Remember Warhawk? It was 1995 and users on the original PlayStation got to play a solid, mission-based sci-fi flight shooter and take to the alien skies against the nefarious Kreel (a villain so badass that he chokes on a chicken bone while laughing at your death during one of the many creative endings). Naturally it was single-player only because that was a more innocent time -- a time when artificial intelligence was the only enemy available. Well, this Warhawk, loosely based on that now 12-year-old PlayStation game, offers a multiplayer-only battlefield where two warring factions fight to gain control of strategic points in a vaguely futuristic universe where standard military jets have been replaced by highly maneuverable hovering aircraft. What are these war machines called? You guessed it: Warhawks.
That's pretty much all there is to Warhawk. There is no plot to speak of, just a blurb of a generic sci-fi backstory. Anyone looking for more than online carnage should look elsewhere. If team-based battles are your thing, however, you'll find Warhawk to be extremely capable. The basic gameplay is straight from the popular Battlefield games or the old classic Tribes, with players spawning in and around bases, immediately able to stock up on various weapons or jump into any of the game's vehicles: tanks, jeeps, turrets and, of course, the flying Warhawks. The Sixaxis controller lets you use motion control to fly your Warhawks, and while it takes some practice, it's immersive and works really well. Traditional control methods work, too.
Flying isn't the only thing you can do. Defense-minded players can opt for manning gun turrets or grabbing a rocket launcher to take down vehicles. The game types available are standard -- Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Zone. The maps provide quite a lot of variety despite the fact that there are only a handful of different levels, as each level is large and can be configured several different ways according to particular game type or number of players. As far as being a graphical showcase for the PS3, it's impressive. It won't wow you with special effects, but it does successfully present a state of large-scale war.
Up to 32 players can fight it out on either the red or the blue team. Players spawn on foot armed with a pistol and a handful of grenades. As the battle rages above, players can use flamethrowers, rocket launchers and various types of rifles, from sniper to assault. Each vehicle is effective in a different way: Warhawks can fly or hover, and this introduces a basic 'rock-paper-scissors' dynamic. Tanks and jeeps wreak havoc against players on foot but are sitting ducks against the missiles and rockets from a flying or hovering Warhawk. Turrets can take out these flying beasts pretty easily, but they can't do a whole lot against a soldier on foot (the homing rocket launcher also gives grounded players a way to strike Warhawks out of the sky). The game is well-balanced, and this gives players a lot to do and a viable role to play on the battlefield.
While there are only five maps with which to play, each is deeply customizable, and the developers have done an incredible job making 4v4 on a small version of the map feel as chaotic and exciting as 16v16 on a giant version. Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch are offered, and there's a variation on the old Domination concept, which Warhawk calls Zones. At the touch of a button players can take a look at the map and see that certain locations have colored rings around them. Teams gain points by holding these control points over time, and some accrue points faster than others, which adds a strategic layer for more organized teams. Vanilla Deathmatch is also available, but this is a team game, which makes Deathmatch feel shallow. Another boon is that split-screen players can play online, too. It's a lot of fun to join an Internet game with at least one of your teammates on the couch beside you.
Warhawk has a ranking system that confers a wide range of bragging rights to players who are interested in that sort of thing. Ribbons are awarded for specific goals like being the top player on the winning team or avoiding friendly fire. This lets players establish bragging rights with the online community.
The graphics are spectacular, and the game supports 480p, 720p or 1080i. Draw distances are extremely long, which is essential for a game where most players spend a lot of their time in the air looking for targets. Things explode beautifully, and it's a kick watching burning debris fall to the ground as dogfights rage up above.
What might be the most interesting thing about Warhawk is how Sony is making it available. You can buy it at the store for $59.99 (MSRP) and you'll get an included Bluetooth headset, or you can download it directly from the PlayStation Network for $20 less (with no Bluetooth headset). The online version lacks a manual, however -- which is odd -- but players can download one from Sony's Web site. No matter how you decide to purchase it, Warhawk is a well-crafted online flight-'n'-frag-fest with enough options and action -- and an active enough player base (at the time of this writing) -- to keep players flying, shooting, running and gunning for a good long time.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.