Review: Top Gun Hard Lock
On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it: TOP GUN.
Top Gun. Already you know whether or not you’re going to be interested in this game because of those two syllables. Everybody knows the original 80’s film, more cheese than aircraft really, but whether you like it or not it’s part of 80’s culture. Many games have been released in this universe, following the exploits of several pilots from the Navy’s elite fighter training school, the titular Top Gun the series is named for. Hard Lock is the latest to graduate from this esteemed academy and is already requesting permission to buzz the tower, but is the holding pattern full? (“I feel the need”)
This time around players take control of Lance “Spider” Webb, one of the academy’s latest and greatest graduates, who then begins to serve on the USS McKinley. The story here is your basic power struggle in hostile nations, and somehow the Russians get involved. The overarching story is light at best, only providing minimal reasons for why you have to shoot down MiGs and bomb old American destroyers. Where the story is a little more focused is with the relationships between the characters. (“You can be my wingman anytime”)
Besides Spider are three other Top Gun graduates:- William “Deadeye” Anderson, Virginia “Fury” Dean, and Chris “Wiseguy” Miller. Between the in mission banter, debriefing conversations and plot twists that edge towards trying to be emotional you really start to like these characters. Unfortunately this chatter is all there is, as there are no major cutscenes to speak of, with the only cinematics being in-game camera cuts to show a particular point. Despite these limitations, the bare-bones story and camaraderie between pilots is presented in a fun and interesting way that gives you a reason for your actions and pushes you onwards. (“He loved flying with you”)
Luckily the gameplay has had more attention paid to it. While most flight games on consoles take a more pseudo-sim approach, with 505 games previous publication even leaning more towards sim than other franchises, Top Gun is firmly and unashamedly an arcade game. Featuring regenerative health, unlimited machine gun ammo, missiles and bombs (opting instead for a generously quick recharge) the focus here is on presenting a fast paced and overly explosive experience. This simplification of the game is even evident in the control scheme, which can’t be changed from the basic turn and climb controls, taking the ability to control yaw, pitch and roll individually away from the player. (“It takes more than just fancy flying”)
While this may make it sound like the game takes away the exciting options flight gives, like the all famous barrel roll, it in fact maps them to the right stick, allowing manoeuvres to be executed instantly on the fly. All this adds up to increase the speed of the game. Some more Top Gun related moves are also at your command, for example pulling down on the right stick will slam the air brakes on, tilt the plane upwards and effectively drop your speed drastically enough for the enemy to overtake before he even knows whats happened (“I’ll hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by”)
Hard Lock also takes a cue from the latest Ace Combat entry. When you get close enough behind an enemy fighter you can engage the titular feature, locking your flight path directly behind them as you make minute adjustment trying to get a missile lock (for an instant kill) or wearing them down with your guns. It’s not as easy as it may sound though, as a range of evasive manoeuvres are available to the target plane. Depending on how advanced the jet is the more extreme these moves can be, ranging from a simple Breaking (turning sharp) to Immelmans (half a loop, then roll right-side up) to Kulbits (think blackflipping the plane while still in motion). Gameplay wise these amount to holding the sticks in the directions indicated as quickly as possible. The pilot who performs the manoeuvres quicker ends up on the offensive with an even larger missile reticule. What is basically a QTE shouldn’t be exciting but as you start to perform more and more complex evasions and battle for a missile lock it can really become a tense and acrobatic performance. On the downside, the pathfinding can be a little sketchy at times, with the lead plane hitting the terrain or an AI fighter crossing the path and causing a collision, though thankfully these occasions are rare. (“That’s was some of the best flying I’ve seen to date, right up to the part where you got killed”)
The campaign will lead you on 15 missions of dogfighting, bombing runs and the occasional defense and will probably last you about 8-10 hours. Once you’ve done this and have had enough of trying to beat your score for each mission, another arcade touch, you can jump into the obligatory wave defense mode. While only one map is available at the start of the game, ranking up through high scores will allow new maps to be selected. The thoughtfully titled “Dangerzone mode” is as basic as wave defense gets, more enemies with better weapons each time, but is a fun distraction when you have some time to kill. Also available are a number of multiplayer modes (hidden behind an online pass). Outside of the basic deathmatch and team deathmatch types, which work exactly as you’d expect, are co-operative options. These are the best sections of the multiplayer, as you can choose to defend a base, escort allied bombers or assault an enemy fleet with up to 3 other people. If you thought the single player campaign could get explosive and fast paced wait till you fly with three other capable pilots. (“We went like this, he went like that. I said to Hollywood, “Where’d he go?” Hollywood says, “Where’d who go?””)
Graphichally the game does a very good job. There are better looking games, no doubt there, but Hard Lock is clean, making it easy to tell friend from foe. The sun reflects nicely off the water, and the slipstream when you go supersonic adds a nice touch. As with all aerial combat games, however, as soon as you get close to the ground and buildings you can see all the imperfections. Ground vehicles tend to slide roughly along the roads and trees are nothing more than incorporeal renditions. When you get dogfighting higher up though and the hard lock manoeuvres are framed in cinematic slow motion you can really appreciate the jets and the action going on. The sound that accompanies everything is crisp and fits well, gun fire spurts dramatically and missiles explode with a satisfying boom. The soundtrack is reminiscent of the original film, with a couple of tracks being directly lifted for some of the more exciting scenes. Landing on an aircraft carrier with the Top Gun Anthem playing is a nostalgic trip to enjoy. Voice work wise it’s competent and lends each character a bit of emotion and realism, but can also be a little flat at times. (“You don’t have time to think up there”)
As a whole package that adds up to one of the most fun flight combat games of recent times, the fact that it’s a budget title (I picked it up brand new day of release for £25) is the icing on the cake. Too much of this genre takes itself seriously, with games like Ace Combat, HAWX and all the World War 2 flight sims, that it’s nice to finally get a title that’s just about having fun and looking cool. If you’re a fan of the film, intrigued by a game that can be described as “Afterburner using Star Fox’s all range mode”, or have recognised all the quotes I’ve stuck on the end of the above paragraphs, then you owe it to yourself to try this game out.
Like Maverick back in ’86, even if you tell it the holding pattern is full Hard Lock is going to buzz the tower anyway, get an achievement for doing so (seriously) and let the electric guitar accompany your landing in what was a shockingly enjoyable arcade flight combat game. It hits the deck with an OK-3 and refuels; ready to hit the Highway to the Dangerzone for yet another round.