How do you know when you've got something special on your hands? It could be what happens when you take the power of a new console to make a spiritual successor to an earlier title, using the hardware to accomplish things that weren't possible years before. Maybe it becomes apparent when you can completely change the primary focus of a title and discover that the redesign is much stronger than the original concept. Or perhaps it's the new concept that generates and sustains momentum for your product by itself. In the case of Warhawk, all of the above definitely apply.
When Warhawk was announced two years ago, the game featured a significant focus upon a single player storyline that cast a large spotlight on the Sixaxis controller and what it could potentially do for games. Along the way, the team at Incognito discovered that their multiplayer mode was more substantial and appealed to players more than their plot. With the mantra of delivering a "AAA experience," they changed gears, making the game an online only slugfest on the ground and in the air for up to 32 players. They even decided to add in a number of extra features, such as being able to host games yourself or allowing multiple players on the same system at once without compromising gameplay. For months, press and even beta testers sang the praises of the game, rabidly talking about how quick and enjoyable the battles were. But does it live up to the hype? Simply put: Warhawk is one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences that is available on the PS3. While it's not perfect, its incredible depth and balanced gameplay will more than make up for some of its more apparent issues.
Immediately upon starting the game as a new recruit, you'll set up your basic character model appearance in battle for both your soldier and your Warhawk. Here, you'll select a specific side that you'd like to appear as during your various battles: the Eucadians and the Chernovans. The Eucadians appear to be much more early and mid-20th century in appearance, while the Chernovans seem to be more technological and futuristic. The choice that you make is purely cosmetic, and doesn't really have any impact upon the title whatsoever, especially without the plot. It could've been red versus blue, pirates versus ninjas or any other classic showdown for the ages. All you need to know is that you're enemy is anyone that isn't on your team, and you want to blow them out of the sky and off the face of the earth.
To that end, you'll engage up to 31 other players across five different worlds, each of which can be segmented into as large or as small a stage as you want for tight, hectic firefights or protracted strategic advances and counters. You'll take on your opponents in one of four different gameplay modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Nodes play. Veterans of multiplayer games will know the mechanics behind Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag by heart, although there are two mild twists on the standards. First of all, if you decide to play a dogfight only game, you're engaging in only Deathmatch or Team Deathmatch; there doesn't seem to be any sense in Capture the Flag or Nodes when you never touch the ground in that mode without exploding. Secondly, scattered across every single map are a number of sub-bases and mini-checkpoints. Capturing these bases allows you to create a spawn point for anyone on your team, who can then warp to any checkpoint or base in that territory as long as it's in your control. It also generates new weapons, turrets and vehicles for you and your allies to use. What makes the twist so interesting is that it helps ease you into the understanding behind the new Nodes Play feature.
In Nodes play, your entire goal is to capture bases and remain within the boundaries of that territory, "growing" its strength and power from your troop presence. The more troops that you have in that vicinity, the larger your turf becomes, which generates points for your team that you need to win the game. If you manage to link together two or more nodes, you get a bonus on the number of points, as well as increase the number of weapons your team can use. The other side benefit of building your turf is that it makes it harder for an opposing team to enter your boundaries and take land back, giving you a opportunity to repel the invaders.
Speaking of repelling invaders, Warhawk gives players myriad ways to eliminate their opponents. There are seven aerial weapons and nine ground weapons that compliment the three vehicles found in the game as well as the three turret types that players can get behind. Incognito went through a ton of time and dozens of adjustments from the beta and earlier play sessions to get the weaponry set up just right. I could literally go into pages upon pages of detail as to tactics and different ways that these weapons could be used, but perhaps one of the most striking elements about the weapon system within Warhawk is just how incredibly balanced the entire game system is. Practically every weapon has a specific counter or counter situation. For instance, laid mines can be destroyed with bursts from a flame thrower. Extremely powerful weapons, such as the homing missile, rocket launcher turret and the laser targeting binoculars take time to achieve a lock or unload their full power. Faster weapons, like swarm missiles, rifle bullets and heavy machine gun nests are faster but do less damage, requiring successive hits to destroy their intended target. That also discounts everything from playing with stealth and surprise, such as sniping an enemy from half a map away, or going in guns blazing on a jeep and deploying right in the midst of an enemy base.
