Developer: Incognito Studios
Release Date: August 28, 2007
Buy 'WARHAWK': PS3
When Microsoft launched its Xbox Live online service, one of the first Live-compatible titles was Crimson Skies, a flight combat game brought over from the PC and released for the Xbox at a time when flight games were almost passé. The single-player campaign was less than stellar, but online matches via Xbox Live were my first experience of all-night multiplayer games on a console system. Sometimes I'd nod off in the middle of a match just as dawn broke outside my shuttered windows. Still, Crimson Skies was limited by rough controls and the fact that even with a few different multiplayer modes, the title was, essentially, just one aerial dogfight after another. Sony's multiplayer-only Warhawk is what Crimson Skies could — nay, should — have been.
Like Crimson Skies, and reminiscent of the film "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," Warhawk's world exists in the peculiar sort of future envisioned by Westerners from the 1920s through the 1940s. It remains a signature style, but it doesn't jibe with how we today imagine a future world. As Warhawk has no single-player campaign or story mode, the conceptual background is related only through structural architecture, outdoor environments, and style of vehicles, weapons and soldiers' uniforms; yet that backdrop to the action is significant in setting the game's tone. Warhawk includes not only aerial combat in jet-propelled fighters — warhawks, best described as hover-planes — but also ground combat in tanks, jeeps and stationary turrets. There are foot soldiers, too, armed with a wide selection of weapons, from sniper rifles and rocket launchers to pistols and even knives, since conflicts are encouraged between all the different types of air and ground combat units.
Warhawk is clearly, outstandingly, a war game, but the never-never future realm squarely defines it as pure fun over gritty trench warfare or mincing tactical engagements. It's so much flat-out fun that it has the energizing feel of many thrilling-but-pointless video arcade games of the 1980s. (Indeed, as of this writing, the developer is in the process of fixing improper behavior in their statistics recording, so the system that tallies points, maintains leaderboards, and tracks rank promotions and battle commendations is switched off. For now, everything you're doing, every enemy tank blasted to pieces by your grenades, every warhawk you shoot out of the sky, every medal of valor you earn, they matter not when that single match ends, yet this detracts little, if any, from the overall experience.)
Warhawk's overall success is ultimately based on the quality of its gameplay; and that gameplay is very good. As befitting a game in which there's so much to do and so many different ways to do it, the controls work for you. SixAxis motion-sensing, if it's made for anything, is made for flight. Dual analog stick control is available for all vehicles, including warhawks, and you'll more likely than not choose that above motion-sensing, after you've tried both. Piloting a warhawk under constant air-to-air and anti-aircraft fire is not so easy — there is a learning curve here — and for gamers long accustomed to traditional dual-stick control schemes in console games, learning the SixAxis while learning how to fly a warhawk is perhaps asking too much. Also, you'll quickly discover that immediate warhawk fluency isn't terribly common, as it's often difficult to find an open spot in a regular mode match on Sony's dedicated ranked servers, but there's almost always a slot open on the first try on Sony's dogfight-only servers. You can make much of the learning curve and give it up, but after some hours over a few days, warhawk competency, if not mastery, will be yours. If you'd rather play than practice, though, there are at least a dozen other combat roles in Warhawk.
Graphically, Warhawk is not readily compared with other games. Incognito was obviously going for a specific style, and they well achieved it. The art is very good, the models detailed, and the colors rich, but if you're looking for EA's Battlefield-style realism, you'll not see it here. The whole game has a deco feel — those unfamiliar with this somewhat-elderly design movement will probably label the graphics "cartoony"; if art deco turns your stomach, you won't immediately take to Warhawk, but given time, the wildly entertaining gameplay will grab you so that you'll gladly forego your personal architectural tastes while you play.
On technical merits, Warhawk's audio is roundly quite good. The Dolby Digital sound effects are appropriately clear — sometimes bone-shattering enough to make you jump in your seat when you unexpectedly slam your warhawk into a craftily planted air mine — and the original musical compositions not only suit the tone of the game but are also gorgeous on their own merits in their Sturm und Drang, wartime style.
To support the purely multiplayer experience, Warhawk's developer, Incognito, has included several very large, high quality maps and four fairly standard game modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch, the venerable capture-the-flag, and something called zones, which is a flag-capturing variant allowing teams holding flags at length to grow captured territory until they box up the opposing team in a tiny, little, well-bombarded corner. For warhawk aces, there's also a dogfight-only mode, as well as the usual online game settings, such as turning friendly-fire kills on or off in unranked matches.
There are options to restrict usable areas of the provided maps, preventing eight-player matches from becoming 20-minute fruitless searches for opposing players. All the maps are detailed, beautifully rendered in the aforementioned style, and for the most part reasonably unique from one another. Indeed, the maps are large, but after a few hours of play, you've got your bearings, and you'll no longer find yourself hopelessly lost. The easily read pop-up map helps here, too. Split-screen play is available for two to four players offline, and online, too, but only in unranked matches as guests of the primary account.
Warhawk has full voice support via any headset compatible with the PlayStation 3, but Incognito chose the push-to-talk scheme, which in games is often as annoying as it is with mobile phones. I prefer a "mic always on" option, but alas, there is none. Push-to-talk does serve to keep player chatter — and death threats, bigoted remarks, flirting, etc. — to a minimum, but because of the intense action almost always unfolding on the screen, in Warhawk's case it also unfortunately inhibits useful team communication. This is a bit damning, considering the retail disc-based version, as opposed to the download-only version for sale via the PlayStation Store, is bundled with a reasonable quality Jabra Bluetooth headset. Social gamers should be aware split-screen online play supports only a single headset, for the primary account.
Online network play is smooth as silk, as it absolutely should be for a title that is made for online play. As a concession to equity, individuals wishing to run their own ranked match servers aren't allowed to play in those matches; in unranked matches, you can host and play. Warhawk is a good-looking, high-definition game running at a respectable 720p/1080i resolution, with no noticeable slowdown, hitching, tearing or artifacts in even the most crowded online matches hosted on distant servers — important, as the game permits worldwide play via the PlayStation Network. The game's graphics look great and immerse you in Warhawk's unique environments, but no jaws will drop. This is not a gee-mommy-look-what-I-made graphics title.
Sony should have in Warhawk a long-lived multiplayer hit to carry the console's online gaming until the long-awaited Killzone 2 is available. Even then, I expect you'll regularly pull Warhawk from its favored spot on your games shelf, ready for an hour or two of sheer lunatic combat mayhem. Due to the multiplayer-only nature of the title, Sony sells it online at a discounted $40 via the PlayStation Store, and they include a Bluetooth headset with the disc version, which retails for $60. Warhawk could have been even better if there had been some form of single-player content, even if the devs had merely revamped multiplayer maps so you could play against bots. It also offers offline split-screen play, should one prefer to play against friends instead of braving the wilds of online gaming. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the title is that despite Sony's concerns with overpricing a multiplayer-only game, Warhawk, lacking all single-player capabilities, is worth every bit of the full price for games of this console generation.
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