Top Gun: Hornet's Nest Review
By Monica Bair |
Good news, everybody; Maverick is back! How long have you waited to hear that? I'm nearly blue in the face from holding my breath. Now I'm not one to let my bias against a film ruin my enjoyment of a really good game. So when they do come out with a really good game based on Top Gun, you can bet I'll be the first one to recommend it. What surprises me is not that the game isn't any more than a mediocre flight sim cross marketed with a mediocre movie. I'm more shocked that after ten years this Top Gun license has any life left in it at all. Now I know that there are those of you out there who disagree with me and I'm mature enough to accept that. Now that we have that little matter cleared up, let's talk about the game.
Let's start with something positive. One of the game's best features is its simplicity. Although there are numerous controls (there are 20 alone just for views), the essential ones are pretty straight forward. I didn't even look at the manual until after I had played my first few missions. Included with the game is a very handy keyboard command reference sheet that also explains the various displays found in your cockpit. A glance at the reference sheet is all you really need to play the game. The manual merely spells out the things you will figure out on your own if you jump right in and play.
The opening sequence stars James Tolkan as Commander Hondo-you may remember him as the bald guy from the film. The scene isn't terribly exciting. Basically he just has a conversation with some other guy in his office. He explains that you'll be flying as a pilot in the new Hornet's Nest program. You'll be seated in the cockpit of a new F/A-18 Hornet. I expected some sort of high-speed dogfight or something at the beginning of this game. Instead I get this dull conversation. Already I have a bad feeling in my stomach.
Once the intro ends, you start your career. There are 10 missions in each of three campaigns. Unfortunately, you have to fly each of the missions and campaigns in order. There is no opportunity for deviation. If you get stuck on mission four in campaign one, your frustration level increases dramatically. It took me a while to understand that the key to mission success is locating and destroying your primary objectives. No one in the game ever goes out of their way to explain this to you or identify the objective so you'll have to figure it out on your own.
I was disappointed that the mission ends as soon as the primary objective is destroyed. I was being chased by three MiG-29s that had put a considerable beating on me. In the system damage display I could see that my whole plane was red, indicating severe damage. There were seven missiles in the air, homing in on me from all sides. I approached the primary objective with no hope of getting out of there alive. Once I blew up my objective the game immediately cut to the debriefing screen. While I'm certain that I would have been destroyed if I had had to fly back to the base with the enemy fighters tailing me, the fact that the mission just ended struck me as unrealistic and a little jarring.
There are three campaign theaters in Top Gun. The first is Siberia. The Russians have called on the USN to help them stop an ex-Soviet general named Martikov. He and his personal army have seized nuclear weapons and are attempting to take control of the Russian government. All these missions take place at night but I thought it might have been fun to fly over the frozen waste at least once in the daylight. During some of the missions you get snow. This presents a pretty cool visual effect the first few times you see it.
Once Martikov is neutralized, you must travel to Iraq. It seems Martikov had sold nuclear weapons to Iraq and the Iraqis are now building a giant cannon to launch nuclear shells against Western Europe. Why a missile delivery system wouldn't have worked I'll never know. Not wanting to make any sort of potentially dangerous political statement, MicroProse has had the Iraqi government seized from Saddam Hussein by a militant religious group. I guess ol' Saddam doesn't make a good (or bad?) enough computer game villain. The desert landscapes are obviously very flat and give no sense of depth. You might as well be flying over a parking lot.
The next campaign takes place in Columbia and doesn't seem to follow from the second mission the way the second followed from the first. It seems that terrorists have blown up the Panama Canal. Now, I'm not a geographer, but it seems to me that it would be impossible to blow up what is essentially a river. Doing that just results in a big lake in the middle of the river. You've been called in to stop the terrorists from taking any further action. The high mountains and thick cloud cover make for some tense flying but you don't really get a chance to use the hills and valleys to your tactical advantage. To be honest I don't know how it all ends because I didn't have the patience to see it through.
For those of use who don't care to fly the pre-designed missions, there's the "instant action" option. This allows you to set the parameters of your own mission without having to mess around with any kind of a story. Too bad for us that the mission designer offers little to no control over what will happens. You are allowed to select one of the three campaign maps to fly over but you can't select weather, cloud cover or time of day. This is such a basic thing that I can't believe it was left out. It's always night in Siberia and Columbia always has thick cloud cover. There are no other options.
You can select the type of enemies and whether you want them arrive in large or small numbers. Sometimes even if you have selected "no enemies," enemy planes will take off from nearby airfields anyway. What really limits the instant action option is the inability to set waypoints or mission objectives. Basically, you just fly around destroying enemy planes and installations until they destroy you. I grew pretty tired of this option after a while.
The flight model is smooth and very natural. Apart from stalls and landings the flight engine is very forgiving. Fortunately you won't ever be required to land unless you want to rearm, refuel or repair your jet in the middle of a mission. Equally fortunate is the inclusion of an autopilot landing key command. Those action fans who feel that jet sims are too cumbersome or too shallow when it comes to flight modeling will appreciate this low key approach to flight. You know the feeling - I don't want to have to fly a real jet, but neither do I want a sim that's so spare that I really feel like I'm playing a wimpy computer game. This one strikes a nice balance between realism and playability, despite the assertion that "Easy to handle controls and easy to manage weapons and radar give you the look and feel of really flying the Navy's premier fighter jet." Are they kidding? I'm not a jet pilot but I can't imagine flying a real F/A-18 in combat is anywhere near as easy as the game makes it seem.
As in real life, jet pilots never see each other. Most of your jet to jet action consists of firing missiles at little squares on your HUD. While that's more excitement than I usually get in my real life, I needed more. And I wasn't going to get it strafing cottages and missile silos. Waxing nostalgic about the good old days when life and death depended on 20mm cannon shells, I decided to kill my wingman. He was the only plane that I could get within a mile of without fearing for my life. And besides, everyone knows the wingmen in these games are all graduates of the Jeff Healy School of Air Combat. I carefully lined my sights up on poor Hutch or Dingo or whatever the hell his name was. Being myself a graduate of the Trent Ward School of Air Combat, where our motto is "If you can fill the air with enough bullets, maybe your opponent will accidentally fly into a few of them"-kind of a long motto, huh?-I let loose with a long burst.
That's when a voice came over the intercom informing me that I was now considered an enemy target. Suddenly the air was filled with 5 Hornets all firing on me. As my burning coffin hurtled towards the cold embrace of Mother Earth, all I could think was "Where the hell were these guys when I was being attacked by real enemies?" I think it's great that they turn on you if you shoot at them but it doesn't make any sense that so many of them would be committed to shooting you down when so few were sent to deal with an actual real combat mission.
To sum up, Top Gun Hornet's Nest doesn't deliver. To me it just seems like Paramount and MicroProse are counting on the Top Gun name to sell these games. Instead they should've put more thought and flexibility into the game itself. I honestly don't know if anyone is playing this game. When I visited the MSN Gaming Zone to see if I could play against some real human opponents, everyone was playing European Air War and Combat Flight Simulator, but no one was playing Top Gun. The bottom line is this-if you loved the movie you might like the game, but if you like flight sims you'll grow tired of this one pretty quickly.
-- Stephen Butts