With their latest arcade style aviation adventure Top Gun: Hard Lock, developer Headstrong Games shows a keen sense of ambition. Not through innovative gameplay or state of the art graphics you understand, rather it is highly ambitious to think that a game based on a somewhat ropey (sorry Goose fans) 1986 aerial action flick is relevant to today’s market.
The storyline - if you can call it that - revolves around the latest Top Gun graduate Lance ‘Spider’ Webb, a hotshot pilot recommended by none other than Maverick himself. After an intro full of mid-air tomfoolery with Maverick and the gang, it’s not long before you uncover an emerging terrorist regime which will push the skills of everyone aboard the USS McKinley to the limit! Or something along those lines. Whilst not remotely deep in any way, shape or form, the story is good silly stuff with plenty of laugh out loud moments. The appearance of a groundbreaking (read, utterly ludicrous looking) Soviet plane is particularly hilarious – ‘Holy s**t!’ bellows Spider. ‘Its damn wings are on back to front!’ Kudos to the voice actor for keeping a straight face during that one.
The plot is driven forward almost entirely by faceless dialogue delivered during dogfights and loading screens alike, with wordplay as woeful as one would expect. Luckily the endless macho posturing suits the subject matter fairly well, the game being all the more fun for it. It is also good (and when I say good I mean pretty cringe-worthy) to see that the not-so-veiled homo-erotic nature of the source material is present, with plenty of uncomfortable erection based gags and talk of ‘owning asses’ throughout.
Gameplay is fairly straightforward, the main aspect being the titular ‘hard lock’ system. Taking a leaf out of Ace Combat’s book, this allows the player to relinquish control of the flying once they draw in close to an enemy bogey, instead concentrating on the aiming and shooting. Furthermore, sporadic quick time events appear on the screen. When successfully completed these button mashing sequences allow Spider to perform risky manoeuvres, getting a little closer to his enemy’s six. Mess it up and the enemy will likely get a lock on instead. While this system might sound brilliant in its simplicity, in practice it is somewhat flawed with buttons often refusing to respond at all – Spider could be tailgating a MiG about to attempt an Immelman, only to have it fail for no apparent reason. This isn’t ideal for the key selling point of the game, especially when the player is encouraged to use it at every cut and turn.
Elsewhere the gameplay is stripped back and quite good fun, if extremely repetitive. There is certainly something to be said for the old school Afterburner feel of loading up on infinite ammo and blasting endless MiGs out of the sky, but there really is nothing else on offer here. In fact, repetitiveness is a trait apparent across the board in Hard Lock – while there are a great number of aircraft to unlock, they all look and handle far too similarly and although the campaign is quite lengthy (there are 15 levels to work through) the locations are all extremely similar, suffering from bland scenery.
While the water effects are reasonably impressive, the rest of the visuals are marred by an inordinate level of grain. This effect may be employed to give a filmic look to the graphics, but it doesn’t hide the fact that they would look more at home on a PS2. Apart from a few choice tracks from the movie (Highway to the Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away featuring heavily), the soundtrack is bunged up with endless M.O.R. hard rock and, inexplicably, monotonous drum ‘n’ bass. With a little imagination, any one of these aspects could have been injected with greater variety and may have elevated the game above the level of a fun (if silly) aerial shooter. Unfortunately, as it stands that’s all Hard Lock is.
Granted, there are a couple of extra modes which attempt to spice up the action somewhat, the first of which is (of course) called Danger Zone. Essentially a challenge mode, the pilot is run through a hi-octane gauntlet with a series of stipulations, such as not being able to fly above a certain height. Unfortunately gameplay is identical to the campaign and there is an abundance of giant yellow honeycomb shapes which appear when you reach the edge of the world – something which happens far too often when you are supposed to be free to roam the skies.
Multiplayer modes are available but don’t fare well. Despite a vast selection of co-operative and deathmatch style modes, which appear to play fairly smoothly, there are only a paltry two maps available. This may go some way to explain the deserted lobbies - this reviewer found it extremely difficult to rally the troops for any sort of multiplayer experience. Furthermore, an online pass is required to access the multiplayer modes, meaning that players who pick up the game second hand need to pay an extortionate 800 MS points to take their F-14 online. This move may be par for the course these days, but while it is a regrettable inconvenience when giants such as EA pull it with titles such as Battlefield 3, it is downright inexplicable that Hard Lock publishers 505 Games have chosen to do so when they should be doing everything in their power to get players online.
Despite these myriad faults Top Gun: Hard Lock is, in its own way, strangely lovable. Certainly the countless ‘do a barrel roll’ references get old quickly and the real-life military facts that pop up on loading screens seem out of place with the aviation fantasy fun, but the action is fun and intense. As an XBLA title, Hard Lock could have fared much better but sadly there just isn’t enough variety to justify a full price release. It is also a pity that such vast emphasis is put on using the somewhat faulty hard lock/QTE system, which gets played out very quickly. It might be best to leave this one until it crops up in a second hand bargain bin, even if it means not taking to the skies online.