MicroProse has a license to kill. In this case, that license is the rights to Top Gun, the cheesy but enjoyable Tom Cruise aerial celluloid romp from the '80s. A few years back, the company's Top Gun: Fire at Will provided an entertaining flight experience for beginner and casual sim pilots. But the sequel, Top Gun: Hornet's Nest, is a mistargeted, ill-designed mess that's too tough for beginners, too silly for experts, and more an exercise in frustration than in fun.
The setup of the game is only tenuously related to the film, or to the previous Top Gun sim, for that matter. Your character is called Maverick, and each campaign is introduced by a video of actor James Tolkan, reprising his role as Hondo, Mav's commander. The resemblence ends here. Your backseater is gone - you now fly solo in an F/A-18 Hornet, rather than an F-14 Tomcat. And while Top Gun's plot wasn't exactly out of the Navy yearbook, this game's campaigns have far more in common with the corniest of James Bond films than with the Tom Cruise movie.
Not that that's a bad thing in itself. In fact, when taking on mad Russian general Martikov in the Siberian campaign, I got a kick when the game shifted from taking out regular ground targets to destroying secret weapons of mass destruction that were threatening to fire a huge electrical pulse with the potential to wipe out entire cities. Unfortunately, although the missions were certainly unique in nature, they went from challenging to frustrating. In the first mission of the second campaign, set in Iraq, you task is to take out a series of radar-jamming stations. Sounds interesting enough, but you have to take out nine stations, each of which requires two missile hits to be destroyed. In addition, the skies are swarming with enemy aircraft, which you must take out with heat-seeking missiles since your radar is jammed. And you really should eliminate some of the SAM sites around your target. By the time I completed this mission, I'd felled 12 enemy planes and destroyed 20 ground targets. Good thing the gun is overpowered.
With those odds, I don't think you need to feel as if you're cheating if you choose the unlimited ammo option. On those missions where you have wingmen to help you, they're more often than not cannon fodder, if they don't die a prescripted death or fly into the ground. On top of all this, many missions have time limits.
Luckily, your plane is better armed than the typical F/A-18 Hornet. In addition to realistic ordnance such as Sidewinder and AMRAAM missiles, there are also some fictional armaments, which can be carried in greater quantities or which have particularly strong effects. My favorite is the Starflower, essentially an aerial cluster bomb that can take out a group of targets flying close together.
The Maverick air-to-ground missile modeling is particularly frustrating. It will only lock onto vehicles, not the buildings or structures you often have to destroy. You can fire missiles at buildings by bore-sighting them - aiming your plane directly at the target. But if you've previously locked onto a vehicle, your valuable Maverick will go careening offscreen to blow it up instead.
The sim offers three perspectives on the action: a cockpit view with instrument panel, a full-screen HUD (heads-up display) view, and an external view from behind your plane. You'll probably spend most of your time in HUD view, since the instrument panel blocks the bomb-targeting indicator on the HUD.
The sim's fatal flaw, however, is the flight model, which will please no one. This F/A-18 turns more like a B-52 than a fighter jet - changing directions takes forever. It makes you wonder what Zipper Interactive was thinking when it tuned the plane's handling. While the game's missions, weapons, and storylines are clearly targeted at action gamers, the plane is so unresponsive that it's more difficult to fly successfully than Falcon 4.0's F-16.
There are some good points. The game's graphics and sounds are top-notch. The graphics engine, which will also be seen in MechWarrior III, is very fast, allowing smooth play at 1024x768 even on a Matrox Marvel card, which is no 3D speed demon. Special effects are very good, although the terrain itself is fairly polygonal.
The initial missions can be interesting, until the overwhelming odds begin to take their toll. They're certainly anything but typical - what other sim lets you navigate your F/A-18 through a maze, Quake-style? The configurable instant action mode is good for familiarizing yourself with your craft. Multiplayer mode is dogfight-only, although team play is allowed. The game does allow you to land and rearm/refuel, an important detail left out of multiplayer mode in other recent sims.
However, you can probably find better places to spend your multiplayer moments. Top Gun: Hornet's Nest has little to recommend it, other than some original (if wacky) mission scenarios. Sim fans will be put off by the bad flight modeling and unbelievable scenarios, while action gamers will find the plane's sluggish handling and poorly implemented weapons an exercise in frustration. The real losers are the film's fans, who will find that the only connection to the movie is a few brief video appearances by Hondo. This Top Gun is a washout.