Warhawk Beta Impressions

"I have no idea what I'm doing in Warhawk," fellow Shacknews editor Chris Remo messaged me moments after he installed the beta. "I keep getting killed seconds after I spawn."

"Set up a custom room. I'll hop on and show you the basics," I replied. "I could use a few more matches before I get this writeup started later tonight." I figured the entire process of going through the various modes and vehicle controls would take no more than an hour, and then I could squeeze in a quick round or two. After what certainly did not feel like four hours worth of gameplay, a glimpse at the clock revealed it was bordering on 4 AM.

More times than I care to recall since, I have sat down to fact check something trivial, such as the proper name of a map, and found myself tempted by the call of just one more match.

"To get the creative juices flowing," I would tell myself. "Maybe something cool will happen that I can write about."

Inevitably, something cool would happen, but, instead of inspiring me to hunker down in front of a keyboard, such events would just make me want to stick around for another round. Toss in a customized rotation of my favorite maps and game types--"I can't quit now, Zones on Eucadia is up next!"--and you can understand my predicament.

That night with Remo, for example, it was just the two of us on a sprawling map intended for 32 players. Beginning the match on-foot, we both immediately took to the skies, thanks to the Warhawks located right next to our respective spawn points, and promptly blew each other to smithereens. The Warhawk respawned at my base soon after I did, so I once again took off, this time in pursuit of vengeance. Remo obviously had a different plan. As I swooped by his base, one of the deadly turrets began firing and I exploded almost instantly. He'd been sitting in that turret, watching me fly around the map and waiting for me to come into range. I could hear him chuckling. (I really wasn't trying to be clever; I just wanted to see how turrets work. -Ed.)

"Well, two can play at that game," I thought. I wasn't going to take the easy way out and just camp in a turret--well, that and he probably wouldn't fall for it. That's when I noticed the sniper rifle hovering off to my side.

Sniper rifle in hand, I just needed to get Remo's attention. Hopping in a jeep, I started driving around the map, hoping to lure him out. It didn't take long until his Warhawk dropped behind me, his missiles and machine guns narrowly missing my vehicle. As he continued to trail me, I came across a small concrete shelter. Perfect.

Jumping out of the jeep, I ran towards the shelter. My unexpected abandonment caught Remo off-guard and he overshot the jeep, which put his aircraft directly above me. Recognizing his chance, he quickly switched his Warhawk into hover mode and repeatedly lowered it against the ground in his attempts to crush me beneath its landing gears. I found myself as impressed by his ingenuity as I was amused--he was obviously unaware that Warhawks cannot be used to squash opponents. This, as well as the turrets scattered around the map, represents developer Incognito's efforts to balance the power of the Warhawks and prevent them from becoming unstoppable killing machines.

I made it to the building just as Remo decided to take another approach. Crouching behind a half wall, a stream of rockets and bullets flew over my head. I could see him hovering in front of the base, just waiting there, stalking me. After his next barrage, I stood up and quickly zoomed in with the sniper rifle. Its fish-eye lens filled with nothing but Warhawk, I took the shot and ducked back down.

As the game of cat and mouse continued, a clear pattern emerged. He soon ran out of out of rockets and fired his machine guns until they overheated, which was when I would pop up and take a few shots. After my first shot, Remo had learned to not be a sitting duck anymore, and started haphazardly strafing left and right. A more experienced player would have just flown off to grab more missiles and health, or maybe landed and come after me on-foot, but I wasn't going to put any ideas in his head. His constant movement was making it hard enough to line up a shot while his guns cooled.

Eventually I scored another hit, noting that his Warhawk's health was almost gone. He must have realized this as well, because the aircraft started to move backwards, upwards, and right into my sights. Quickly taking the shot, I watched Remo's Warhawk explode in my cross hairs, my view of the destruction slightly distorted in the fish-eye view.