The same can be said about the balance between ground troops, ground vehicles and turrets, and Warhawks (or Nemesis Gliders if you happen to roll Chernovan). In a way, there's almost a rock-paper-scissors setup between the three classes: Ground troops aren't heavily armored, and can go down to a mounted turret, aerial attack or be run over by a vehicle. However, they're nimble enough to avoid many of these attacks, and can potentially destroy either turrets or planes with an assortment of arms. Turrets are powerful weapons, but as soon as you fire them, everyone pretty much knows where you are, and since they're fixed embankments, they're often sitting ducks for Warhawks or soldiers that dare to get up close (typically as the turret is reloading). Warhawks, on the other hand, can destroy anything in the air, but to truly be effective against soldiers, vehicles and turrets without dropping a cluster bomb on the run, the planes have to hover in place. This leaves them open to any number of attacks provided that their opponents are intelligent enough to take advantage enough of it.
As a result of the balance of firepower, battles between experienced Warhawk players often turn into an adrenaline-fueled bullet and bomb ridden ballet of strategic warfare. Attacks and defensive plans of key bases to take and hold are more apparent to everyone for specific maps, making it easier for you and everyone on your team to immediately know what they need to accomplish to help their side claim victory over the other. This is the fast paced play that Incognito was aiming for, and it's quite a rush to engage in. For example, one game I played in was an intense firefight in which at least seven explosions and ten players died around me in what was a dangerous but necessary corridor to another checkpoint. It was insane, it was hectic, and it was awesome to survive.
Another thing that's impressive in the midst of battles is the control scheme, which is tight and responsive. Players have a number of options to adjust their controls, including inverting the analog sticks and even engaging Sixaxis control function for the ground vehicles and aircraft. It's nice to know that you have the option to turn that mode on and off at will instead of being stuck with it as your sole mode of operation. Personally, I found it to be a little loose for my control tastes, but I know some people that swear by it because it frees up your hands for aiming, so it's one of those things that may work for some players and not for others.
Regardless of your experience with the game, you'll be evaluated at the end of a match with your stats and performance on the battlefield. If you happen to be playing a ranked match, the points for the actions you did will add up and allow you to be promoted in rank. This will also let you receive medals and ribbons such as killing enemies with a specific weapon or capturing a base with your teammates a set number of times. There are at least twenty separate ranks that players can acquire, starting at the lowly recruit and moving all the way up to General. Gaining the first few promotions are relatively easy to do, particularly if you blast every opponent that gets in your sights, but as time goes on, the requirements get tougher, making it much harder to acquire new ranks.
Apart from bragging rights, the ranks can be used to unlock new costume skins for your character model. Also, depending on how a server is set up, ranks can restrict players from servers where they'd easily blow away less skilled warriors, since you have to meet that player ranking or lower to be eligible to enter a room. I did manage to run into one strange quirk with the player ranking system. Every now and then, the game would accidentally lose my progress, demoting me to a recruit when I'd already climbed up several ranks. I don't know if it's a launch time glitch or a significant issue, but it was strange to have to continually reload my profile to remind the server that I'd put in several hours of work.
Now, even with the finely honed balance that Incognito put into Warhawk, there are some things that stand out when it comes to jumping into a game and testing your skill against the rest of the world. With the exception of some hints that pop up during certain game situations (like the first time you pick up a weapon), there are no tutorials, training missions, bots or other introductory steps into the online space of Warhawk. As a result, even if players generate a local game to learn the layout of the maps, most players will sink instead of swim for at least the first hour until they start to get the hang of the various nuances of the game. During that time, they will most likely run into the largest issue that plagues any multiplayer game: rampant spawn camping that can have missiles quickly being rocketed in a novice's direction as soon as they return to the game.
