Expectations can be weird things. Simply thinking about something you’re going to experience can hopelessly bias your opinion of it. That kind of sucks when you think about it. How are you supposed to know whether what you’re feeling is real or colored by expectations? We gamers are especially prone to this sucky side of expectations. Every new game with any kind of fan-base that is built up by pre-release press or pedigree invariably suffers some form of “expectation backlash” when the game finally comes out and the fan-base get to play it. It’s just impossible for a game to live up to what its fans imagine. Some of this has to do with the praise most games get during their journalistic preview phase. Rarely are serious titles ever criticized before the actual reviews come out. That’s just the way it is, and most gamers have learned to deal with the occasional disappointment.
There is, however, another side to the expectation coin. That other side manifests whenever another movie-licensed, or similarly despised pariah in a clamshell case, enters the release pipeline. Movie games pretty much have to exist for publishers to make money, but that doesn’t mean gamers have to like them - and they don’t. Of course, it doesn’t help that they’re almost always awful. This expectation pretty much ensures most hard-core gamers will never play them; however, in a reversal of the “expectation backlash” detailed above, if they did, they might find a level of enjoyment otherwise believed to be impossible.
So how does that relate to Thor: God of Thunder? Is it actually a quality title that transcends its humble movie-game origins? The short answer is no, but it’s maybe not as doomy and gloomy as you’d expect a movie-game on the Wii to be.
Released to coincide with year’s first big summer blockbuster. Thor: God of Thunder act as a prequel to the Marvel Comics film, although based on what I’ve seen, I don’t see how that could be possible. It’s less a prequel and more a nonsensical side-story that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the movie. One level, in particular, seems to be in direct conflict with the film. Herein lies the first flaw of Thor: God of Thunder: The story makes no sense. There is a plot, and stuff happens, but none of it is adequately explained. If you asked me why any character took any action during the game, I couldn’t tell you. I doubt any player could. At least the voice acting is serviceable, and it should be as two of the film’s starts reprise their roles in the game - Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s trickster brother Loki. The rest of the voice cast is fine, as well; however, there is so little voice acting that it doesn’t really matter.
The second, and by far the biggest, issue with Thor: God of Thunder is its graphics. To say Thor has bad graphics would be like saying a crossbow bolt to the testicles stings a little. By the time I was finished with it, my eyes were ready to file a restraining order against me, and my TV was afraid it had cancer. They’re really that bad. Texture work was nonexistent, the art design was appallingly bland, and everything was covered in a layer of blurriness that I don’t think I’ve seen since my days rocking a Sega Saturn. Furthermore, as bad as the in-game graphics were, the cut-scene “graphics” were worse. I guess they were supposed to be moving comic panels, but they looked utterly ridiculous and completely basic. I know the Wii isn’t known for its graphical prowess, but that’s no excuse to release a game that looks like clown puke. Simply putting some effort into the game’s aesthetic would have gone a long way toward making up for the console’s lack of horsepower, and most of us have seen Wii games that do just that.
The graphics hinder the game in another way as well. During combat, which can get quite hectic, it can be impossible to tell what is going on. Often there is not enough detail between objects on the screen to make telling them apart easy. There’s one part involving enemies that are on fire - and therefore immune to damage - where I found it very hard to tell when they were actually on fire because there was so little detail. It was little more than an orange glow that all the enemies on that level had to one degree or another anyway. The camera angle doesn’t help this matter either, as it tends to be too low to give a good view of the battlefield. So there you are in combat, everything is blurry and the camera angle is too low to really see what’s going on, attacks are hitting you from multiple directions and you cannot tell where they’re coming from because they were initiated off-screen; however, because of the lack of detail between different enemies and their attacks, developing strategies to combat them can be impossible, so the game descends into the sticky morass that is button-mashing and random waggle. This button-mashing and random waggle is further hampered by the absolute lack of any sense of impact when your attack successfully connects with an enemy. It’s as if Thor is waving his hammer at and through constructs made of smoke.