During another match, I was playing Capture the Flag with three other people on Archipelago, a map that features numerous rocky outcrops of varying height and size all connected by bridges. Immediately I jumped in a Warhawk and zoomed to the other team's base, taking just a moment to appreciate the beams of sunlight shining through the map's dark, cloudy sky. As soon as I arrived, I blew up. Someone was defending in a turret.

Time and time again, I would hop in the Warhawk, blast over to the enemy base and promptly explode. I tried a number of different approaches, my favorite being an attempt to catch my opponents off-guard by flying low against the sea, then switching into hover mode and raising up behind the turret. I was very proud of this strategy--surely, they wouldn't expect that. Plus, I imagined, it would look pretty cool as my Warhawk silently rose behind the turret and took it out. However, the moment the turret came into view, the player inside fired and I met my usual fate.

It was obviously time for a new strategy.

As I respawned and waited at my base for the Warhawk to do the same, avoiding my deranged teammate and his or her attempts to run me over with a jeep, I came up with a new plan. It definitely wasn't a good idea to go near the turret in my Warhawk, but I was too impatient to bother driving a slower tank or jeep to their base instead. This time, I landed the Warhawk just outside of the turret's range and tried to sneak in on foot. Even better, I found a rocket launcher as I approached the enemy base and, taking careful aim, took out the turret and its operator in one glorious explosion.

Just as I was about to grab the flag, I triggered the remote mines one of my opponents had placed nearby and perished yet again. Respawning at my own base, I took off in hunt of a flamethrower. Though the flamethrower doesn't have much in the way of range, it has two notable properties. First, it is extremely effective against vehicles, especially tanks, eating away at their health in seconds. Second, and more importantly, the range of a flamethrower is such that it can safely detonate any remote mines without harm to the player. I wouldn't be falling for the same trick twice.

Returning to the enemy base for yet another attempt at their flag--at this point, my teammate was still in a jeep, trying to do doughnuts in front of our base--I came up just as my enemies were laying fresh mines in front of their flag. As I stood just outside their base, they both noticed my presence and charged right into my flamethrower. With the opposing team temporarily out of the picture, I took care of the mines, grabbed the flag, hijacked one a jeep, and triumphantly headed back to my base. I didn't even bother to check if the host had enabled flag carriers to pilot Warhawks. I wanted to give them a chance to stop me, I wanted them to give chase.

They did not disappoint.

Continue on to the next page for more on Warhawk's multiplayer modes and its various approaches to flight controls.


Halfway back to my base, two enemy Warhawks appeared behind me. Swerving to and fro, I managed to dodge their fire as I drove back to the base, but as soon as I arrived near my base and started sprinted towards it, they gunned me down with impressive precision. Fortunately, they made a mistake and flew off without reclaiming their flag. With only seconds left in the match, I snagged the flag from where I had dropped it and crossed the short distance needed to score, single-handedly winning the round for my team.

Of Warhawk's multiple gameplay modes, the one requiring the most strategy and team coordination is Zones, derived from the territory capture games common in modern team-based games. In Zones, the more bases a team has captured around the map, the more points it receives. The longer a player stays at a base, the larger its surrounding zone becomes, and the more weapons and vehicles spawn there. If the zones of two or three bases located next to one another are at maximum size, they touch, which doubles or triples the points received respectively. However, if an enemy occupies the base, the zone shrinks, breaking the multiplier and eventually becoming enemy-controlled.

Due to the ebb and flow of zones and the ever-changing location of battles, victory relies on team communication. An effective technique is to rush to capture the base at the center of the map, leave a player in a tank and, if possible, one in a nearby turret. While those players defend the base, a small group works its way backwards, claiming the bases along the path to the initial starting points and setting up the points multiplier. As the bulk of the team charges forward into enemy territory, ideally pushing opponents back and gaining even more bases in the process, the defending players need to be on the lookout for aerial and vehicular assaults trying to lower the point multiplier by shrinking a key zone.