It does sound improbable, especially because the establishing of bases, checkpoints and nodes that allow killed players to respawn should eliminate this issue. However, if you ever happen to be in a game with a skilled group of players or even a clan that goes up against a group of relative newcomers (particularly on a General ranked board, which means anyone can play), you'll quickly discover how lopsided this can become. Having experienced it from both sides, you'll notice that the skilled players establish their forward bases and then set up a solid defense network of turrets, tanks and players focused on keeping enemies at bay. The attack force moves forward, recaptures opposing nodes and eventually reduces their opponents to their sole checkpoint, hovering and sniping away at the unlucky team continually walking into this virtual killing field. Thankfully, a rival can't completely overrun and capture an enemy's base, or many games would be over before some teams knew what hit them.
I know it doesn't exist in the current version, but I do wonder if part of the newbie issue could be reduced by the inclusion of an observer mode in future updates, so newcomers could choose to be a spectator on pre-existing matches and gain an idea of what veteran players are doing. This way, when they step onto the field for the first time, they have a sense of what works and doesn't work well without constantly being shot. It won't reduce the spawn camping problem, but it may give some newcomers ideas of what they'll need to do to avoid constantly being crushed handily by their opponents, unless they're willing to filter their games by their personal rank or create their own servers and host their own games.
Creating your servers to host games or clan matches is incredibly easy thanks to Warhawk's robust options. Players can immediately decide if their server will be a player server if they want to play non-ranked games, dedicated if they want to host but not play non-ranked games or ranked dedicated if they want to play on their server but not participate in ranked games. What's more, players can set everything from passwords for clan meetings to friendly fire damage and spawn delays, and save these settings for future gameplay sessions. In fact, hosts can have their games up and running the way they want in five minutes or less, which is pretty impressive right out of the box without any significant or massive adjustments for the PSN. This is going to spawn a huge online community of pilots, and I'm sure that the number of pilots flying on the servers will skyrocket as it hits shelves.
What players will experience as they enter the five worlds of Warhawk is a visual feast for the eyes. I've seen the game evolve from its earlier builds through the beta into the final stages, and the little nuances never fail to impress me. There are things like cartwheeling bodies from explosions that rock turrets, vehicles and aircraft, lighting effects that cast shadows across the environment as they streak to their target and other nice touches. Since character models can change based on a player's rank and their personal tastes with their outfits, you may not see the same person twice in a game. You will, on the other hand, get quite accustomed to the landscape since there are only five worlds. However, the environments are quite lush and the fact that a map can be splintered into different arrangements makes it one of those things that should hopefully keep the experience fresh.
Sound effects are quite excellent as well. Often, you will find yourself using weapon reports to cue in on where an attack is coming from via their sound effects. For instance, if it's the crackle of electricity or the whoosh of a flame thrower, you have an idea of what it is and who could've been firing it. The explosions are quite raucous, particularly when you encounter a string of them that rock the battlefield, and the vehicles sound incredibly powerful and dangerous. This is supported by a nicely paired soundtrack, which gives you a feeling of being in a military movie with a dramatic underscoring the action.
Now, for players that don't want to download Warhawk, or prefer to have the game physically in hand, the package deal of the game is available for $60 dollars instead of the $40 on the store. The retail version included a Blu-ray disc with some extra video content as well as a Jabra headset, which could be used for the game. The headset charges up quickly (in about an hour, even though the documentation says two) and works as well as any other headset that we've previously used for the game; in fact, we tested it with the packed in Bluetooth and a Logitech USB headset and sensed no discernible difference. It really comes down to a matter of personal preference: would you rather download the game or have a physical copy of it? The headset is a nice extra, but it's understandable that some people may not want it if they'd rather have a downloadable copy of the game or if there's another headset that they prefer to use. One short note, however: after a couple of hours with the Jabra in my ear, it did get a little uncomfortable, so you may want to take that into consideration and switch sides if you're going for marathon Warhawk sessions.
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