There's no background story to set up the perpetual conflict between Warhawk's futuristic Eucadian and Chernovan factions. The whys and wherefores of the skirmishes are beside the point. The primary concern of the online-only game is providing a virtual playground for rounds of capture the flag and other team-based, objective-oriented battles. Players are born to the battlefield armed with pistol, blade, and grenade. The rest of the toys are littered across the game's vast arenas. The tools of destruction are typical, but no less fun to wield. Rocket launchers lock onto enemies, raining fiery death on them even as they flee. Sniper rifles zoom in, granting long-distance kills to those with steady hands and superhuman patience.

But the dogfights are the reason to play. The aircraft hover like Harriers, or cruise, afterburners blazing. A well-populated match can mean dozens of wings spiraling in the sky. When perforated by machine-gun fire, they explode into blazing balls, then rain smoldering wreckage back down to earth. It's hard not to notice the moments of beauty between the moments of destruction. PlayStation 3 horsepower cranks out gorgeous vistas choked with clouds, and lavishes detail on every sunbeam that bursts through the cover. The temptation to soak in the scenery is strong, but such eye candy is no competition for an enemy player barreling down on you in a tank.

Beyond the game: Battlefield 1942 set the standard for this kind of multiplayer combat. Warhawk polishes rather than revolutionizes the experience.

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Worth playing for: Server selection is left in players' hands, allowing for deep customization of games. Few console games offer this kind of fine control over who and how you fight.

Frustration sets in when: At retail, Warhawk comes bundled with a Jabra Bluetooth headset. One earful of racist trash-talk is enough to make players wish they'd left the device in the box. Sony has a long way to go in taming its rowdier online elements. These guys make the Xbox Live crowd sound like the Algonquin round table.

Final judgment: Warhawk is no Halo 2, but it's still the most compelling reason to take your PlayStation 3 online.

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