Looking at Thunder Tier One for the first time, I thought it would either be a run-gun shooter, or a tactical stealth-action game in the vein of the Commandos. A top-down or isometric perspective screams “strategy”, after all. Well, it’s no Diablo-shooter, there’s no running and gunning here, only gritty war zones and on-the-fly tactical combat. It’s a realistic take on squad-based shootouts, so enter only if this sounds appealing to you.
Thunder Tier One starts you off with a much needed tutorial that gets you up to speed with the basics, but isn’t enough to teach you everything you’ll need to survive. You see, the controls, the interface, the actions you’ll have to make, are all very difficult. If you want to loot the corpse of a downed soldier, you’ll have to wait a bit and then choose what you need: you’ll have to learn and remember the type of ammo your gun carries, for instance. Controlling your character at first feels like playing the piano, because there’s a lot going on here. You move using the WASD keys and aim with your mouse, but you have to crouch, place explosives, hug a wall for cover, throw a grenade, heal yourself or a downed teammate, kick a door, search containers. It sounds like standard shooter fare, but when you play in the single-player mode you’ll have to control your team too, at the same time. It is hard, but it’s satisfying too.
Using a single key and a choice wheel, you give orders to your mates, telling them to go someplace, to open a door, to carry a wounded hostage, to kill an enemy. Order giving is intuitive and works well enough to be used while doing something else. You can go behind the enemy lines, scout the area, and then decide to strike: you hold the order-giving key and the game slows down a bit until you make your choice. When you get the hang of it -it takes a while- you will do impressive coordinated attacks with your squad. It’s a good thing, then, that those tactics are absolutely needed if you want to survive. You don’t have a huge healthbar in this game, and the enemies don’t play around. There are two difficulty modes to choose from, but both are hard enough to make you play strategically and not jump guns blazing.
For example, in one of the campaign’s levels you will need to go in a house to find intel. You see the house in front of you: closed doors and windows, no way to look inside. You’ll hear sounds from the inside, a group of enemies. Then, you have to decide, to find the best way to move forward. You can kick the door and try to take them by surprise -and if you’re fast enough, you may succeed. You can place your mates on specific points, kick the door, have one or your partners throw a smoke bomb inside and the others shoot from the windows with their rifles, covering you while you go inside. You can also use a helicopter camera, flying above the battlefield, to scout the area in real time. The level design is decent and the levels present some variety, sending you in buildings with multiple floors, in open spaces, in small houses, or in caves.
There are enough tactical options, made better by a robust customization menu for your soldiers -albeit difficult to navigate and to understand. Every stage presents something different in terms of terrain and approach, but, sadly, the missions are almost identical. There are not enough goals to keep things interesting and you’ll feel you are replaying the same missions over and over, just set in different places. The campaign takes about 1-2 hours to end, and it’s decent but underwhelming -don’t expect a story, too, just standard operations against generic terrorists. At least, there’s enough replayability because of the various different tactical approaches.
One of Thunder Tier One’s best parts is the sound, and it’s an important feat because sound effects matter in this type of gameplay. Every weapon fires with a bang, and you can feel the weight and the damage with every shot. The sounds are visualized too: when an enemy fires or shouts while being outside your field of vision, you will “see” the sound, so that you understand where it came from, roughly. The graphics are getting the job done too, with many details, good lighting and shadows, and no technical hiccups.
The multiplayer is the main draw here. While Thunder Tier One can be played solo, it’s not made to be experienced this way. When you kick the door and order a squadmate to throw a grenade, the system works, most of the times, but is not ideally accurate. The AI is far from perfect and the orders you can issue can get you so far. Sometimes your mates will get stuck, they will block your passage or just stop moving and attacking, or just move in weird paths. If you play with other people (a squad is made of 4 soldiers), then you’ll have a blast. Also, except being more fun, the gameplay is also more balanced this way, as you can actually give and receive orders, and take advantage of the aforementioned tactical options that are hard to use in solo play. For instance, stealth is a bit underused and hard to manage in single-player, but in multi it becomes one of the most important strategies, and it’s fun too.
You can play all the campaign levels in co-op, and there are some more modes, like a deathmatch and some exfiltration-based levels. All modes are fun and add something to the whole, but the content is not enough. Thunder Tier One needs a lot more to truly shine. It needs more campaign levels, more modes for solo play, and more for multiplayer. There’s mod support and the community has already created some interesting scenarios, like a zombie mode, but it still feels a bit bare-bones.
Thunder Tier One is a good game. The systems are engaging, the controls manage to incorporate many different features without being too complicated, the levels are interesting. It’s a game that looks good, sounds better, and is a blast to play, full of tactical options and strategic thinking. If more content arrives, through mods or official updates, with some more varied mission goals too, then we’ll be talking about a must-have for fans of the genre. That is, if you have friends to play with, because the single-player campaign is underwhelming and the AI frustrates a lot.