Takes my breath away
In fact, when we saw the game earlier this week during the dazzling spectacle of the Eastbourne Air Show on the South Coast of England, we were so preoccupied with the gameplay we didn't bother to touch on the subject of story until we were practically out of the door! Top Gun Combat Zones is a flight sim, console-style. The fastidious attention to detail of PC flight sims is observed to a degree, but you'll find no need for joystick and throttle controls, limited force feedback and no five mile high figure of eight dogfights above a mat of crudely painted polygons. Try to imagine Red Arrow fighter planes. What would they do? They'd swoop and swerve, ducking under obstacles to please the crowds while locking on to defiant aggressors with their arsenal of rockets and blasting them into the stratosphere. In Combat Zones, the idea is to punctuate your missions with exactly this sort of ludicrous behaviour. The sort of thing Tom Cruise was repeatedly reprimanded for in the film.
The first thing you notice about Top Gun Combat Zones is how pretty it looks. Not every game has to look like a disgrace coming off the back of Gran Turismo 3. The planes are judiciously detailed without going over the top, and you can clearly pick out F-16s, the Joint Strike Fighter and others. The really impressive thing about Combat Zones' visuals though is the terrain. In the first level we were shown, set in a Venetian-like cityscape, buildings sprung up all over the place, and stretched for miles. Domed roofs, terraced houses, promenades and high streets; all accurately modelled relative to the scale of your plane and lovingly textured with delightfully realistic irregularity. In another environment, jokingly nicknamed the not-Gulf level by one of our developer guides, you fight for the skies above an important oil rig. Apart from swooping between the legs of the building and through gaps in the icepacks around it, the level of detail particularly on the rippling ocean is terrific. The ice itself has that distinct 'not in Hollywood' feel that defines it as ice and not some sort of picturesque white concrete block sellotaped onto the bottom of a fishtank. Elsewhere levels are also set above a Siberian railway bridge, which must be protected at all costs, out in the desert and even in the confines of a baking Western American valley where pilots dart Independence Day-style between rocks and crevices to evade attackers.
Although the code we have been toying with since the Air Show looks beautiful, in more recent builds (including the one we saw on the day), Digital Integrations have added very effective motion blur. It really has to be seen in action to be believed, but it's a very realistic effect, helping the game world to look slightly less manufactured. My only criticism of the graphics so far is the somewhat unadventurous explosive effects. When our heroes ram their fighters into the ocean at 500mph, one expects something slightly more than a wafty yellow blur sprite. Pancaking against a rock might be expected, but water? Of course, in the average combat flight sim it's common to demand nothing of a pilot other than victory. In Combat Zones though, you do better if you act like a fool! Swooping down between buildings and through impossible gaps is rewarded, and flying head first into death-defying collisions before blowing your enemy out of the sky without a thought of chickening out is considered manly and heroic.
Another thing common flight sims encourage is realistic control techniques. I've seen people play PC flight sims using the keyboard, mouse, a joystick and a flight stick. It looks more complicated than it does in the films, for goodness sake! That sort of realism has a core audience of appreciators on the PC, but one doubts the same group also have PlayStation 2 consoles resting next to their televisions. Digital Integrations aren't stupid; they recognize that to succeed their game is going to have to have widespread appeal. To this end, the control system is remarkably easy to pick up. Our guide for the day in Eastbourne did admit that he had been playing for about six months and knew a few things about piloting the JSF and its brethren, but within a few minutes even your humble correspondent had the gist of things nailed. There's a progressive learning curve though, and you won't be brilliant at first, nor exceptional for a while. It's just the sort of thing that we've been crying for more of, really. The game takes up a fairly enterprising single player reward structure too, which is strangely reminiscent of old fave SSX. Players are given training tasks, then tasks with live ammunition and targets, then proper missions. Famous callsigns like Maverick and Viper pop up now and again as instructors, but that's about the limit to the film references. As you progress apparently you unlock more and more planes and even the odd helicopter. Add to this sprawling single player adventure the challenge of scoring big points by performing terrifying stunts at breakneck speeds and we can see why Digital Integrations were so keen for us to see it in action.
Top Gun Combat Zones isn't due out until later this year, and we won't know everything until Gold code is available, but having seen the game in action I think I can confidently predict a good degree of success for Combat Zones. Which is a tough pill to swallow. After all, can you imagine getting dragged down to the South Coast, having a great time watching F-16 fly-bys of the pier and encountering a game based on an 80s film license that doesn't suck?