Highway To The Danger Zone
For whatever reason, Top Gun: Hard Lock has flown in under the radar. Despite the title’s use of a well-known movie license, no one’s really talking about this game. And that’s a shame, because Hard Lock is a fun rental for fans of arcade-style aerial combat. The NES’s Top Gun may have been a disaster, but after 25 years, video games finally have an answer to Tom Cruise’s signature action flick. Yes, it’s cheesy and has its share of flaws, but if you don’t take it too seriously, it worms its way into your heart.
The main principles behind Hard Lock can be summed up as “keep it simple and action-packed” and “when in doubt, steal from Ace Combat.” The campaign has the same sort of rhythm that most first-person shooters have: It auto-saves frequently, your health regenerates automatically, you have plenty of ammo (unlimited, in fact), the controls feel completely natural even if you’ve never played a flight sim before in your life, and you face wave after wave of enemies. Yes, it can get repetitive, but I found myself fully engrossed as each group of enemies took to the skies.
The fifteen missions take maybe twenty to forty minutes apiece if you play them flawlessly, but with restarts on the tougher parts, some of them took me an hour or more. The difficulty is adjustable if you find the game too easy or hard, and after each mission you’re given a rating, so you can retry missions for a higher score if you’re a completionist.
The core mechanics are intuitive despite making full use of a console controller’s myriad buttons. The left joystick steers your plane, and the right joystick is used for barrel rolls, afterburner, and a rapid slow-down maneuver. (I didn’t get to try the PC version of Hard Lock, but presumably these functions can be mapped to a joystick and the hat switch.) The triggers accelerate and decelerate, one bumper switches between the various missiles your plane has equipped (air-to-air, air-to-ground, etc.), and the other bumper deploys countermeasures. The face buttons fire your machine guns and missiles.
The game’s missions put you behind the controls of fourteen different planes that are licensed recreations of real-world aircraft. You’ll need to take out ground targets, rival planes, radar jammers, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. But the basic idea is almost always the same: move in close, get the target in your crosshairs and keep it there until your missiles lock on, and then fire. If your target isn’t fully destroyed, or if it deploys countermeasures, try again. Meanwhile, if an opponent fires a missile at you, you’re given a chance to do an evasive maneuver—typically a barrel roll in a specific direction, or dropping countermeasures to destroy the missile—via a quick time event.
The one wrinkle is the “hard lock” system; if you manage to line your plane up directly behind an enemy aircraft, you’ll see a prompt to go into this new mode. Once you have an enemy in “hard lock,” the A.I. will keep your plane behind your opponent—all you have to do is aim your weapon until the missiles lock on, because missiles are automatically fatal. However, if you don’t lock on quickly enough, your opponent can make a move to get you in a hard lock, and you have to fight them in a quick time event contest. If you win, your aiming reticle gets bigger and it becomes easier to lock on; if they win, they drop in behind you and the process repeats. As annoying as quick time events can be, these frantic moments keep the game tense and exciting. It’s especially exhilarating to realize that once one plane puts another in hard lock, one of them is going down.
Unfortunately, some other aspects of Hard Lock keep it from joining the top tier of action games. For one, the story—basically a reworking of the original Top Gun plot in modern times, with a war in the Persian Gulf region—is unremarkable. I’d have preferred a straight-up adaptation of the film; if I’m in a Top Gun game, I want to be Tom Cruise, dangit! Further, the dialogue features lots of lame attempts at humor, and the voice acting is forced and cheesy. Also, while the graphics can give you an impressive view from time to time, more often they appear washed-out and insufficiently detailed. This is a game you play for the action and explosions, not the finer points of presentation and storytelling.
There are a wide variety of modes aside from the campaign. One is the single-player Danger Zone, which is basically Horde mode—it’s not exactly groundbreaking, but it’s a lot of fun if you just feel like blowing stuff up without sitting through cutscenes with bad jokes every few minutes.
Multiplayer is online-only, and publisher 505 Games has taken a pretty extreme measure for fighting used-game sales. New, boxed copies come with a code for activating multiplayer mode, but if you rent or buy used, you don’t even get the few days of free access that EA (a leader in the “screw people who buy used games” movement) typically gives. On the Xbox 360, multiplayer access costs 800 Microsoft points, or $10—if you plan on buying used and you want multiplayer, factor that in to the price you’re willing to pay.
This is the kind of move that a big-name publisher can get away with, especially on a high-profile game. Also, I sympathize with the fact that multiplayer support costs money, and I know that used game sales don’t produce any revenue for publishers. But when I tried to access multiplayer games on Wednesday and Thursday nights (following the Tuesday release), I couldn’t find a single game. The bottom line is that to provide paying customers with online opponents, this game needs all the players it can get, and instead the suits are discouraging people from playing online.
Quite frankly, whether you buy a new copy or pay $10 for the multiplayer add-on, I can’t make any kind of assurance that you’ll be able to play online with regularity, unless you talk your friends into buying the game too. This calls into question the $40 price tag. Therefore, my recommendation is to treat this as a single-player game only, and either rent it or wait until the price comes down to buy it. If it’s multiplayer dogfighting you want, I hear that the $10 Snoopy: Flying Ace XBLA title still has some players, not to mention that it includes a local mode. (Also, it’s adorable.)
That said, here’s a quick rundown of the multiplayer modes on offer. Deathmatch and team deathmatch are it for competitive dogfighting, unfortunately, but the cooperative options are a lot more impressive. They include “carrier strike,” “base defense,” and “aircraft escort.”
The multiplayer frustration might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it shouldn’t detract from the fact that the campaign in Top Gun: Hard Lock is a heck of a lot of fun. Renting this game is a sure way to spruce up a rainy weekend, and once the price comes down, a purchase won’t be a terrible idea—especially if the game manages to attract more multiplayer action and the modes run well. Is it perfect? No, but it’s weirdly lovable—just like the quarter-century-old film it draws its inspiration from.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.7 Graphics
They often look washed out and insufficiently detailed. 4.5 Control
They feel intuitive and offer the player a wide range of maneuvers. 3.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The voice acting is cheesy. 4.0 Play Value
The multiplayer is disappointing, but the single-player game is a blast. 3.5 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best