Released last weekend in beta form to a lucky few thousand in the USA, Warhawk - from Incognito, (creators of Twisted Metal) - is actually something of a landmark title for the PlayStation 3, shaking off a combination of non-committal previews and vicious behind-the-scenes rumours-mongering to provide a hugely enjoyable online warzone with support for up to 32 players.
We've played it pretty much non-stop over the last couple of days and you can find a packed screenshot gallery right here.
Once the beta has loaded up, getting into the thick of battle is an absolute doddle, thanks to a server mechanism very familiar indeed to PC gamers. A list pops up with a complete rundown of Warhawk games in progress - and you can join any of them whenever you want so long as slots are available. Additionally, latency between you and the server ('ping') is also displayed, with the fastest games listed at the top. This is where the first issues I had with the beta manifested themselves.
The latency detection was pretty random, to the point where servers exhibiting a totally useless 9999 ping actually turned out to be just as playable as the faster ones. My advice? Choose your server based on what kind of game you want to play as opposed to what may well be a phantom connection speed. Keep to servers in the same geographical location as you, and all will be well.
Once you're into the game proper, it's clear to see that Warhawk's main inspiration is very much shaped by the Battlefield series of games. The maps are absolutely colossal, easily able to accommodate the advertised 32 players.
You instantly get that same Battlefield feeling that you're taking part in a grand military campaign, with infantry battling it out on the ground while the airborne Warhawks are dogfighting in the skies above. Jeeps with mounted machine guns zoom by, tanks besiege enemy gun emplacements and manned turrets spin around, lighting up the sky with anti-aircraft fire.
Controls are very easy to get to grips with and by and large, very intuitive. It's the usual analogue stick arrangement for control, with shoulder buttons reserved for weapons fire and the d-pad used to access your armoury.
Slightly different control schemes are in place for the various vehicles you take control of - the biggest departure being with the Warhawk aeroplanes. Here, you can opt to choose between helicopter-style hover controls (useful for strafing ground targets and indeed taking off in the first place). Or you can hit the triangle button, swing the wings back and engage the afterburners for a more traditional flight mode. Motion sensor support is there, but it's not the default control scheme and as such, response is crisp and precise thanks to the conventional analogue sticks.
Battlefield with a console twist
If the action itself is very much Battlefield-inspired, there are a number of key changes that are crucial to what Warhawk is all about. First of all is a definite shift towards an arcade focus. First person shooting is dispensed with in favour of a third person perspective - a move that disengages you a tad from the on-foot sections, but works brilliantly with vehicles.
Secondly, the game is far more forgiving - drive a tank off the edge of a cliff and it'll land safely. Throw yourself off the peak of a large mountain and you'll hit terra firma with zero damage. It's all rather unrealistic perhaps, but plenty of fun. In addition to collectable weapons, there are pick-up icons dotted about too - another arcade-style feature that works well, especially for collecting additional weapons whilst airborne.
Another point of differentiation is the sci-fi setting. Whilst lasers and the like are notable by their absence (think bullets, flamethrowers, knives and grenades instead), the environments and military technology on offer are every bit as quasi-futuristic as Dr Evil's wardrobe.
This allows for some more imaginative worlds in addition to the usual Battlefield-style mountainscapes - the Cloud City-style level is beautiful to behold, and the Archipelago stage, with its sky-top islands is a perfect setting for a game that combines land and air battling so seamlessly. It's here that Warhawk's huge draw distance, rock solid 30fps framerate, and excellent lighting provides the game's graphical 'wow' moments. Even climbing a mountain on foot, and staring out across the vista towards a cityscape (sniper rifle at the ready, of course) is a great Warhawk moment.
Also impressive is the way the game adapts depending on the number of players available. Different variations of the five main maps in this beta are available - the idea being that the same level can play host to a small, intimate eight-player DeathMatch as well as a vast Capture the Flag session with 32 online participants.
Players can either login to an existing server or create their own - with the game code testing out your connection and limiting you to the amount of players your connection can handle. Typical ADSL can only handle eight gamers at once, so you'll have to seek out a host with a whopper pipe to the internet to get the full fat experience. Just like Halo 3, cunning coding has made online lag something of a non-issue - you never feel compromised by the latency of your connection.
Ending the content famine
I came into this online beta expecting the worst. We've all heard the rumours about Warhawk's troubled development - how it was supposed to be on the verge of being canned, how it was going to be download only via the PlayStation Store. We all saw the early footage and the unconvincing Sixaxis motion sensor propoganda and I daresay you were as underwhelmed with the whole thing as I was.
The thing is, having played this beta pretty solidly now for two days, I am hungry for more. It's providing classic Battlefield gameplay with a solid arcade twist, it's giving you up to 32 players and all the carnage that goes with it - and every so often, you get a truly impressive graphical hit that makes the PlayStation 3 price premium seem just a little bit more worth it.
But before we get completely carried away in our praise, it's worth pointing out that this demo is indeed beta code and it shows. You'll find the game randomly locking up completely - necessitating a complete reboot of the PS3. The game also shuts itself down occasionally citing annoyingly vague 'Network Problems'. Additionally, you may find yourself being dumped out of servers randomly for no perceived reason whatsoever. Headset support is included (as with Incognito's Calling All Cars) but all too often junk noise filters through, which soon gets annoying.
Don't let all this put you off though. For European PS3 owners starved of new releases and forced to put up with a threadbare PlayStation Store, this beta is an absolute god-send. It's available from June 1st as a 775MB download to those who've registered - and I'm sure that those who haven't will be able arrange a crafty account-share with a beta tester in order to get their hands on the code.