Tilt and tumble.
Of course, what everyone wants to do when they pick up WarHawk for the very first time is jump in the plane and try out the tilt controls, thus rendering any kind of meaningful multiplayer playtest slightly meaningless. Either that, or it accurately simulates the kind of thing you can expect when you go online with the game when it launches next summer.
Played properly, the idea of WarHawk's team-based online mode at TGS (single-player was sadly absent) was to rack up the most number of kills for the blue or the red team within ten minutes. You start off on foot, sometimes spawning right next to one of those tempting jet fighters, but other times elsewhere in your base. With ramps and interconnecting bridges providing the simple architecture of the symmetrical demo map, you could either set off on foot and collect the various weapons dotted around, or team up with a squad mate and drive a jeep, with one of your manning the turret in the back. Nearby, there's also the option of getting in a tank, but the obvious allure of the jet fighter proved too much for every single player to resist. Essentially, this was Battlefield lite, with everyone given the chance to fly around and try and blow one another out of the sky. Which most people did. Repeatedly.
As far as the flying goes, it's fun. It switches to a view behind the plane, and lets you fire missiles or try your luck with the machine gun, and is fairly simple to just pick up and play, which is good. But the problems creep in early on, as the optional motion-sensitive control is not nearly as responsive. Nor is it as accurate as you might expect, and most players seemed to swoop around the rather enclosed map trying to get a bead on one another, but generally just haplessly wobbling their way around and missing repeatedly.
The idea is intuitive enough: tilt the pad downwards to dive, pull towards you to climb, and combine both by holding it left or right to wriggle free from those omnipresent missile warnings that bleep with appropriate intensity. But the instant impression you get is that you simply can't fly very high, at all and, as such, that limits the feeling of freedom that the tilt controls initially infuse. As soon as you hit this arbitrary 'ceiling' within the first few seconds, you're rather reduced to dancing around the many hills that populate the map, and fleetingly getting your enemy in your sights.
But on a practical level, there are sound gameplay reasons for not being able to fly as high as you might like. If the game allowed the player to fly too high, there would be limited opportunity for the on-foot players to wreak havoc with their guided RPG missiles, and the dog-fighting combat would be far more dispersed as a consequence. As it is, the game's fast-paced, the kills frequent, and the respawns regular. You might well be all-powerful in the air, but you're also extremely vulnerable. Whether this equates to sensible balancing, it's impossible to say at this stage - especially when you have to queue up for 45 minutes, get 10 minutes to sample everything and are swiftly jettisoned to let the masses of patient people have a go.
For at least half of our allocated time, though, we swiftly learned that you've probably got more chance of pulling off kills on the ground than in the air. Indeed, armed with an RPG, you can easily get a lock-on if you hold down R2 and wait for the target to stray carelessly into range. At least half the time, locked-on shots blew enemies apart in one hit, making for a profitable kill tally on a hilltop, rather than going for glory in the air. Needless to say, with no one bothering with ground warfare, it was a pretty lonely experience trying to drive around, but a properly populated and organised match-up could actually be a lot of fun.
But even a few minutes in the company of WarHawk provides enough of a lasting impression to suggest that developer Incognito is has a long way to go before it gets the most out of the PS3's architecture. Unlike, say, Resistance, which has improved dramatically since E3, WarHawk still looks like the runt of the PS3 litter.1080p or not, the visuals are among the weakest among the TGS next-gen crowd, with a look and feel not even challenging the Xbox 1 in most regards (yes, really). Textures are incredibly poor given the power of the console, landscapes are merely functional and bland, the pop-up is absolutely appalling, the physics aren't anything special, the character models don't impress. But with maybe eight, nine months to go, we'll cut Incognito some slack for now.
Right now, though, all the extra resolution afforded by 1080p does is magnify the catalogue of niggles. Even on foot, simple trees in the distance appear perforated in what appears to be an attempt to reduce the amount of scenery rendered from a distance. But compared to recent offerings like Just Cause, or two-and-a-half year old PC classic Far Cry, it's barely rendering anything that should stress the PS3 to any extent to justify such alarming corner cutting. In its favour, the frame rate seems solid and evidently locked at 60fps, the vehicles aren't bad and handle well, and the mid-air explosions are suitably harrowing (sending pilots spinning to their doom for a few seconds before the respawn kicks in) but that's about as positive as it gets from a technical standpoint.
Although there's still a way to go before it launches, the rather worrying assessment at this stage is of a solid but utterly unspectacular title that wouldn't get a quarter of the attention were it being shown off on PS2. Remove the novelty of tilt control and you're left with a multiplayer demo that's merely a run-of-the-mill Battlefield clone that's neither technically impressive nor doing anything new on a gameplay level if its E3 and TGS showings are a fair indication. No one should rule out WarHawk just yet - especially as we haven't spent any quality time with the single player mode yet - but after this technically uninspiring display, Incognito has a long way to go before its ambitions are realised.
WarHawk is due out exclusively on PlayStation 3 in summer 2007.