Flight games are never the biggest sellers, but some arcade-based flight games - the Ace Combat series springs quickly to mind - provide the player with fantastic non-stop fun, combining intensity and skill in one supremely entertaining package. This is the reason we were looking forward to Heatseeker for the PS2, but while it's certainly all about hectic action, it fails to live up to the absorbing quality of something like Ace Combat. It ain't pretty, it's as basic as a flight fighter can be, it's crazy repetitive, and it just never grabs you. On the other hand, we will clearly outline the pluses and benefits of Heatseeker, and perhaps that might convince you to pursue a rental, but other than that, we suggest you wait for Ace Combat 6. There simply isn't enough here to constitute a top-notch game, so Heatseeker isn't worth the price of admission; when it falls to $10, it might be a decent buy. Maybe.
We'll get the graphics out of the way first, because they're atrocious. The texturing is awful, the details are well below average, and an over-abundance of "jaggies" seriously hurts the clarity and overall presentation. Thankfully, the action is relentless, so you're not always focusing on these lackluster visuals. But it's just very disappointing to see this; if the developers had only expended more effort on the graphics, it really could've helped to bring the player into the dogfights. There isn't much downtime, but when there is, you're just annoyed at how terrible a lot of this game looks. This is easily the worst aspect of Heatseeker (even though the sound isn't much better), and while gameplay always remains the most important factor of any game, the depressing visuals bring this production to its knees. They couldn't even manage to make the explosions on the Impact Cam seem attractive, and that's just plain ridiculous.
As we just said, the sound is marginally better. The voice acting is relatively standard but hardly great, and the sound effects are mostly generic and uninspired. The graphics lack a great deal of clarity and so does the sound; the low production qualities are on full display throughout much of your experience. The urgency of your supporting cast over the radio is actually quite good, though, and at least the sound doesn't make you cringe like the graphics do. Some of the later effects with the more modern aircraft and variety of weapons are also much better than what you start with, so that's the good news- the more you play, the better the sound gets. Unfortunately, the soundtrack never gets better. You just listen to the typically boring rock tracks over and over, largely ignoring them while you concentrate on the task at hand and wishing like hell you'd hear something even remotely different. But no, no big music changes, and you'll just have to accept some very average sound all the way around.
If you're wondering whether or not Heatseeker is more like an arcade shooter like After Burner, let's answer that immediately- yup. It's all about arcade action, here, so you needn't worry about a zillion simulated flight details you have to learn and execute; this isn't Microsoft Flight Simulator and it's not even as realistic as Ace Combat. This is very, very simple. Get up in the air and blow up as much as you can without getting yourself blowed up. Once you accept that and let yourself sink into the basic and primal appeal of boundless battle at 600 miles per hour, you'll stop looking for any real depth or substance. And trust us, you'll be much happier this way. There's a lot to be said for simplifying a genre that is inherently very complex because it just might catch the eye of the casual gamer, which would certainly boost recognition and sales. This game is all about pick-up-and-play accessibility, and let's face it: that's exactly the kind of thing that will entice more gamers.
You'll be taking to the dangerous skies of one of the most famous world wars as Mike "Downtown" Hudson, a rookie pilot smack dab in the midst of a seriously challenging situation. You'll have to deal with targets on both land and water in addition to the requisite bogeys in the sky, which adds an appreciated amount of diversity to the admittedly rudimentary gameplay formula. "Downtown" will pilot all kinds of different aircraft, too; F-15, F-16, F/A-18 Hornet, and the super-sweet Nighthawk V1 Stealth Bomber are all featured at some point throughout your adventure. The game certainly isn't a simulator by any stretch of the imagination, but each plane is sufficiently different from one another, which is another bit of good news. Lastly, you needn't ever worry about conserving your missiles or bombs because you'll never run out: that's right, you have limited ammunition at all times, regardless of your aircraft or objective. See? Good ol' arcade fun.
Unfortunately, despite the solidarity of the premise, everything gets very tired after the first hour. The accessibility of the overall gameplay format is a huge bonus, the controls are decent - if a bit sluggish at times - and the action really, truly never stops. But the game is still absurdly easy even for the uninitiated. You'll spend the vast majority of your time by keeping bogeys in sight for a few seconds, getting the lock, and releasing a homing missile with the R1 button. You can also cycle through your weapon stock easily using the Square button, which means you can select a air-to-ground bomb without any difficulty, and even deploying counter measures (R1 and L1 button together when prompted) is easy as pie. Once you progress far enough, some opponents will give you a small run for your money, but by then, you know the inevitable isn't far off. There's also a generous sprinkling of checkpoints throughout each mission, so in general, you really won't be challenged much at all in Heatseeker.
We understand the purpose of stripping away the truly simulated aspects of flight combat, and there is a Professional Mode that is indeed a bit more difficult and realistic, but this is too stripped down. You do just about everything the same, from start to finish. The same in-air maneuvers almost always work, your opponents are mostly brain-dead - apparently, they're simply not interested in dodging your missiles or sending out counter measures of their own - and each mission is painfully repetitive. Yeah, you'll have targets on the ground and in the air, and you do have to keep a steady hand when dealing with certain enemies (like combat boats in the water), but it's all easily learned, easily mastered, and easily conquered. Even worse, despite a few intermittent moments of elation due to adrenaline rushes, the poor technical presentation ruins any possibility of becoming caught up in what's happening on screen.
The graphics are bad, the sound is barely average, each mission seems a whole lot like the last, there's never a stiff challenge, and even the biggest battles lack that intense, survival-of-the-fittest, epic feeling. We do guarantee you'll have some fun for a little while, though- that Impact Cam, while a touch lame, does give you a sense of satisfaction, even though you probably didn't do anything all that spectacular to land the hit. And as we said before, just about anyone can pick this one up and play, without any prior experience in the genre and without even knowing that down is up and up is down. Yes, the inverted camera looks you so often find in FPSs come from the concept of flight, where you pull up on the yolk (down with the analog) to ascend and push down (up on the analog) to descend. You'll get the hang of things very quickly, and that's a definite bonus considering this title's target audience. But why? Why didn't they just build a little on their solid arcade-y foundation? It could've been wicked fun!
Instead, we're left with a very empty feeling after playing Heatseeker for even a few hours. It starts off entertaining but loses all its appeal and fun factor very rapidly, primarily due to the reasons listed out at the start of the prior paragraph. IR Gurus and Codemasters could've done so much more, but just didn't bother, and that's the long and short of it.
8/18/2007 Ben Dutka