I'll admit it – I'm a sucker for flight combat sims. Put me in the cockpit of a fighter plane from anytime between the days of the Wright Brothers all the way through and including those of Tie and X-Wing Fighters, and chances are I'll be a happy guy. And let's be clear – I'm not referring to all of those "simulator" combat games, either. No thanks, I'd prefer to not have to actually be a pilot in order to pretend I'm one. If there are more than two buttons to take off or land, chances are I'll get mad and confused pretty quickly. It's all about breezy, simple, and (most importantly) ludicrously fast dogfighting for me.
And that's where Heatseeker comes in. It has no pretentions about being some sort of all-inclusive, be-everything-to-everyone kind of flight game. Instead, it happily holds itself up as a title that is just all about bombastic fun. In truth, it succeeds in many ways. Sure, it's a little rough around the edges (especially compared to some of the competition out there), but deep down it's the kind of game that just about anyone can step into and start blasting bogeys in moments flat. These days, games like those are harder and harder to come by.
Heatseeker may not be on the level of a Burnout of the skies (as the back of the box claims), but it is a rowdy good time.
The story, such as it is, is set in current times and revolves around you – as an ace pilot nicknamed "Downtown" – battling against rebels who are hellbent on taking down fictional nations across a handful of locales. Depending on the task at hand, you'll be soaring over tropical islands, wintry snowscapes, and other extreme locales. Each major chapter is set up by a full-motion-video of a very concerned-looking news anchor explaining just how dire the situation is. Variety is the name of the game - sometimes you'll be fighting on your own, while on other occasions you'll have some wingmen at your service; some, but not all, of your missions will be land-based; others may have you working with and against naval fleets. Each mission, it seems, introduces new tactics, consistently building to a large-scale crescendo as the game moves forward.
Heatseeker is solidly in the modern era, boasting all sorts of current and near future jets loaded to the gills with the best technological killing power known to mankind. While the events in the game may not take place in real nations (perhaps they're not trying to offend anyone?), the planes you'll fly are Lockheed Martin and Boeing's finest aviation offerings. They pack a hellacious punch of speed and destruction, which translate into death-defying aerial maneuvers that are easy to learn and difficult to master.
That's where the real nuances of Heatseeker come in. It's a deceptively simple game to jump into and play – move your jet with the left stick, fire missles with the right trigger and machine guns with the left, and burst into hyperspeed by holding the right stick forward for a few moments. In fact, just about anyone could cruise through the game in a couple of days playing on the rookie difficulty and eschewing the secondary goals that await. However, the real challenge lies in bumping up the difficulty level, searching out the myriad of optional challenges, and being patient enough to unlock the searingly powerful planes that will be your reward upon taking your game to another level.
The "arcade" control setup is the novice's friend, but Heatseeker will also let more daring souls try to fight against your enemies hurtling through the air with a "simulation" scheme as well. I gave it a fair shot, but clearly my brain isn't set up to handle these powerful machines with anything other than a true joystick jockey's setup.
Clearly, Heatseeker's biggest drawback is the utter lack of a multiplayer option. Even with all of the challenge levels, chances are that you'll be just about wrapped up with the game after a few series of extended sessions. The inability to take your hard-earned skills and apply them directly to the fuselage of a friend (either online or split-screen) is a definite bummer. In addition, the graphics are fairly ordinary (although the planes are lovingly detailed) and there's a discernable lack of slickness, even with the nifty "missle camera" that lets you follow your path of destruction right to the target.
Ultimately, Heatseeker may not be on the level of a Burnout of the skies (as the back of the box claims), but it is a rowdy good time. You may need to look past some rough patches – and the fact that you've done just about everything before in other similar games – but it’s still a worthwhile romp for your PS2. So go ahead, recite all those Top Gun lines, and ride into the danger zone.