It's always refreshing (to us at Nintendo Life and also, we imagine, to you folks at home) when a game is released for WiiWare or DSiWare that fills a tangible gap, and the first thing you'll notice about Thorium Wars is that it's like nothing else available through DSiWare.
That uniqueness alone might have been enough to earn it some default recognition, but the good folks at 3PM Games didn't stop there; they saw their vision through and managed to produce one of the best-looking, most polished games we're ever likely to see on the service.
Thorium Wars takes place in the year 2152. For decades the human race has flourished, thanks in large part to thorium-based technological advances. Unfortunately the Thorians, a race of angry evil robot alien monsters...
...you know what? It doesn't matter.
The plot isn't what makes a game like this; the gameplay is what makes a game like this. And fortunately for everybody, the gameplay is great. In fact, there's so much good about the game that it's difficult to know where to begin.
The variety of missions is certainly a welcome feature. Throughout Thorium Wars you'll be asked to perform various tasks, and these range from combat to escort missions to scavenger hunts. In each mission, the action will unfold on the top screen, where you pilot your craft, fire your weapons, and speed all around hoping to deal more damage than you take, while the bottom screen offers a moderately helpful (though decidedly abstract) map of the area to help you along. As mentioned, your goal will always vary, but the basic concept of killing-them-before-they-kill-you is going to override all else.
Then there's the variety of vehicles. You'll be piloting futuristic, heavily-armed variations of planes, tanks and hovercrafts, and - saints rejoice - they all feel different! This was no lazy copy-and-paste job, where the ground is recolored blue and you're supposed to believe you're driving a boat now. The vehicle types are all unique, and though they're controlled similarly, the "feel" of driving each of them is rewardingly distinct.
Even sweeter is the fact that many missions offer you the choice between different types of planes, tanks and hovercrafts, each one of which handles noticeably differently from its brethren. Each vehicle feels like an entirely separate tool, and it's up to you, as the player, to determine which tool is best suited for your approach to each job. It would have been very easy for the developers to make cosmetic changes to the main vehicles in order to try to pass off the variants as additional content, so the fact that they devoted time and attention to making each individual unit stand out as a worthwhile experience speaks volumes about the care that's gone into this game.
The controls, unsurprisingly by this point, as also great. They're a bit intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of them, they work quite well. As much as we tried, we could not blame our constant exploding on sloppy controls. It always came down to us, the players, pressing the buttons, making the mistakes. It's a strange feeling to lose at a game like this without being able to curse a lousy control scheme. (The touch-screen-only option, however, is another story, and it's probably best if we just pretend it doesn't exist. Really. Trust us.)
The only downside is that there's no tutorial level or practice arena, and this really is one game that would benefit from one. Since you're not told how to play in-game, you'll need to consult the enclosed instruction manual. Doing so will cause your eyeballs to explode, as playing this game appears to be only slightly less complex than completely restructuring your nation's space program. Don't worry; the game controls easily enough once you get the knack for what you're doing, but you can't consult that complicated manual while you're playing the game, and so you'll just have to learn by doing everything wrong. This will get you killed, and lead to an awful lot of early (and needless) frustration, which is why a tutorial would have been a huge help.
There are a few other issues with the game as well. The missions themselves - while typically interesting and varied - are quite long, sometimes taking a half hour or more to complete. And while there are some checkpoints scattered about the level to help you out when you die, there is no way to save your progress in-level when you wish to quit. Which means that if you've been trying to complete the same mission for over an hour and you want to give it a rest for the night, you'd better not power down your DSi. If you do, you'll be starting all over again.
Enemy behavior, too, can sometimes get irritating. While it's nice to see that the different types of enemies all behave differently (and it is quite nice to see that), there are a few small ones that just circle your vehicle endlessly, periodically firing projectiles at it. And while you can destroy them, they respawn quickly, so that the investment of time it takes to kill them is compounded by the irritation you'll feel when they swarm in again, meaning you'll often just have to ignore them while you go about your mission and they go about getting in your way. (If you have trouble understanding what this is like, imagine sitting on your couch, trying to play Super Mario Bros. while a few wasps circle your head, repeatedly, until you either finish the level or decide to stop playing the game. Kill one, and it reappears. Not very appealing, is it?)
There's also a confusing desire on the game's part to ask you to proceed in a certain compass direction...without there being a compass in the game to help you figure out where it is. Nothing even indicates North, so good luck when you're told to "proceed to the East gate" after you've spent twenty minutes spinning aimlessly through a rainy city.
But this can be seen as nitpicking. And, in a way, that's exactly what it is. Thorium Wars is a great game that just happens to contain a handful (and only a small handful) of unfortunate design choices. What it does well offsets the few things we'd have liked it to have done differently. There's no doubt that this is among the better DSiWare games, and it's certainly one of the most fun.
The big question on everybody's mind, however, is whether or not it's worth the 1,000 point asking price. To this, we cannot provide a definite answer. The various vehicles and unlockable soundtrack/enemy galleries lend it a good deal of replay value, so if you are the type of gamer who actually does replay games, it's very likely that you'll get your money's worth. If you're more likely to blow through the game once and move on with your life, it might be a little more difficult to justify.
That said, however, whether you end up playing Thorium Wars one hundred times or only once, it's unlikely you'll come away disappointed.
It's difficult to find any serious fault with Thorium Wars. Its concept is both strong and well-handled, and the various missions actually feel...well...varied. The only thing difficult to swallow is the price tag, and, indeed, for a few hundred points less we'd be recommending it all the more strongly. If you've got the points to spare, however, or don't mind kicking in a little extra for one of the more polished DSiWare releases, Thorium Wars should be a welcome addition to your collection.