Warhawk image

Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: August 28, 2007 (N.A.)
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Incognito / Sony Santa Monica Studios
ESRB: Teen
Genre: Multiplayer Fragfest
Multiplayer: 1-4 players offline (splitscreen), 2-32 players online
Format: PSN download (800 MB, $42.99 CAD) / Blu-ray release ($69.99 CAD w/ Bluetooth headset)
Official website

Warhawk looks like nothing special on paper. It’s a Battlefield clone that you’ve probably played in many variations over the years, such as Unreal Tournament or Star Wars Battlefront. Looking at the particulars of the game does not inspire any sort of excitement: its a purely multiplayer experience with no single-player campaign; no bots; only five maps and no innovative gameplay mechanics to hook you. Why would you play this game?

I’ll tell you why: because it is glorious.

Somehow Incognito have managed to capture that famous “30 seconds of gaming bliss”, replicate it seamlessly, and string it all together in a brilliant package. The polish and balance are remarkable. It focuses on basic, elementary fun, without letting any superfluous crap get in the way. And they should be commended for it. Particularly since the game was originally pencilled in as a PS3 launch title, and has emerged in fine style from what was – by most credible accounts – Development Hell.

Warhawk is a game you play online (or offline in splitscreen mode against other players). So before you go any further with this review, you need to ask yourself if this is the game for you. Not everyone enjoys the berserk intensity of online player-versus-player action. Some find it tedious and overly punishing. You will have total fucking idiots screaming at you over the headset. You will get camped, blown away, annihilated in the space of seconds, particularly at the outset. Someone will plant a mine right on the cockpit of the plane you want to fly. Even better, your own teammates may well take a knife to you and continue on their merry way. It’s like the Wild West, except the Wild West had some basic repercussions for actions, and Warhawk does not, beyond a 5-second cooldown when you die. If you have not played a title like this before, consider yourself warned.

I hasten to add, this is a big part of what makes every match unique. The lack of any computer-controlled players in the game means that every single avatar you see online is a real, thinking person, and they will act in brilliant and unpredictable and ludicrous ways. By turns frustrating, hilarious and gratifying – you either buy into the experience of playing with other humans, flaws and all, or you stay far away.

Warhawk image

Having said that, let me tell you why this game works so well.

Everything in Warhawk is straightfoward. The game consists of a series of maps, within which you can travel on foot or in vehicles, always in 3rd-person view. The objectives are familar to veterans of the genre: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and a newer mode called zones which entails holding a contiguous series of checkpoints. You and your teammates use jeeps, tanks, and the famous warhawks to meet these objectives. Starting with a pistol and a knife, you can make use of typical weapon pickups along the way such as rifles, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, gun emplacements, missile batteries, land mines, and sniper rifles. You move around with the analog sticks. R1 fires your equipped gun, L1 throws a grenade, and the d-pad switches weapons. Like I said, nothing new here.

From this seeming simplicity comes a much wider range of gameplay options. For instance, you can have one man drive a jeep while you man the machine gun on the back. Or ride with a rocket launcher in a tank, popping out of the top hatch at just the right moment. You can clear land mines with a flamethrower. You can “paint” targets with a set of binoculars - which causes them be blown to hell by an offstage air-strike (or artillery, they weren’t clear on this) – but also illuminates your position with a bright green laser beam connecting you to your target. This is a great example of the balance that exists within the game. Practically every weapon has an appropriate counterbalance to it. Missile launchers, deadly to flying enemies, take a long time to reload. The standard-issue knife, good for close range only, will kill an opponent instantly. Jeeps are manoeverable but lightly armoured. Tanks are slow and exceedingly tough. Infantry are no mere fodder in Warhawk, as one on-foot individual armed with the portable missile launcher can easily bring down an aerial opponent, and still be very difficult to spot and kill, as they are not large enough to show up on radar. This allows for a huge, expansive scope of play styles for each individual player. You can run-and-gun, or be stealthy, or anything in between. The maps are quite spectacular, beautifully engineered, and enormous.

Warhawk image

The star vehicle is of course the game’s namesake, the Warhawks and Nemesis Gliders. These pilot like ultra-agile Harrier jets, and are gigglingly fun to fly. There is a fairly steep learning curve at first, but it doesn’t take long before you are diving and swooping through the battlefield. These jets have two modes: hover and fly. The hover mode makes the craft behave as if it were a helicopter, allowing you to hang in mid-air and provide support to teammates or carefully target installations. Of course, hanging in mid-air is an excellent way to get your ass blown out of the sky (there’s that balance again). Flight mode will throw you forward into a more traditional Ace Combat-style control scheme, moving at a rapid base speed. You can slow down or speed up using the lower triggers, apply afterburners with a double-tap to the throttle, “powerslide” with both lower triggers, and do crazy tricks like barrel rolls and Immelman turns with the right stick. There is also the option of flying with the motion sensors in the sixaxis controller. Some will prefer this, but not all – I quite liked the motion mode as it frees up the left stick for independent turret control. For instance, if you are really good, you can do something like: break right with the warhawk, while executing a barrel roll, and raking the cannon fire at a target to your lower-left, all at the same time. This takes quite a bit of practise, but is very rewarding. Or you can opt for the standard two-stick control that is more familiar to most. (To be honest, I felt like I was better – more effective – using the sticks.)

