['Battle Klaxon' is a new bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week: The difficult PS3 rebirthing of Warhawk.]

"Warhawk?" I said, sitting for the first time on my new roommate's tiny sofa. This was last October. We'd just ordered pizza, filling the dirty room with cheesy anticipation.

"Warhawk," he replied, turning on the TV. "Secret best game on the PS3!"

"...Warhawk?" I asked again. This guy was never wrong, so it's not like I was skeptical. But really... Warhawk?

"Warhawk," he said, finding a match instantly and handing me the pad.

Six months, two failed relationships and one wet winter later and I'd logged a hundred hours into Warhawk. Not only that, I must have happily watched my friend play a dozen more. And it's not like I can blame my addiction on getting really good at it or anything. I mean, I got good, but not good.

So what kept me playing? And, more importantly, what made me agree that Warhawk really is the secret best game on the PS3?

For those of you whose only mental link to Warhawk is when it was reluctantly dragged on stage during Sony's 2006 E3 press conference of legend, a rough outline of the game is as follows: It's an large-scale (32 player), team-based (2 teams) multiplayer shooter with no embarrassing Sixaxis controls of any kind.

Most of the time, players fight to capture either flags or Battlefield-style zones while attempting to make the best use of a Swiss Army Knife arsenal of colourful weapons and vehicles which includes the titular Warhawks, flimsy yet regal-looking attack aircraft. If we want to get technical it's actually Warhawks "and Nemeses" because each side has a different name for them, but I have to write about them quite a lot in the coming paragraphs so let's do each other a favour and pretend that's not the case.

Learning to Fly

hawk2.jpgClimbing into a Warhawk is what initially made me sit up and pay attention on that first night. Roaring up into the sky like some pissed-off animal, your immediate impression is that the whole map and all those little skirmishes you can see are yours to intervene in like a floating referee. The discoveries that follow land like spitballs between your eyes and bring you back down to earth in a very literal sense.

First, Warhawks are not made of metal. They must, in fact, be enormous examples of origami, as this is the only explanation for why you blow up if anyone so much as tells a joke about your mother. Second, your starting weapons suck. Third, superior weapons for Warhawks can be found floating on the map like Quake pickups, but each fits a very specific purpose and is very difficult to use.

The cluster bomb might be the best example. It's a one-shot deal and using it drops twenty five watermelon-sized bombs directly beneath you (at once) that all explode after a couple of seconds. Now, if you're too high up or have too much momentum they'll be scattered and do absolutely nothing, but if you just fly low and hover above your target you're going to get shot down. A successful bombing run then demands you show just the right mix of bravery, insanity, cunning and skill.

But the results! A tank on the ground that was previously dominating will abruptly find it's raining bombs in every direction, giving the driver a few seconds of silent agony before they detonate. Better still, the cluster bomb lends itself to trench-run style high-speed bombings of bunkers where you aim to shunt as many of the 25 munitions as you can right through the open door, which is guaranteed to scare the crap out of anyone inside who thought they were safe.

The beauty of the Warhawks is simple. Flying one is a teeth-gritting experience- you show up on everyone's radar, you're an easy kill and everyone's terrified of what weapons you might have managed to pick up. But you're also the fastest thing on the map, capable of being a thorn in everyone's side, zipping to any trouble spots in a moment's notice and, if you get lucky, you can deploy some really epic weaponry. It's just a matter of Not Screwing Up for long enough, if you think you can handle that.

(You can't.)

It's interesting, because what the guys at Incognito have done is take a class of vehicle which is traditionally simply fearsome and desirable and turned it into a whole other game that takes place over your head, and it's a game anyone can dip into any time they want a change of pace.

But if it's the Warhawks that hooked me, it's the ground fighting that kept me playing. Fundamentally, it's a ways slower than your average online shooter. The game favours inaccurate guns over long-range equivalents and it favours weapons that burn away at your health over several seconds rather than blowing it all out of you in a heartbeat.

The result is combat that's more about situations than twitch reflexes, and with the wealth of terrain, vehicles and weapons in the game, that lets players get clever. You run away, you assault, you hide, you surprise, you snipe, you trick, you gloat, you die, and you grin when you die.

hawk3.jpgGimme Shelter

This isn't to say Warhawk's combat is slow. Just slower. Full 32 player maps incubate dizzy barrages of grenades, fly-by-wire missiles, sticky lightning balls, bubble shields, speeding jeeps, poisonous deployables and more besides that often have you doing everything but dropping your gun as you dart towards the nearest ditch.

And more importantly, split-second reaction times still factor. It's just that honed reflexes don't mean anywhere near as much as adapting with intelligence. I've seen individuals defend entire bases from enemy assault simply through predicting how the enemy would move and being well-armed and smart enough to counter them.

In one match I watched my friend running along the ground and being harassed by the machine guns of a Warhawk in VTOL mode. Furious and close to death, my friend ran into the shelter of a cave and, keen to finish him off, the Warhawk pilot landed at the entrance and got out. The moment he did so my friend (waiting in a shadow at the lip of the cave) hit the prompt to instantly leap into the unoccupied vehicle and began a rapid, elevator-like ascent with his opponent still standing hopelessly on one of the wings. After reaching a suitably comic height my friend swapped to flight mode and hit the afterburner. The game even had the decency to give him the kill after this guy had finished his five second base jump back towards the ground.

This is not a unique story. Stuff like this happens all the time. An amazing counter to this exact tactic is to put a landmine on your own Warhawk, because they can only get set off by the opposing team. So you harass a player, wait till they find cover, land, get a safe distance away...

But quite aside from the fact that this slow combat lets a novice player who thinks get the better of a experienced player, or the satisfying nature of each and every kill because you were smarter than the other guy, OR the way it makes death less annoying because you're always cackling at the way the other guy bested you, there's a more important element to the slow pace, one developers should be taking note of as online shooters enjoy a larger and larger scale.

Warhawk's design means despite being a large-scale game with tanks, planes, snipers and artillery, no-one ever suffers the confused insta-death they never saw coming that's so prominent in other large-scale games from Battlefield to Quake Wars to Killzone 2.

hawk4.jpgThere are subtleties here, far more than I've mentioned. Take the proximity mines, for instance. They're a rare pickup so anyone who gets them only ever puts them in the predictable places they're likely to get a kill, plus they emit a beeping you can faintly hear when you get close, plus you can see the damn things, so If you set off a mine in Warhawk it's not shit luck, it's your fault.

The masterstroke here is that when you do set one off it emits a harsh beep for half a second before it blows up, which is just enough time for you realise exactly how you've been an idiot and enjoy a weird sensation where your brain fires all its synapses at once in a futile attempt to think of a way out.

But that's just one weapon. Everything in Warhawk has these defined limitations. Tanks are inaccurate enough that you should have ample time to hear them and hide, sniper rifles are such a bastard to use you're only going to get shot by one if you forget they exist entirely, calling in artillery requires pointing a hilarious giant green laser at the target area for a few seconds, and Warhawks? Warhawks are more scared of you than you are of them.

The end result of all this is not just fun but longevity, and it's achieved through such simple steps. By giving you a thousand toys to play with, all of which have huge disadvantages, Warhawk becomes easy-to-learn, impossible-to-master, boasts astonishing variety and hardly ever becomes frustrating.

[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him either wearing ill-fitting clothes in embarrassingly cheap Montreal bars or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]