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Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission Review

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A memory was unlocked when Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission arrived. It’s not a name or game that I had thought about for decades. Unlike a lot of people, I hadn’t come across Operation Wolf by pumping coins into it in the arcades: instead, I had it on the NES, when arcade-conversions weren’t so much about porting the original, and were more about sketching something that – if you squinted – might look something like it. Maybe.

What this means is that, in my case, Operation Wolf means holding a plastic light-gun peripheral in my hands. Now, that’s clearly not something that can happen with Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission. We don’t live in a world of plastic tat any more. I’m sure that whispering ‘Tony Hawk Ride’ or ‘DJ Hero’ into Phil Spencer’s ear makes him involuntarily vomit. But it’s very much the question on our lips: can Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission capture the charm of the original, without handing the player a grey plastic pistol?

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Operation Wolf Returns with a First Mission

Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission doesn’t deviate much from the old Operation Wolf template. This is the on-rails shooter you may or may not remember, transposed onto a game controller. Or two game controllers, since this is a game that can be played cooperatively, as two macho, gun-toting marines. By ‘on rails’, we mean that the movement of your character is done for you. All you are doing is pointing the gun and shooting. 

You can clearly see that Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission was originally a VR game. The emphasis is very much on the character, and therefore the camera, sliding into cover, leapfrogging over car bonnets and diving away from explosions. That’s when the player isn’t manning the turrets of helicopters and planes, or grabbing a nearby rocket launcher. We can see what the developers were thinking: this is a cinematic game, where the emphasis is very clearly on replicating your favourite overblown 80’s action movie. Think Commando and Rambo First Blood: Part II.

Which it does pretty well, as it happens. A modern on-rails shooter could easily feel limited. You’re strapped to a moving minecart, and we can imagine a game that would be as restrictive as that sounds. But the heroes of Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission are so unwilling to stand in one place, so determined to jump into a new fire, that the problem goes away. Thanks to constantly changing viewpoints and OTT scenarios, you do feel like a Schwarzenegger or Stallone. 

But the problem with focus is that it takes attention away from other things, and Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission has an awful lot of rough, serrated edges. 

operation wolf returns first mission review 2
A return of the on-rails shooter

We’re still trying to wrap our heads around what VIRTUALLYZ GAMING was trying to do with the guns. You get four of them, available at all times and replenished between acts. There’s a machine gun, SMG, shotgun and pistol, with the pistol being the fallback weapon that’s only good once for achievements and when you run out of bullets. That leaves you with the SMG, which is one of the worst we’ve encountered. It’s got the worst of all worlds: low accuracy, small magazine, and low damage. If you’ve got a tank crawling towards you, you’re done for. 

But then there’s the shotgun, and it’s an erratic beast. It’s basically useless at range, and has the odd tendency to refuse shooting at close-quarters, too. If an enemy is peeking from behind cover, then the shotgun says no. But then you’ll have moments where you’re killing multiple enemies with a single blast, and making short work of tanks. We slung it into the ‘if we have to’ bin. Which leaves the machine gun, which is the master of all trades. If you have bullets for it, then you’re golden. If you don’t, then you’re left with the duffers and it’s genuinely hard to progress on the harder difficulties. It’s the most unbalanced gun roster we’ve come across in living memory. 

Then there’s an abiding sense that things aren’t happening as they should. We had multiple situations where enemies were hiding behind barriers that we couldn’t shoot through. We had to restart the act, as they wouldn’t pop out to say hi. Grenades don’t arc towards your enemies: they fling out like they were fired out of a bazooka. It takes some rewiring to learn that you need to be firing them like you would an RPG.

operation wolf returns first mission review 3
Hidey hidey

But the biggest rewiring comes from the reticule speed. Before you even set foot into the game, make sure to max out the cursor sensitivity, because moving from one side of the screen to the other is interminably slow. It’s not a problem in VR or the arcade, because you swing the gun around in milliseconds, but it feels so painful to drag your reticule over to a sniper on the other corner of the screen, even with the speed increase. And this is the death-knell for Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission. You simply can’t match what the game expects of you. You can’t physically reach a lot of enemies before they fire at you. It’s impossible. 

That doesn’t make Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission difficult. Far from it: there is a generous lives and continue system at play, plus health kits and armour. But we couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the game was cheating: we were losing health because we weren’t playing in VR. And that made us feel more like Borat than Arnie.  

There are other friction points that contribute to this feeling. Move into cover, and your reticule will snap to the middle, rather than where it was before. Firing at a sniper in the top-right of the screen? Duck into cover and you will need to re-find him with your cursor. Holding LT to aim down your sights gets reset too. If you’re holding it while moving to the next scene, you don’t immediately move into exposed firing: you have to release LT and then press it again. It’s just a combined feeling of acute clumsiness.

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Pop and shoot.

We can see what the game must have been like on VR. With freedom of movement and a romp around airfields and complexes, this must have been a big, dumb 80’s blast. We’re not sure it would have been hugely replayable – this is only a couple of hours of play, with some ranked scores after each act – but it would have been fun with some brews and another player in tow. 

With a controller in hand, it loses too much. Even after jamming the reticule speed up to max, we felt like we were playing with one arm behind our back and shoelaces tied together. There are still moments when the action is so ludicrous, so expansive, that accuracy and speed doesn’t matter. That’s when Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission is at its best. But in all other instances, it feels like it’s been Macguyvered into a structurally unsound Xbox game from VR parts. We kept looking round for the plastic lightgun.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Overblown action and cinematic sequences
  • Being on-rails doesn’t hurt it as much as you’d think
  • Machine gun feels great
Cons:
  • Guns are oddly imbalanced
  • Speed and accuracy are way off
  • Enemies need more variety
Info:
  • Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Microids
  • Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC, Switch
  • Release date and price - 21 September 2023 | £24.99
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Overblown action and cinematic sequences</li> <li>Being on-rails doesn’t hurt it as much as you’d think</li> <li>Machine gun feels great</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Guns are oddly imbalanced</li> <li>Speed and accuracy are way off</li> <li>Enemies need more variety</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Microids</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC, Switch <li>Release date and price - 21 September 2023 | £24.99</li> </ul>Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission Review
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