nature, I can see myself coming back to play this every time I’ve had a hard day and need a quick fix of hell-fires and vulcan canons.
So if you can overlook the games questionable morals, you can have a lot of fun with Thunder Wolves. For me though, this was a perfectly enjoyable arcade game, ruined by a nihilistic, regressive and cynical attitude towards humanity and human decency.Thunder Wolves Review (PC),