"Top Gun" is a film that, like many others, has never received the video game treatment it deserves. To be an American alive after 1986 is to have experienced, even if briefly, the chest-puffing, high-fiving jingoistic bravado that only an F-14 piloting Tom Cruise can deliver.
This ethos hasn't translated well to a "Top Gun" game ever and there hasn't been a decent game tied to the film since the original Nintendo version. "Top Gun: Hard Lock" seeks to restore the legacy of the franchise, uncoincidentally in the same year the original film is being rereleased in 3D.
However, flight games have, for lack of a better term, stalled since their mid-'90s heyday. Perhaps the act of flying itself has become too pedestrian to the imagination. Do children still dream of growing up to be fighter pilots? Maybe so, but whatever magic drew innovation and excitement to the combat flight title in years past seems to have fizzled.
The arcade flight sim, the whose spiritual forefather is the 1987 classic "After Burner," hasn't made much progress in the way of gaming experience, either. The best the genre has produced in the last decade is the "Ace Combat" series.
"Hard Lock" does not break new ground in the area of arcade-style flying games. It's "Ace Combat"-lite, allowing you to laugh in the face of aerodynamics and physics as you maraud across the Persian Gulf. Even though it's a third-person experience, the fact that you happen to be in a plane is inconsequential. Gravity doesn't concern "Hard Lock," as you are a targeting reticule dashing around the screen, looking for things to blow up.
"Hard Lock's" signature element is the eponymous feature, wherein you and your enemies can zero in on one another at the risk of being blown up from behind. Timed joystick gestures allow you to perform a series of aerial escapes and turn the tables on your attacker. This gets old fast.
If a game is not going to expound on the "After Burner" model much — and "Hard Lock" does not — it needs to make up for it with story and atmosphere. The advantage of having the "Top Gun" intellectual property here is tremendous. Maverick, Iceman and the characters of the film's universe are the most famous fighter jocks you can find (however fictional they may be).
This is where "Hard Lock" disappoints the most. If you are making a "Top Gun" game in 2012, there's nothing wrong with punting on gameplay, features and appearance. Just make it presentable and you have the "special sauce" of Kenny Loggins tunes, aviator shades and excessive high-fiving at your disposal.
Sadly "Hard Lock" misses the mark here, with hokey voice work, stale storytelling and a failure to capitalize on the essence of the film. Your character, Spider, and the other pilots only relate to one another over their in-cockpit radios. Without ever seeing any of the characters, conveying a sense of who they are through voice delivery is a key element. However, the voice acting in "Hard Lock" is so laughable that it's almost distracting. Sure, most of the lines are variations on or directly lifted from the film's screenplay, but they're delivered in a way that conveys none of the brash coolness that Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise tapped into.
And that's not to say that we should expect a game that retails for less than $50 to hire Kilmer for voiceover work. But when characters are gleefully shouting half-quotes from the film, and it doesn't even sound like they're coming over a radio, it doesn't feel like a dogfight. In fact, it feels like you're in a frat house, surrounded by people quoting "Top Gun" over and over.
The game hamfistedly tries to evoke classic moments from the film, with secondary objectives such as buzzing a control tower with a flyby or snapping a photo of an enemy plane. It's clear the designers loved "Top Gun" as much as any fan, but the execution doesn't do the action classic justice. Aficionados will notice the details that carry over from the film, but the feeling is one of nostalgia for the film more than excitement to play the game. Maybe there will be a downloadable beach volleyball level at some point in the future.
As a third-person flying shooter, one could certainly do worse than "Hard Lock." Sure, its gameplay is repetitive, but so is the genre. The real problem is the game has "lost that loving feeling" we all feel when we think of "Top Gun."
*Note: Game Cache was unable to find a multiplayer match to review the online portion of this title.