It’s no secret that the Wii library is saturated with exploitative shovelware, dozens of titles designed and marketed for the gullible non-gamer crowd. At first blush Real Heroes: Firefighter might look like just another one of those games, but it has a number of things going for it that set it apart from the rabble. While most of these shovelware games focus on a single gimmick and use a generic, cute art style to blend in with the likes of Wii Sports, don’t let Firefighter’s title fool you into thinking it’s one of those Fischer Price games. It actually focuses on a legitimate career and tries to portray it realistically, at least to an extent.
Most Wii-specific games are partygame knockoffs, while the rest are in the established game genres of war, action, adventure and sports. I’ve always liked games that explore roads less-traveled like surgery sim Trauma Center, and while Trauma Center ended up as more sensational than simulation, Firefighter starts off down-to-earth. You play as a probationary fireman, “probie” to the other firefighters, during one of the hottest, driest Los Angeles summers in recent history.
It’s a good thing you’re outfitted with the standard tools of the trade: a trusty fire extinguisher, a halligan for prying open doors, a signature fire axe, and a hose when you manage to find one bolted to a wall. Each tool handles like a typical first person shooter weapon, and the Wii aiming controls are precise and functional as ever. The fire extinguisher works about as you’d expect, but it isn’t all that effective and runs out of juice rather quickly. The hose is the real heavy lifer and you’ll want to arm yourself with one whenever you get the chance. The hose supplies a constant stream of high-powered water, which can be switched to a misting spray for close-quarters fire.
The only problem with the hose is that its range is finite—progress too far into the level and you run out of hose, even though you can’t see it rendered behind you. This means that you’ll always have to keep an eye out for a new hose box to smash and equip.
The axe and halligan unfortunately suffer from waggle issues. You swing both of them with gestures and the axe isn’t too responsive, although it gets the job done if you keep swinging it indiscriminately at whatever you need to break, be it collapsed wood or metal grating. The halligan requires two different swings to open different kinds of doors, and getting the motion right with any kind of accuracy is pretty random.
You also get to handle more specialized tools—a circular saw for cutting through obstructions and a pneumatic spreader for prying open doors—but these instances are entirely scripted and don’t show up often.
With only a handful of tools and nothing but fire as an enemy, you’d imagine Real Heroes Firefighter would get dull and repetitive quickly, but to my surprise it didn’t. Epicenter Games has sprinkled significant variety throughout the 8-10 hour campaign and the grab-bag of level and mission design keeps the relatively simple premise and shallow “arsenal” from getting stale. You’d think that every level would involve spraying water on fire until every last ember is extinguished, but there’s a bit more too it than that.
Most of the levels contain disgruntled victims trapped behind the growing blaze—construction workers, white collar types, the obligatory mom looking for her kids and vice-versa. The mall level even has a pet shop you have to evacuate of cute animals. These victims can be annoying two-fold; often they quip petty and selfish lines, and their AI is rather limited. They follow a set path and as long as there is any hint of fire on that path, they’ll stay put. This means you have to practically hand-hold them all the way to safety; you can’t just clear a general escape path and trust them to follow it.Still, tedium is rarely an issue; the missions move at a snappy pace, you always have something to do and you must work efficiently to save people quickly, lest the fire hem both of you in. Take too long and a victim might pass out, adding the burden of hauling them out on your shoulder in yes, a fireman’s carry. Objectives are usually about finishing a task quickly and only extinguishing as much fire as necessary to meet that goal. You’ll break debris apart, dodge unquenchable fuel leaks, and mount a ladder truck on multiple occasions, all white fighting heat exhaustion and avoiding broken power lines that can electrocute you right through your hose’s water stream. Objectives and orders are delivered through the Wii remote’s speaker like a staticky walkie-talkie—another clever use of the remote’s crap-quality speaker.
Of course that doesn’t mean that chasing down those last few flames isn’t an objective at times—in some cases a room is fully ablaze and you must work strategically to literally corner the fire and kill it. Methodically clearing a fire, anticipating its movements, has an almost therapeutic Zen quality that you’d find in some puzzle games. When you aren’t working to evacuate frustrating survivors, or rushing through a 500 degree room with nothing but an extinguisher as the flames lick at the corners of your vision, Real Heroes Firefighter can be almost calming.
It was a surprise to me that the gameplay in Real Heroes was such a good time because the visuals certainly don’t promise one. I’ll be honest, the game looks like an artifact of second-generation PS2 software and while nothing looks truly hideous, it still doesn’t live up to current-gen standards, even on the underpowered Wii. I was particularly disappointed in the water effects, considering we saw much better years ago in Mario Sunshine. Then again I’m taking into account that Real Heroes is a budget title at $30 brand new, and development went into making it fun, not pretty. I don’t want to sound like a wet blanket, as the game has serviceable graphics, so just remember the old saying about beauty being more than skin deep when it comes to this game.
The audio portion is better. While the music is largely atmospheric and not all that memorable, the voice cast contains professional talent. Jamie Kennedy handles the plucky comic relief, Jenette Goldstein portrays essentially the same character that made her famous in “Aliens” (seriously, she plays a firefighter named Vasquez) and John DiMaggio does a little bit of the Marcus Fenix thing as the firefighter captain. Most of the dialogue is kind of campy but that was probably intentional, and the experienced actors make it work regardless.
Real Heroes doesn’t have much in the way of bonus content—a few secret items to collect (the medieval fireman tools are cool), and tokens hidden in each level that reveal how the fire got started. Once the campaign is over there isn’t much to do but try it on harder difficulties. Even so, as a budget title Real Heroes Firefighter gets the job done. I wasn’t expecting to want more but I’d actually like to see a sequel to this one, with more attention paid to the graphics and a two-player cooperative mode. I might prefer grittier “profession” games like Real Heroes: Undercover Cop in a Human Trafficking Ring, but I also wouldn’t mind donning the big yellow hat again.
You don’t see semi-serious games about real, dangerous professions very often. This is another "cool idea" game like Deadly Creatures and Mushroom Men, the kind I'd hoped we'd see more of on the Wii. A portion of the proceeds from this game even go to a firefighters’ cancer support network. Seriously, this is one game that actually fits the “whole family can enjoy it” tagline and it also helps a good cause. Real Heroes Firefighter is well worth the money.