When Thunder Brigade creator Bluemoon Interactive bills itself as "the toughest game coders in the Baltics," it might well be preaching the truth. Of course, one reason for that could be they're the only game coders in the Baltics. But even if they are the kings of kick-ass in the coding department, there's a lot more to a solid game than solid coding - and you need look no farther than Thunder Brigade to find proof of that little axiom. The game plays just as it's supposed to; the problem is that the way it's supposed to play isn't particularly interesting or even very much fun.
Thunder Brigade's premise is similar to Battlezone's: Two forces equipped with hovertanks engage in a series of battles that take them to a variety of planets. And, just as in Battlezone, a third party emerges to join the fray just when the war seems to be drawing to a close. But where Battlezone gave you the chance to commingle offensive and defensive tactics, Thunder Brigade only offers the same bang-bang, shoot-shoot (and quite frequently die-die) action from start to finish.
The game's campaign mode starts you as a volunteer in the United Systems Army, which has been embroiled in a civil war against the ruling Halon Empire - despite the fact that both societies in these star systems are made up of colonists from good old Mother Earth. In fact, it's Mother Earth that takes on the number three spot in this war triangle.
Missions include the usual fare you'd expect in a sci-fi shooter - patrols, assaults, base defense, recon, escort - and blend together nicely to reflect the ebb and flow of the war. But the missions themselves are scripted affairs - you always know where enemies will appear - and the linear design means a lot of gamers will find themselves stuck on a frustratingly difficult mission just as they're getting the hang of things. Part of the reason some missions are so incredibly tough is sheer dint of numbers - it seems you're always outmanned and outgunned - but the biggest stumbling blocks to victory revolve around issues of control and weaponry.
Because you've got a full "six degrees of freedom" in movement, mouse control will be the first choice for serious gamers, but I gave up on it when I discovered there's no option to invert mouse movement or reassign key commands. I guess it wasn't that big of a deal; when I bit the bullet and tried out the mouse to see how well it responded, it was just as floaty and inaccurate as joystick control. Even if you could whip these babies around like a Lamborghini, though, combat would still be boring. With only a handful of weapons - there are only six in all, counting mines and a laser designator, and the single guided missile doesn't lock on to ground targets - there's not a lot of room for clever tactics. About the only option you've got is pointing your nose at an enemy, stepping on the gas, and pouring as much fire into him as you can - while he does the same to you.
Of course, you might get lucky and manage to get on an enemy tank's six, but usually that just means you'll have to break to one side or the other to avoid the mines he's laying every second. So you circle-strafe him, dodging the mines and landing hit after hit, right? Wrong. There aren't separate buttons to strafe left and right, so you can only move side to side or up and down without changing the direction your tank is facing. You wind up sliding left or right, releasing the strafe button, and then turning to line up the target again.
And the battle woes don't stop there. On normal difficulty, it takes an insane number of hits to bring down an enemy tank, even when you're using missiles. And you can count on using missiles - a lot of missiles. Landing a hit with the rail gun or rockets on a tank that can travel along three axes is almost maddening, so very early on you invariably use up all the guided missiles just to take out two or three enemy tanks. Want to guard the perimeter of a valuable base by laying mines, freeing you up to look for enemies? Too bad, because they detonate after about half a minute. Umm, is it just me, or doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose of laying the damn things in the first place?
Switching targets means - you guessed it - pointing your nose at a different enemy, a very 19th-century way of handling that chore. But perhaps the most frustrating aspects of combat are that wingmen are the only friendlies you're allowed to communicate with, and there's no way to get repairs during a mission. It's absolutely senseless that you can't ask a friendly for assistance if he's not one of your wingmen. You'll really appreciate how stupid it is, however, when you lose a key component like a laser designator: because you can no longer achieve the objective or even tell someone else to complete your mission. You have to load a saved game (at least there is an in-game save!) and try it again.
Gamers who've cut their teeth on 3D-accelerated graphics will probably grimace when they first take a gander at the software-rendered terrain and objects in Thunder Brigade, but after a few minutes you can appreciate just how good this part of the game really is. Shadows, lighting, explosions, and smoke are highly convincing; flat vistas tend to turn into a swarm of moving pixels just at the vanishing point, but hills and mountains are actually a little bit better than what you find in a Direct3D or Glide game - you don't see those "seams" where two big chunks of landscape meet, for instance.
Thunder Brigade ships with support for Interactive Magic's multiplayer gaming service,but it wasn't yet supported when this review was written. That's OK, though, because I have the distinct impression that even if I were burning up with desire to play it, Thunder Brigade is so unbelievably average that I wouldn't have much luck finding other gamers who felt the same way.