The Playstation 2 has already had its fair share of amazing flight games over the last few years. As one of the obvious standards in the genre, Ace Combat has taken over on PS2, giving iteration after iteration of intense and realistic arcade/flight gaming in a full and immersive package. So when we first took a look at Heatseeker for Wii, PS2, and PSP, we were curious to see how the game was going to find its niche. Would Heatseeker's faster arcade style and over-the-top explosions set itself apart from other air combat games, or will it simply fall to the wayside? The answer isn't too pretty.
If you've played any arcade flight titles in the past (whether it be After Burner or the more realistic Ace Combat), you should already know the basic premise around Heatseeker. It's a balls-to-the-wall, in your face blast-fest, and it rides at 500 miles per hour. The team behind the game had one goal in mind, and that was to make a furiously fast arcade flight game that was heavy on the combat, and even heavier on the explosions. Story? It's there, but it takes a backseat. Supporting cast? Not really, unless you include your weapon-switch function on the F-15. Heatseeker is - above all else - an arcade blast-fest.
From the beginning of the game you'll saddle up as Mike "Downtown" Hudson, a hot-shot rookie pilot who's being put to the test during a very minor inter-nation scuffle. As you progress, Downtown is thrown directly into the middle of one of the largest wars in history, and you'll be responsible for playing out tons of different aspects. You'll take to the air for basic dogfighting, go on recon missions where the no-fly zone is no questions asked, lead bombing runs on both land and water, patrol semi-hostile regions by identifying unknown aircraft with on-board scanners, and of course get in huge land-to-air, water-to-air, and air-to-air wars. All along the way you'll acquire new planes (all real aircraft, including the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 Hornet, as well as Mig fighters and the loveable Nighthawk V1 Stealth Bomber), and be able to adjust the payload based on the type of mission. Not a bad mix of fighters and weapons, and when it's all infinite ammo, who can complain?
When you get into the cockpit for the first time though, you'll notice a mix of good and bad design decisions. Heatseeker plays out like pretty much every other analog-controlled flight game in the history of gaming. You can steer the plane with the left analog, adjust AI commands for your wingman, switch from missiles to bombs, and fire either lock-on shots or spray pellet-ammo by the thousands. It feels fine, but while the game banks on motion control for the Wii version there isn't a single innovative moment on PS2, as every gameplay element has a "been there, done that" feel throughout.
Where Heatseeker loses a step yet again is in the general balance of the game. When you're in the air you'll have great control over the plane, but not a ton to do with it. Many of the dogfights are as simple as dropping to subsonic speeds (100-200 MPH) by pulling back on the right analog stick, pulling out your largest missile (most of which can fire from 1,000 ticks away), and blasting away as soon as you get within firing range. As soon as your shot is away, simply lock on to the next target (just inches away, usually, since formation flying is common in enemy targets), and rip off another shot. In one pass on a still target we were able to blow away eight aircraft carriers, and get to work on an SAM turret. Yes, the game is arcade-centric, and yes, this is the style of play, but rather than being fast and furious many of the battles can be cut quickly by dropping your speed, taking aim, and blowing a huge mass of fighters away before they know what's coming.
That being said, Heatseeker still has some entertaining moments. The difference in planes is huge, as you'll get the appropriate feeling when matching up between fighters. A Yak-141 is going to fly quicker than your standard F-class fighter, and it shows. In the oh-so-common footrace though, F-class fighters can usually switch on the afterburners and catch up to an enemy Yak within seconds (not to mention something like the Nighthawk V1). Once you start unlocking the more modernized aircraft, all the classic moves can be made, as dogfighting becomes a bigger part of the game. There's no better feeling than gaining height with a bogey tailing you, and then boosting speed and performing the classic "Split S" (basically a reverse u-turn, where the pilot inverts himself and then flies towards the ground and back at his tailing enemy), and moves like that definitely add to the fun. Still, there's always that lingering feeling that a simple lock-on and button press will obliterate nearly any enemy in range, and battles never seem to get as epic as we'd like as a result.
As for the final issue of Heatseeker; the game is ugly. It's really, really ugly. Videos don't really do the game "justice," as it looks comparable to a first-generation PS2 game, and really shows its lack of detail when blown up on a standard-sized TV. The game does not run in 480p, and has a widescreen mode that doesn't seem to do true widescreen. And while many of the effects animations - and models for the planes - look decent, many of the other structures and vehicles look absolutely horrible, and are comparable to first-generation PS2 titles (yes
we're talking seven years ago) or slightly worse. This game may very well be model-for-model with the PSP version, as it is one of the uglier games we've seen in a long, long time. The gameplay can be fun, but you'll need to put blinders on, or hook it up to the trusty dusty 16" TV in your Grandpa's basement, as this one is intended for a PSP-sized screen. It has its moments, as many in-air effects and the fluidity of the plane animations are pretty complex, but the overall look of the game is simply sub-par.
©2007, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved