I can practically hear the growly voice of the arcade cabinet when I drop in yet another quarter and it proudly proclaims “Operation….WOLF”. It’s been seared into my brain since childhood. If you aren’t an antique like me, Operation Wolf was an arcade game with a dedicated controller in the shape of a submachine gun, complete with recoil and a physical reload button. It spawned two arcade sequels – Operation Thunderbolt and Operation Wolf 3 in 1988 and 1994, respectively. Now, a whopping 29 years later, it’s time to return to an 80s and 90s throwback in a genre that’s all but lost to time. Is there still a market for lightgun shooters in 2023? Time to fire up the PlayStation 5 and find out.
All of the Operation Wolf games, including this newest entry, are lightgun games. That is to say, the movement is automatic, and your one and only job is to mow down all of the enemies that pop up, without shooting civilians. Do well and you’ll rack up points used to give you a rank at the end. Do poorly and you’ll be dropping in another quarter to continue, virtually speaking. Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission is a bit of a reboot, taking some of the storyline from the original Operation Wolf game and giving it a fresh coat of paint. Your character is, for all intents and purposes, Rambo, and you’ve been given the task of taking down a criminal organization responsible for running drugs, selling weapons, and generally being unpleasant to be around. Headed by the mysterious General Viper, this group has also taken hostages, and it’s your job to get them back using lots and lots of bullets.
Having plunked more than enough quarters into the original, the first thing I noticed was just how faithful developer Virtuallyz Gaming has been to the original game. The art style is a super-deformed stylized version of that original vision, but still preserving the bombastic over-the-top approach of its predecessors. Your commanding officer likely has trouble standing with the rack of medals on his V-shaped chest, and the enemies you face are equally as stylized. The first few levels start off very similar to the more serious tone of the original, but soon you’ll be fighting mechanized monsters, aggravating Apache helicopters, and harassing Harriers.
The campaign is set across six levels, each split into three sections. Each of these will take roughly 15 minutes to complete, with three difficulty levels selectable at the start. As you complete the missions you’ll get a summary screen to tell you how it all shook out. Mission Time, a score, how many credits you used, how many hostages you managed to liberate, your total kills, the maximum combo you managed to achieve, and how many medikits you used in the process will culminate into an aggregate score using the somewhat Japanese approach of letter grades, with S being somehow better than A. That gives you a play time of roughly 90 minutes for your first playthrough, beyond it just being an absolute blast on its own. Between each campaign mission there is a comic book style mission brief, complete with panels and a narration from your commander, but thankfully these are skippable for a second playthrough.
The first two levels are fairly straightforward – enemies pop up in front of you, and you’ll send ’em to the great beyond using a pistol, submachine gun, shotgun, and assault rifle. Headshots will take down even the toughest of human enemies instantly, and the level movement handles itself. There are no motion sickness compensations, but having played for more than a few hours straight, I can honestly say they aren’t needed. The levels move nice and slow, and there are more than enough stationary objects to keep you from getting sick. You’ll see a cartoon-style popup with “HELP!” and hear a cry from a hostage. Pop the lock on whatever is holding them in place and they’ll thank you profusely and come running out. If you accidentally shoot them they’ll exclaim “No!” and keep running. I’m not sure why this was changed as the original they’d straight up die and you’d be penalized, but I suspect it has to do with keeping the ratings T for Teen.
After the second level, you’ll start being presented with choices. You’ll hit crossroads and be asked to choose left or right. It’s not a huge carrot, but it does provide some level of replay value as you’ll face slightly different challenges on the other approach. The other major choice is how you dish out the pain. You have a pistol with unlimited ammo, but you’ll need to be some sort of deadeye death dealer to finish a level with just your .50 cal. Instead you’ll be using your submachine gun for close encounters, though it’s wildly inaccurate so that’s more of a spray and pray affair. The AR-15 shoots straight and true, but the ammo is more limited, at least in the later levels. The shotgun, well, I never quite figured it out. Sure, it’ll blast away at…uh..something, but I could never quite find where to aim it other than “generally in the direction of enemies”. When foes are at point blank range, it’ll dust them right quick but it never quite felt accurate. As a result, I used it very infrequently as it just felt unreliable.
Throughout the level you’ll find little critters like pigs, chickens, mice, and the like. Shooting them will sometimes pop out ammunition, health packs, body armor, and very infrequently, special weapons. These special weapons are most often a grenade launcher or a rocket launcher, with a limited amount of ammunition. The only thing that irritated me was that when you get body armor there is a yellow haze that permeates the screen, making it somewhat hard to see. This yellow fog stays on the screen for what seems like twice as long as it should – likely an easy fix, but it did stand out whenever I picked it up.
Once you get into the second half of the game you’ll also start to run into foes that can end up behind you. The PSVR2 handles this masterfully as you can easily spin around and take them out. It’s not frequent, but when it does happen you’ll see a skull indicator with an arrow to let you know where the incoming fire is coming from. While the level keeps moving, you can turn around and pop a power-up or ammunition indicator that you might have left behind – something I did often on the last few levels.
There were a few surprises in the campaign that I really enjoyed. Sometimes you’ll be put in what appears to be a C-130 or a helicopter with a twin-barrel gun and given free reign to mow down anything and everything in your path. These levels are just pure, unadulterated, wanton destruction, and I love it. Human foes don’t stand a chance, and helicopters are sent careening into the ground at high speed. Jets can be dropped from the skies, and with a little bit of timing, take out other foes as they do. These felt like pure fan service and I liked them quite a bit.
The second surprise was the boss fights. The first few were just dudes with big weapons, as expected. The later ones I don’t want to spoil for you, but things get downright wacky. It makes these fights into a bit of a puzzle. Sure, you can blast away and do things the hard way, but in most cases there is a trick you can exploit to even the odds. I leave that to you to figure out.
Beyond the campaign there is a survival mode. You’ll pick one of the six levels and face wave after wave of foes until you eventually die. It’s an allegory for life, in a way – a relentless, but ultimately futile assault on the senses that’s fun until you are eventually overwhelmed by the sheer volume of enemies.
My only complaint is that the game is short. It’s fun, and I have no doubt it’ll get a few replays, but on Medium difficulty I managed to get S ranking on every level but the last one on my first 90 minute run. It’s another title that I can use to introduce VR to new players as it’s easy to pick up and play for even the most novice of players. The MSRP for the PSVR2 (as well as the Meta Quest 2, and Pico 4 version) is $29.99, which feels like the sweet spot for this one, with a non-VR version coming to Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC later this year. For that price, it’s a good one to play a few times and then share it with your new-to-VR friends.
Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.
Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.
Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 27 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission
Part homage, part sequel/reboot, Operation Wolf Returns: First Mission is a return to what we loved about the arcade games, but now in VR for a new layer of immersion. While it’s relatively short, it’s a lot of fun and serves perfectly to introduce new players to the medium.