The mode also highlights the effective use of vehicles. By jumping in a Warhawk at the beginning of a match, players can quickly reach that middle base. Jeeps carrying up to three other players arrive afterwards, followed by the hard-hitting tanks. By keeping in constant communication with the rest of the team, a lone Warhawk equipped with the right weapon, such as a cluster bomb, can easily wipe out a large number of players at a key moment.

With all this talk of on-foot combat, fans of SingleTrac's original flight-only Warhawk on PlayStation should be pleased to learn that Incognito has not squandered the opportunity for large-scale aerial battles. Each of the game's five huge maps has a number of different layouts available corresponding to different game modes or player counts. For example, the 4-8 player fortress layout of Eucadia features a very small segment of the complete level, containing only two large buildings and the small plot of land between them. Its 32-player layout gives players access to all of its terrain. Its Dogfight layout, available in both Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch flavors, puts every player in a Warhawk for pure aerial combat.

While most of the modes demand strategy and team play, Dogfight matches highlight the depths of the Warhawks' controls and one's skills as a pilot. Three different control schemes are available. The default scheme assigns tricks, such as barrel rolls and inside loops, to the right analog stick, which helps in the evasion of missiles and other attacks. Pro controls instead allows players complete control over the plane's pitch and roll with the right stick, allowing for far more advanced, but possibly nausea-inducing, maneuvers. Lastly, the motion control option permits players to pilot their planes by tilting the PlayStation 3's motion-sensitive controller, freeing up the left analog stick for more precise aiming. Personally, I play on the pro setting, never having felt the urge to master the finicky tilt-based controls.

With full control over a plane's pitch and roll, aerial dogfights get rather intense. In one match, I was facing off against a player that had a blood red Warhawk. Since the game tracks a player's earned experience points across ranked games and provides more customization options the higher someone's overall rank, and since the blood red Warhawk is only available to the higher ranks, I knew I was probably outgunned from the moment I saw it. Still, I had to try. Coming up behind the Warhawk, it banked up and out of my sight. Pulling back on the right analog stick, I followed suit, and by following the barely visible vapor trails they had left behind, I was able to match the jukes move for move. However, I was always playing catch up, my opponent one step ahead of me and never in my sights long enough to acquire a lock-on or fire my machine gun.

Realizing that enough was enough, I switched into hover mode to put some distance between us and tried to acquire a lock-on. I had forgotten that my opponent had a friend playing with us--like various Xbox Live games, Warhawk allows up to four players to play from a single PlayStation 3, splitting the screen and assigning guests numbered versions of the system owner's nickname. Being stationary, it was only seconds until that friend sent a few missiles my way.

I cannot overstate the more advanced possibilities that pro control brings to the game. By rotating my Warhawk on its side, I was able to weave through some of the narrow passages of the Island Outpost map and shake off both a series of missiles and the pursuing Warhawk. A similar situation cropped up in the Destroyed Capitol map, which is set in the foggy height of a ruined city. As a player unleashed a salvo of missiles in my direction, I dove down and flew parallel along a building's length, the trailing projectiles unable to follow my lead and impacting the building instead.

The current build of Warhawk suffers from a few potentially easily fixable problems. While you can search for and organize games based on a number of criteria, map layout is not one of those options. In other words, while you can search for Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, or Zone games, you can't search for a Dogfight, as that distinction is determined by map layout, not game mode. Hopefully, Incognito addresses this for the full version.

When using a USB or Bluetooth headset, Warhawk features voice chat using a push to talk feature, requiring you to click the left analog stick down to broadcast commands. However, there is no on-screen graphic that indicates when you or another player is talking, which can lead to confusion, another issue that could be fixed by release.

Despite some minor qualms, Warhawk provides a multiplayer experience unlike that previously seen on consoles. With up to 32 players, a balanced variety of both exciting on-foot shootouts and aerial dogfights, and a nearly endless supply of "holy shit" moments, Warhawk is a title that multiplayer aficionados and PlayStation 3 owners alike should keep an eye on as its fall arrival approaches.

Developed by Incognito Entertainment, Warhawk will be simultaneously released through PlayStation Network and retail this fall.