Let's be honest here. WarHawk owes more than a small debt to Electronic Arts' supreme Battlefield series, its premise being very simple: get a large bunch of gamers into a huge virtual warzone, give them a range of weapons, vehicles and bases and essentially let them blast the living daylights out of each other. Sure, there's a whiff of strategy about it, and a well-organised unit is going to wipe the floor with a bunch of out-for-themselves mercenaries, but the core experience is very similar. It's all about the experience of being one man caught in the middle of all-out carnage.
WarHawk is beautiful to play not only because developer Incognito recognises the essence of what made Battlefield great, but also because it knows how to code great console games, both in terms of technology and gameplay. Graphically then, it's a beautiful looking open-world game, with key 'next gen' visual moments where a vast array of detail is on display. This huge depth of vision isn't just for show - manning a turret and blasting a distant enemy plane out of the skies is just one example of how the engine is utilised to benefit the gameplay. Easily being able to locate weapons or health power-ups at just about any given point is another.
WarHawk has five game variations - Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag should need no introduction, while the fourth option, Zones, sees you taking over territory in a game where more land equals more points - the game ending when a set number of points are reached. Dogfight cuts out the land-based battling altogether, allowing up to 32 players to engage in a purely aerial form of combat that showcases the excellent control method (hint: move to the Pro aerial controls as soon as you can).
While there's nothing exceptionally innovative in the game modes, it all comes down to the execution. WarHawk is a game that is precisely balanced. Every vehicle, every weapon, has its own strengths and weaknesses. The game equips you perfectly for every situation, giving nobody a key advantage - at least to begin with. If you happen to end up in a game where your enemy controls all of the bases and fortifications, you'll inevitably end up being spawn-camped by the dominant team.
Also worthy of praise is how WarHawk offers multiple map variations for every level to accommodate smaller games. Dedicated servers can house 24 or 32 players, but if you're hosting on a typical ADSL line, the chances are that you'll be limited to a maximum of eight connections. In these cases, smaller versions of the main map are available, tailored to the more intimate atmosphere. It's good to know that while WarHawk works beautifully with a jam-packed server, there's also support for those looking to host smaller, more private games.
Not Without Its Negatives
WarHawk isn't without its negative points. I was surprised to see that the final game featured the exact same five maps that were in the beta. After several weeks of fairly religious play on those levels during the extended playtest, I was looking forward to fresh terrain in the final game (and additional vehicles) and was somewhat disappointed to see nothing new at all. I can only hope that additional content is added later on via download, as - even with the various map configurations available - it does get a little samey after a few weeks.
Being so familiar with everything the game offers also means that newcomers to WarHawk who didn't participate in the beta are going to be at an immediate disadvantage when they first log on. Air combat in particular is tricky to fully master, and the chances are that newbies are destined to be continually blown out of the sky within seconds of taking off. WarHawk offers next to no training whatsoever, to the point that setting up a local game and playing on your own is the only way to get to grips with four control methods the game expects you to master. Some CPU-controlled bots would've helped there, but, alas, they're not forthcoming.
The only other issue I have concerns voice comms. Holding down L3 is required to engage the chat mode (a bit of a pain in itself) but, more than that, the quality of the voice itself varies dramatically. Outside of team games, I turned off the voice entirely - the better to appreciate the music and the truly excellent, THX-certified surround sound.
Buy the Blu-ray Version
WarHawk is an excellent online game and the option to play it here and now via download, as an alternative to buying it from retail, is a great move. There's just something intrinsically cool about the whole concept and this game should've been the standard bearer for online delivery.
But in this case, downloading the game comes with a disappointing DRM penalty. Essentially, if you buy the game from the PlayStation Store, only the account that made the purchase has rights to play the game. And if you port that account to another PS3, there's a 24-hour delay before you can play again. The message here is clear - Sony has had enough of gamers sharing their accounts and giving away their games to other people for free. Fine.
While it is completely understandable for Sony to protect their investment in such an important game, the restrictions are overly prohibitive. Sony itself has set up a system for multiple users to play on the same PS3, with their own friends lists, game stats etc. But even sub-accounts connected to the main user profile are banned from playing WarHawk, so the message from Sony is obviously that only the person who buys the game - and him alone, nobody else in the household - should be able to play it. To me, that's a line that should not have been crossed.
SixAxis support is also something of a mixed bag - quite surprising considering that early Warhawk demo code was used to showcase the controller's motion sensor a couple of E3s ago. It's certainly entertaining enough in the flight sections if you're intent on a scenic journey around the large game maps, but in the heat of hardcore combat, the motion sensor's lack of precision is frankly a liability. It gets worse when using the jeep and tank, where SixAxis is expected to double up as a steering wheel. The jeep in particular is almost uncontrollable and while the sensitivity can be adjusted, that only serves to balls-up the fairly well adjusted controls for the flight mode. The fact that SixAxis support is disabled by default speaks volumes, and I can only suggest that you leave it that way.
What is strange is that Sony seemingly has nothing to lose by allowing sub-accounts using the same console to play WarHawk. It still kills off the game-sharing, it wipes out the possibility of reselling it, but crucially it doesn't handicap any legitimate use of the game by people who choose to download rather than buy the disc version. But with things the way they are now, I think opting for the retail WarHawk is the best way forward, not least because the Bluetooth headset you get isn't bad value at all, plus you're free to play the game on as many PS3s and/or accounts as you desire. The headset itself is a standard mid-range Jabra effort, meaning it's good for your mobile too.
It's disappointing to end this review on a sour note and it's all the more frustrating because every other online component of this game (dodgy voice chat aside) works so well and serves the gamer brilliantly. I've not had this much fun with the PS3 since... well, since I played the WarHawk beta, actually. Download DRM issues aside, this is a game that begs to played and enjoyed.
Incognito has taken the DNA of Battlefield and crafted a sublime online console game - a virtual battlezone that serves up more than its fair share of wonderful audio-visuals, but more than that, plays beautifully, with every game you play supplying a key gameplay moment that only online gaming provides.