There should always be room for gleeful irreverence. While modern bombastic action games usually take themselves seriously, Thunder Wolves places itself squarely in the territory of 1980s-style excess. In doing so, the helicopter combat game feels like a living fossil, totally anachronistic in mechanics and tone. It provides an experience that is remarkably entertaining tinged as it is with a bittersweet dose of nostalgia. Missiles, explosions, heavy metal, and gratuitous swearing are Thunder Wolves' steak and potatoes. The tutorial opens with an anecdote about one of the main characters opening fire on a soccer field because soccer just isn't manly enough. From that point on, the game never lets up.
The tone is refreshing. There aren't many games that can effectively channel classic Duke Nukem without crossing the very fine line marking off the offensive territory. For its part, Thunder Wolves competently balances itself along that line, with only a few jokes and references that go a bit too far. Much of that success can be attributed to the cast of voice actors. All of them deliver their lines with just enough sarcasm that the intent is clear as the borderline-crazy characters send you on 13 missions loaded with exponential shots of adrenaline.
Campaign levels are surprisingly varied. Ultimately, they all entail shooting things with a helicopter, but that gets packed in with secondary objectives. Some areas take you through underground bunkers or tunnels, while others are sightseeing trips in the tropics…except with a few thousand mercenaries trying to kill you. Combat is often fairly difficult, requiring some impressive finesse to negotiate safely. Antiair missiles, for example, can track your copter and require either careful flying or launching some flares. Later levels throw enough ordnance at you that flares become unreliable and precise maneuvering becomes vital.
Thankfully, weapons are as aggressive as the game's attitude should imply. Each helicopter gets at least one machine gun and a few different types of rockets. Some are guided and very precise, while others are more like flaming clusters of explosive death and are as fun to use as that characterization implies. Most levels have plenty of enemies with a bevy of different vehicles and weapons to keep you on your toes. They approach from basically everywhere and can quickly reduce you to scrap. Helicopters, being neither fighter jet nor made of magic, aren't the most agile machines, so careful targeting and great aim are even more important than in most modern shooters.
There is a pretty good spread of environments to tear up, but most of your battlegrounds are the familiar, contemporary gray and brown ones. When Thunder Wolves does choose to depart from the cliched, bland visual design, it enters some interesting, territory. There's a nighttime sniping mission, as well as a level in which you pilot a drone through an underground bunker. Such sequences are creatively implemented, instilling variety in a game that is naturally shallow.
Thunder Wolves runs pretty short--two to three hours in all. There's online and local cooperative play and the challenge of setting new high scores, but there's nothing in the way of competitive multiplayer. Even so, this game is more than the sum of its parts, creating something refreshing among so many modern military games' imposed political undertones. Insubstantial, fun, and politically insensitive, Thunder Wolves would feel more at home in a different time. It doesn't last long, and there are not a lot of complex or nuanced mechanics, but those aren't really needed here. Helicopters, explosions, and swearing. That's what you're going to get. Sometimes, shallow is nice.