Never has the cliché 'organised chaos' been more fitting when applied to a game. Warhawk, the PlayStation 3's first multiplayer-only release, lets you take to the skies in agile flying tanks, and indulge in frenzied battles with dozens of other PSN users. While the sky may be the limit, you can also fight from the ground, harnessing the power of heavily armoured cars and off-road vehicles, or even brave it on foot, and initially the experience is overwhelming at best.
Leaping between control schemes of each vehicle, keeping your eye on your rivals and gaining a grasp on the huge array of offensive and defensive weapons will at first test the reflexes of even the most experienced online gamers, leaving them longing for extra fingers and the reflexes of a fighter pilot.
Yet just an hour or two into the experience provided by developer Incognito, and Warhawk actually reveals a serene inner beauty, underpinned by an incredibly well considered balance, both of firepower and vehicular diversity. Perhaps best described as a high impact crash between Ace Combat and Mario Kart's battle mode, Warhawk is unpretentious, unadulterated fun; something the PS3 is largely starved of, and despite its current standing as something of a sleeper hit, it has all the potential to become a crown prince of PSN.
The emphasis is firmly on the aeronautical dog fighting that fills the skies with explosions and debris, and the flavour is speed. The Warhawks themselves should be lumbering birds, as they are laden with weapons and encased in bulky protection, but in fact they are delightfully agile. They can switch between a 'plane' and 'helicopter' mode with a quick jab of the triangle button, though the former generally dominates proceedings. While the right stick handles the basic steering while you take the form of a traditional jet fighter, the left triggers nimble pirouettes and loops, equally satisfying when applied to showing off as you run rings round newbies as when used to evade doggedly locked-on missiles. The shoulder buttons meanwhile take responsibility for your air speed, and the constant spurt of payload that pours from your undercarriage.
'... the troops below can spray death into the sky, using tanks, fixed SAM turrets, and a generous supply of shoulder-mounted RPGs.'
The helicopter mode is more sedated, and best used to hang high above the carnage, effectively sniping. The problem is that suddenly the shoulder buttons that moments before caused you to accelerate and decelerate, now send you soaring up and down. Since the earliest 2D days of Grand Theft Auto, the secret that linked the on-foot and in-car violence was the congruity of control. Run became accelerate as you leapt from sidewalk to foot well.
Not so with Warhawk, but after a few hours you do get the sense the developers always knew their controls would work, and inconceivably, there is something magical and instinctive about Warhawk; a flow and cadence that is hard to pin down, but that allows for an unbelievable tempo as you rip the sky open like a sheet.
Much of the credit, it must be said, must fall at the feet of the weapons. Again, at first the sheer volume of options befuddles, especially as there is but one primary slot for both offensive projectiles, and defensive gadgetry such as chaff, with a near redundant machine gun permanently welded into the secondary slot. The ammunitions themselves are scattered round each of the levels, highlighted in neon in an otherwise sombre world.
While basic missile pick-ups may linger in the game's huge, open arenas of airspace between mountains, more devastating explosives that can fell a Warhawk with a single blast are tucked away beneath bridges or round behind a nest of pylons, demanding some daring acrobatics. Each weapon, while seemingly indistinguishable to the amateur, has a heavy tactical focus, and in no time you will be thoughtlessly letting out an air mine or taking on several foes with a swarm of missiles.
Meanwhile, stranded pilots dominate the action on the ground as they scrabble for a respawning hawk. While it is all too easy to belittle the combat that takes place at surface level, and demean each level's geographical focus on aerial hiding places, the exchanges that take place on the terra firma are punctuated by a hugely gratifying sneakiness.
While the Warhawks above have an extremely limited ability to deliver any devastation to the ground, the troops below can spray death into the sky, using tanks, fixed SAM turrets, and a generous supply of shoulder-mounted RPGs. The prevailing feeling as you explore the planet on foot or at the wheel of a jeep is that you are almost playing a separate game from the one above you, but at any given time you can pop a delightfully cowardly shot into that other world, to the dismay and confusion of your victim.
Visually Warhawk has the same appealing chunkiness as a Tonka truck; it may not be hugely realistic or technical, but its toy-like charm is hard to resist, and the game really does feel like playing a real war with plastic soldiers and die-cast models of the kind of detail a child could only dream of. The musical score is perfectly pitched too, simultaneously evoking the solemn military tones of Medal of Honor with the futuristic optimism of Star Trek.
At £20 as a downloadable and £40 in store with a bundled Bluetooth headset, Incognito's latest is another death knell for the retail store, but an encouraging sign as to the future of downloadable gaming. Some will bemoan Warhawk's slender level count of just five and others may feel it is a little basic, but that is just where it succeeds. It is a next-generation title at a last-generation price that boils gaming down to its purist form. Warhawk is a cheerily violent and fantastically developed version of playing with a dusty box of army-themed toys, and it is enormous fun.