The 1986 film Top Gun was so instrumental in shaping how we think and feel about modern-day fighter pilots that, for those old enough to remember the film, it's hard to imagine a world in which the sight of F14s dogfighting MiGs doesn't immediately conjure up thoughts of Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone." The new PSN game based on the film uses some elements of the movie to terrific effect, while other references fall flat. But what matters most is that it delivers some terrifically exciting action that will make you feel like a real Maverick, whether you're a fan of the film or not.
Top Gun is an aerial combat game in the vein of Ace Combat and HAWX, with an emphasis on tracking your targets long enough to engage missile lock while maneuvering and deploying flares to shake off missiles that are closing in on you. The game's brief single-player campaign consists of a prologue, three missions set at the Top Gun academy, and seven combat missions in the Indian Ocean. The early missions take their time introducing you to the various situations you'll encounter, so the game doesn't hit its stride until the Indian Ocean section. And start to finish, there's only around three or four hours of content here. But when it does hit its stride, it's very exciting. Playing cat and mouse against Russian fighters in frantic battles with lots of targets in the air and missiles constantly on your six is an absolute thrill. Maneuvering your plane to track targets until the sweet tone of a missile lock is heard just feels right, and having to constantly react quickly to incoming threats ensures that you never get comfortable. You also have to get proficient with your guns, because sometimes your systems jam and you can't get a missile lock. And those later missions change up your objectives frequently. There are a wide variety of goals, such as attacking ground targets and escorting damaged plans to safety, so you're never doing the same thing for very long. The game doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before--these are air combat situations that games have been putting us in for decades--but that doesn't make them any less fun.
While the planes in Top Gun are modeled after real-life planes, they're gifted with some special technology that makes defeating the rogue Russian fleet a bit easier. For one, they have regenerating armor, which may be a bit too useful. Many battles are clustered around a relatively small area within the large environments, so when you've taken some hits, it's pretty easy to just speed away from the action for a moment, wait for your armor to return, and then zoom back into the fray. The planes also have a system called Controlled Flight Instability, which pulls the camera out from its normal position to track your current target, making scoring missile locks, and just spinning your plane around like a maniac, much easier, and lending the action a dash of cinematic flair. You can't rely on it too much, though; it lasts only a few seconds before needing a period of time to recharge. Initially you're stuck with the powerful F14, but you eventually gain access to the nimble F16 and the balanced F/A-18, though the planes don't feel all that different from each other when you're in the air. More significant is your choice of short, medium, or long-range missiles, which carry different advantages and disadvantages in maneuverability, damage, and the number you can fire at once. (Once fired, your missiles, like your armor, magically regenerate after a short period of time.)
The story for this brief campaign is a bizarre mishmash of the film's plot and a bunch of hubbub surrounding a deadly Russian ace named Ivan. It's all told clumsily via cockpit chatter before and after missions, and it's made all the more awkward by the attempts to find excuses to shoehorn nearly every memorable line from the film into this structure. Maverick is told that his father was an amazing pilot, that his ego is writing checks his body can't cash, and that he can be Iceman's wingman any time, and through it all, he says not a word, leaving others to chime in on his behalf. It all seems forced and unnecessary. This game feels like the movie because of the intense aerial combat, not because of goofy references to Maverick's irreverent tower-buzzing antics.
In addition to the single-player campaign, there's a mode called Horde that pits you against never-ending waves of enemy fighters. It's a fun way to test your skills for a little while, but since the objective never changes, it's not nearly as compelling as the campaign. More important are a handful of multiplayer modes that support up to 16 players. In addition to Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, there's Capture the Flag, a last-man-standing mode called Top Gun, and a mode called Bomber Run in which one team tries to weaken the other team's AA-gun ground defenses and escort a bomber on an attack run on the enemy base. The action of dogfighting translates very well to these multiplayer modes, and getting the better of human opponents is particularly satisfying. Unfortunately, there aren't too many people playing online at the moment, so although games support up to 16 players, it's rare to find a game with more than a few planes in the air, leaving an awful lot of empty sky and keeping the action from being as intense as it could be.
Top Gun looks pretty good. The planes are sharply detailed and respond realistically when you speed up or slow down, and your enemies look great when they explode in massive clouds of black smoke. There's a good sense of speed when you fire the afterburner, and the edges of the screen darken dramatically when you go into a high-G turn. The drab landmasses you fly over during the missions in the game's second chapter aren't much to look at, but thankfully the Indian Ocean where the bulk of the game is set is much easier on the eyes. The lock-on tones, missile fires, and other combat noises all sound just right, and the music is quite good. Film composer Harold Faltermeyer's memorable Top Gun theme sets the tone, and the tunes that accompany the action are suitably exciting. The final mission is accompanied by a version of "Danger Zone," and although it's not the voice of Kenny Loggins you hear, there's still something exhilarating about taking out MiGs to the sounds of that particular tune.
But it's not the song and the other references to the film that make this game exciting. Top Gun captures what made the film cool without relying on the license. It delivers dogfighting that will get your adrenaline racing even if you've never watched Tom Cruise play volleyball. It takes a bit too long to get up to full speed, and once it does, it's over much too quickly. But if you're itching to experience the satisfaction of locking on to an enemy and blowing him out of the sky, you could certainly do worse than what your 15 bucks will get you here.