After Super Stardust HD and the astonishing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Incognito Inc's Warhawk was probably my favourite PS3 title of 2007. Sure, it's little more than a arcade-style console reworking of the classic Battlefield with a fantasy sci-fi skin, but its combination of excellent visuals, refined gameplay and support for up to 32 players made it feel fresh and new on console; not necessarily better, but certainly a step removed from the best that Xbox Live has to offer, and as such, a pretty compelling purchase at the value-rific GBP 19.99 price point.
However, despite its many game modes and map variations, the bottom line is that Warhawk is fairly content-lite, with just a small smattering of vehicles and five different levels. Things have certainly improved since the game's original release though, thanks mostly to the recent 1.2 patch which added DualShock 3 support, cleaned up a few exploits, improved clan support and boosted server filtering options. That the game is still being played religiously by a large userbase is testament to the quality of the gameplay on offer, but the recent debut of the Operation Omega Dawn expansion pack is certainly timely - if only to get you back to the console and remind you just how good Warhawk is.
However, anyone downloading Operation Omega Dawn expecting a radical improvement to the core game is in line for a disappointment, as the bottom line is that all you're getting is a new vehicle that is of limited use, and an additional gameplay arena that's nowhere near as good as any of the five levels in the original release.
The new transport on offer is the KT-424 Combat Dropship, a large, armour-plated airborne monstrosity capable of accommodating multiple troops while carrying a ground-based vehicle within its clutches. As a tool for moving your team around quickly, while dropping off some heavy artillery deep into enemy territory, it's a decent new addition. However, anyone hoping for a 'boss vehicle' capable of inflicting rampant destruction is going to be disappointed. For starters, in flight mode the pilot only has access to the chaff release, relying on onboard soldiers to take out enemy attacks via cute little pop-up cannons. In hover mode, broadside cannons can be accessed by the pilot, but their effectiveness is extremely limited - good for low-level blasting of close-up targets and little else. Heavily armoured it may be, but the Dropship is also remarkably vulnerable when not fully manned. Indeed, due to its lack of agility, any decent Warhawk pilot can easily take it down in just a moment of sustained attack.
It's clear to see that Incognito has worked hard to keep the game balanced with the new inclusion of the new craft. Indeed, perhaps they've worked too hard, resulting in the Dropship being nerfed as a useful new tool on the battlefield unless you're really good at rallying your troops - not so easy when gamers are more inclined to try their luck with the wealth of single-seater craft dotted around the maps.
Onto the much-vaunted new map then: the sinister Omega Factory - a combination of heavy industrial cityscapes combined with rocky, mountainous terrain, garnished with a foreboding night-time atmosphere. Trumpeted in Sony PR materials as the biggest Warhawk map yet, ironically that aspect of the new level also happens to be its biggest downfall. Its size and scope is so colossal that gameplay is slowed down to a crawl; even when airborne getting from A to B feels like travelling between international timezones, and as a consequence, firefights with the enemy are few and far between. This has its impact online too, with players jostling to get into the larger servers and seemingly ignoring the less populated sessions running with the new map.
The problem with Operation: Omega Dawn is that aside from the novelty of having some new content to try out, there's really nothing here that tangibly boosts the appeal of the original release. Certainly for a title like Warhawk that's crying out for additional maps, game modes and vehicles, this expansion is deeply unsatisfying in that the fresh material is nowhere near as classy as the basic content. The release of Omega Dawn is also somewhat divisive. Premium expansion packs for online games always serve to divide the userbase into the 'haves' and 'have-nots', moreso here where the inclusion of the Dropship in older levels on servers running the expansion effectively freezes out those who don't want to pay the GBP 3.99 for the 'upgrade'.
As a relatively cheap mechanism for bringing you back to what is still fundamentally an excellent game, Operation: Omega Dawn is as good an excuse as any to get back into Warhawk's superb online multiplayer. For die-hard fans, the ability to gain access to every server on offer also makes this a must while well-organised team players and clans are going to get a lot of value from the new vehicle. But as an expansion designed to satisfy the existing userbase and attract new gamers to what is still one of the best games on PS3, Incognito needs to try much harder.