At least, if you tire of that, the regular combat sections are broken up by Wii-exclusive flying sections that see Thor doing his best Superman impression as he zips through semi-on rails combat sequences. The only way to attack during these sections is by pointing the Wiimote at the screen, light gun style, and mashing A to rain lightening down on enemies and obstacles. I guess it’s going for a Panzer Dragoon type experience here, as you can lock-on to multiple targets and unleash up to about six bolts at once, but the lock-on process is so slow, it’s useless. Just mashing A as fast as possible while aiming at one target at a time is literally a faster way to kill everything during these sections. Also there are attempts at epic boss battles (and far less epic sub-bosses), and I guess they’re partially successful even if they’re totally repetitive, can (and should - because it’s easy) be defeated by spamming one move, and always end with a series of quick-time events. The QTEs aren’t that bad, however, as they’re very forgiving. I failed one the entire game. Often, even if I hit the wrong button or waved the Wiimote in the wrong direction at first, I would still pass the QTE.
Now I know you’re thinking “well that’s exactly as bad as I thought it would be” and I was thinking the same thing too early on, but then something strange happened: Thor: God of Thunder began to grow on me.
How you ask? Simple: it was the gameplay. I know I just got finished trashing it, but there were moments when I would enter some sort of heightened state and all the random squiggles flying around the screen started to make sense to me. In the mists of those, for lack of a better term, episodes, I had fun. Thor has a robust move set that utilizes the fully capabilities of the Wiimote and Nunchuck fairly effectively. The combat is combo based with three upgrade paths that slowly unlock when enough yellow orbs are collected from fallen enemies and certain destructible objects. Though none appear to be necessary to finish the game, they do offer a constant supply of new ways to kill enemies, which is nice - and you have spend your upgrade tokens on something. You can also imbue Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, with runes that you collect in-game. These runes offer bonuses to Thor’s various attacks and Odinforce-fed storm powers. I had a lot of fun with the three storm powers (one electrifies Mjolnir, the second unleashes a lightening storm, and the third spawns a tornado on the battlefield). Building up Thor’s combo meter to above 30 and 50 (not as hard as it sounds) allows you to unleashed two levels of a super-charged version of each storm-power (some of these, however, require specific runes be installed on Mjolnir). These attacks involved many graphical flourishes and suffered from the game’s atrocious visuals, but I found them impressive enough given the already lowered bar.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the gameplay don‘t hold up like the combat sometimes does. The enemy design, for example, is boring and repetitive. Each of the five worlds you visit has their own enemy style broken down into two or three types, but they boil down to simply archetypes with little variation. You have ice dudes, ape dudes, demon dudes, and magic dudes (there are also weird security drone thingies). None are interesting to look at and one, the ape dudes, seem to be copied in both style and sound from the Brutes of the Halo franchise. They even fight with giant hammers, just as if Halo’s ape dudes were fond of doing. Similarly, the levels feature the same lack of imagination as the enemies.
Another area of the gameplay that was less than stellar for me was the actual controls. Despite the fun that I admitted to having with the combat, they weren’t the most accurate controls I’ve ever encountered on the Wii. Many times, I would try to trigger one move only to have another fire instead, or if I managed to trigger the correct move, another unintended move would be triggered afterwards.
An offshoot of that issue is the trouble dodging attacks gave me. When Thor takes a hit, he’s staggered or knocked down but often can’t recover fast enough to dodge the next attack. This caused instances where I’d be unable to do anything but sit there while an enemy combo finished. In addition, even though Thor can dodge left and right, there is a period where the game won’t recognize a second dodge command. That too led to frustrating instances where I had no option but to sit and watch Thor take damage from an attack.
All in all, Thor: God of Thunder is not a good game. I’m not even sure I’d call it an average game, but I did have fun while I was playing. Yes, the graphics remind me of 1995, the story is nonsense, and the controls are iffy, but the game didn’t overstay its welcome (lasting roughly 8 hours), the musical score sounds good from time to time, and there were relatively long periods where I was enjoying myself as I killed wave after wave of terrible looking enemies in terrible looking environments. That brings me back to my earlier point about expectations. Had I not expected to hate every last second of its terrible movie-gameness, I probably wouldn’t have found any enjoyment in it at all. Again, that doesn’t make it a good game but it is better than I expected.