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Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission (PlayStation 4) artwork

Before First-Person Shooters fulfilled players with their free movement and shooty-bang-bang needs, there was a prior genre that dominated: Light Gun shooters. Whether in the arcades or at home, players enjoyed blowing away foes, in restricted on-rails movement, with the help of an actual physical plastic gun that needed to be aimed at a monitor. And to explain in the most basic way possible, the genre gets its name because the sensor inside the guns usually detects light on the screen when their triggers are pressed. Having been around since the 1970s and producing such hits like Nintendo's Duck Hunt, the genre underwent a resurgence in 1987 with the release of Taito's Operation Wolf.

With its military theme, inspired by outlandish action movies of the era, you control a one-man army with an Uzi and blast away soldiers rushing at you in the jungles, rescuing hostages in the process. While this sounds like a very basic set-up for a gun title, what you need to understand is that this game became the textbook example going forward for Light Gun shooters. Titles like Terminator 2, Virtua Cop, Area 51, Time Crisis, and even its own sequels owe their structure to this Taito classic. Publisher Microids has apparently acknowledged the game's significance, taking it upon itself to revive this series with 2023's Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission.

Released 36 years after the first game, the fifth title in the franchise is actually a reimagining of the original that started it all; this in turn... makes the game's full name completely ridiculous. Trading 2D sprite art for 3D graphics, Returns has a purposely cartoony style where enemies have exaggerated body proportions and animals look like they're little mascots running around. It's almost like the devs, Virtuallyz Gaming, tried mimicking Team Fortress 2's comical style, albeit in limited fashion. The game has a very low-budget look to it, to the point where if you attempt to focus on the background during combat, it's a glaringly-obvious flat image of mountains.

You know what's shocking? The visuals are actually the least of this game's issues.

Light Gun titles are basically quick draw battles: your very survival depends on how fast you can fire before your opponents react. Having said that, Light Gun games or, more specifically, on-rails titles usually adhere to scripted events. When you enter a specific segment, enemies are programmed to appear from certain spots and perform certain actions; when you dispose of these enemies, the game will then resume with another scripted event, enemy, or segment. Through simple memorization, you can discern when events will transpire in specific scenarios in multiple playthroughs. So in theory, Returns should function like this, correct?

It seems that the development team doesn't have a solid grasp on how Light Gun titles work.

The biggest issue with this game is that bullets will hit you a lot, and it won't matter if you have fast reflexes. Not even within the first five minutes, as you rail through a village and encounter soldiers behind corners, on rooftops, and in jeeps, you immediately realize this issue, but you chalk it up to being your first session. It's not until you start playing subsequent acts, stages, and even replays that you come to the conclusion that Returns is horribly programmed. Upon reflection, it actually feels like bullets are being fired at you randomly; you can speed up the cursor sensitivity and bring the difficulty down to Easy, but the way the game throws bullets stay the same.

Almost as if they were aware of this problem, the devs have given you medical kits to replenish health, with more scattered throughout each stage. This doesn't really change the situation of constantly getting hit and, if anything, it makes you wonder just how worse this could've been without all the extra aid. Like, there's a segment in stage one where you're riding on a boat down a river, and one auto-scroll moment has you shooting soldiers running up the riverside. You can have one experience where you're shooting everyone quickly, even missing a few times, and you won't get hit once. You then replay this segment later and, as you're quickly disposing of enemies the exact same way, you'll get hit multiple times from enemies that appeared on screen a millisecond ago.

First Mission's WONDERFUL cover mechanic in action.

The bullet issue also completely messes with a new move to the series: the cover mechanic. Clearly taking inspiration from Time Crisis, minus the time limit, there are segments where your character hides behind an object that you can pop out from with the press of a button. This is actually more insufferable than just being out in the open in a standard portion, as it seems the ratio of bullets hitting you have been intentionally concentrated. You think the simple solution should be to hide and wait for all these bullets to pass. Here's the frustration: you can't tell where the bullets are and when they will pass. There will be situations where you get hit as you pop out of cover and when the game automatically moves you to a new spot.

Now, with all these complications, you can still reasonably beat the whole game in one session on its default settings, even if you have limited experience with the genre. But you shouldn't, because it doesn't feel good to play. It could have been an ugly game to look at and still have fun gameplay. It could have been a so-bad-it's-good type of fun experience. However, Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission is just a bad time; it's a horrible modern representation of the Operation Wolf series and a terrible impression of Light Gun shooters if you're new to the genre. You're better off going to the closest amusement center and playing a random shooter for a more exciting experience.

dementedhut's avatar
Community review by dementedhut (April 22, 2024)

Alternative header: Cruel Summer

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