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Combining all of these elements results in one of the most berserk, action-packed online multiplayer games I’ve ever witnessed. It’s total mayhem. People are screaming for support over the headset. Explosions are incredibly loud and debris flies everywhere. You’ll feel dread as you see the shadows of incoming warhawks flit across the landscape in front of you. You’ll cackle maniacally as you come diving out of a raincloud, unleashing flaming death upon an anti-aircraft gun, landing rapidly and leaping from the cockpit only to stab an attacking trooper with your knife. This is the sort of thing I’m talking about. A 32-player deathmatch in Warhawk has to be seen to be believed.

Whilst revelling in the bedlam you’ll notice that everything feels right. Lush vegetation abounds. Pillars reach up into the clouds. Beams of sunlight pierce the darkened sky. The blur and rain-spatter as you fly; the roar and thud of the tank’s cannon; the way your character arcs gracefully into the sky after being blown to hell by a mine. This polish is so important for a visceral game of this type – I’ve played many a title where even a slightly off sound effect or visual cue can badly disrupt the experience. Of particular note are the volumetric clouds and procedurally generated water effects, which purportedly run completely off the Cell chip. You have never seen clouds that look this good.

All the while, the game maintains a perfectly consistent 30 FPS, and I’ve never once seen even the tiniest hint of server lag. It’s like playing on a local area network. Credit for this is not due to Sony’s dedicated servers (of which there are usually around 130), but the game code itself, as you can very quickly set up and host a match on your own PS3. The software tests your bandwidth connection and allows an appropriate number of players – in my case, with about 60 KB/sec upload speeds, I was able to host and play in an 8-man game. Another nice feature is the ability to combine splitscreen and online play, so that you and up to 3 others can play in splitscreen mode on your PS3 while connected to an online match. Ranked play, on “official” servers, grants you various citations and ribbons as you fight, which in turn unlock new customization options for your avatar and warhawks. When you see a unique-looking soldier in this game, or a particularly customized flying machine, you know you are facing a badass.

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Of course, the game does have some issues and inconsistencies. Most notably is the motion control option itself. While a great mode for flying, this turns on motion control for all vehicles – awkward at best. Driving a tank by tilting the gamepad is just weird. Also, many people are quite particular about using a “normal” or “reversed” Y-axis control, set at a granular level. I prefer flying a jet with reverse-Y (i.e. pushing up makes the nose go down), but when driving and shooting I want the opposite. You can set individual axis controls for warhawks vs. ground vehicles, but not for more particular things like the cannon turret on the ‘hawks, or land-based antiaircraft batteries (which also count as “vehicles”). The online matchmaking system is quite functional, supporting clans and all, but a bit clunky and requiring a few too many button pushes to get around the menus. Server issues abound: while game lag is nonexistent, actually connecting to a server remains problematic as of this writing (four days from launch). And statistics tracking for your player is often slow to update, sometimes by hours.

Another niggle – I opted for the downloadable version, but it did not come with any sort of obvious game manual. They could have made that a little easier to find. Here is a link to the PDF version.

Sony does seem to be aware of these teething problems with the game and has made various announcements on the Warhawk community site about patching the “universal” motion control option, as well as the server and stats issues. Updates should be forthcoming. There are also strong hints at further downloadable content such as new maps and modes. It is unknown as to whether these will be paid upgrades or not.

Overall, the minor issues do not detract from the core fun that is Warhawk. If you are a fan of multiplayer games, this truly is one of the best I’ve ever played. And at $43 CAD for the online version, if you don’t already have a Bluetooth headset, it’s a steal.


11 responses to “Warhawk”

  1. I will have to try out this sixaxis flight control again. Seems like a worthwhile thing to master. Balance is Warhawk’s most extraordinary feature. It’s gonna be very hard to run into exploiters like in a Halo.

    Hm, guess my server abilities aren’t that shabby at a 12-player cap. Makes for pretty intimate sessions though, these less populated rooms. What Incog said about downloadable content plans is nice, too. I’m almost ashamed at how much i like this game. It’s right up my alley.

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  3. Excellent review! I was really on the fence about picking this one up. I think you may have swayed me. Now if I can only sway my pocketbook to co-operate…

  4. I’m sorry, i gave motion controls a chance but i couldn’t stand it. I thought you could do all the barrel rolls and dives with the sixaxis control, too, but it’s very awkward that you have to do it the way it is. On top of that, you control the turret with the LEFT stick, which is beyond impractical. I’m fine with my own way, thanks. Extra turret control aint worth it.

    Although i will say that controlling the jeeps with the sixaxis motion is very fun. Feels better than Excite Truck. Too bad you can specify what motion control you want and where.

  5. can’t* specify.

  6. Just a quick follow up ot my previous comment. I picked it up that very night and I can’t stop playing. Thanks for the excellent review sir! I’ll be looking you up next time I’m on. My PSN handle is jimmycanuck.

    On a down note, I’m one of the not so silent majority whose profile isn’t updating when playing ranked games. :(

  7. Excellent, Mr. Squires. I’ll look for you on there.

    The stats issue is quite common, its a system-wide thing unfortunately. Don’t feel like you’re being singled out. :) Mine have issues as well. I’m hoping they fix it this week. The stats servers and leaderboards went down yesterday afternoon, maybe that was indicative of Incognito working on it. I’m sure it didn’t help that it was a long weekend.

  8. I tried a couple times to log on yesterday, to no avail. Was the whole thing down?

  9. This game is extremely addicting! I love it! Too bad there are lots of server problems…

  10. Looks pretty effin sweet. I looked at the package for this game but it didn’t really sell me, but after reading yer review I’m gonna give it a whirl. And then I’m gonna hunt you down and keel you.
    Look for a hovering gunship with “Thoughtbubble” stencilled on it’s wing. And then a bright flash of light.

  11. I will pick this game up now,.

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