Andrew Bryant J.O.I.N.S. the H.A.W.X. as they K.I.C.K. B.U.T.T.
Game Title: Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.
Developer: Ubisoft Romania
Format Reviewed: PC (Retail)
Also Available on: Xbox360, PS3
Historically, Tom Clancy was the buzzword for simulation – the original Rainbow Six & Ghost Recon games were both hardcore simulations of heavy strategy and forward planning, punishing the ignorant lone-wolf FPS jockey who didn’t use his/her assets properly. Even when the brand appeared on consoles it transferred with a good deal of complexity still attached.
Recently, Ubisoft picked up rights to make whatever game they liked with the Clancy-verse and realism was not part of the deal. We’re now we’re starting to see the result of this endeavour with H.A.W.X. forming one arm of an extended story that connects with Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell & End War.
The single player campaign casts the player as David Crenshaw, ex-USAF pilot extraordinaire who has just (confusingly) been laid off as the government shuts down the H.A.W.X. program. He, along with his team, is freshly hoovered up into a Private Military Corporation to blow up foreigners for the highest bidder. Part way into the campaign, people are double-crossed, things explode and it’s all generally very entertaining, if not requiring much actual thought at all. Unfortunately for everything considered, it’s very short – the 19 missions, some of which don’t last for more than 4-5 minutes, fly by (pun possibly intended) but then it is set up like an action movie and when you look at it objectively, most of them outstay their welcome towards the end as their hackneyed plots are tied up – H.A.W.X. seems just right, especially with the entertaining denoument.
H.A.W.X. plays much like console stalwart Ace Combat, offering high octane thrills above foreign warzones with little leeway given to realism, instead preferring to load planes with 150 missiles and point them at the enemy with the starting order of something like ‘SHOOT THEM’. Sure, there’s a lovely looking in-cockpit view (with unique authentic designs for each of the 50+ different models available) that can be voluntarily used to make things a bit more realistic and/or difficult, but the name of the game is action, drama and buckets of fun – If thrust vectoring means more too you than just ‘it makes the plane turn faster’ then this probably isn’t the game for you.
No plane is prohibited from taking part in the fray, with various unlockable load outs available for too customise your flight based on mission parameters. Want to take an A-10 Warthog on an air-superiority sortie too try and shoot down distant objects with the world’s biggest gatling gun? Go for it! Want to lay waste to a hostile navy with a MiG Foxbat, a plane so unstable it stalls if someone sneezes near it? Knock yourself out! H.A.W.X. takes a no compromise approach to just letting the player do whatever they want within a lose selection of rules – don’t hit the floor, fly out of the mission area or fail the primary goal of the mission. The latter often consists of protecting a friendly from encroaching hostiles (who conveniently have what’s called an engagement range – enter the circle and they’ll attack you. It’s a stilted gameplay mechanic, but this is Ubisoft here!), shooting all the bad guys until they die within a time limit or, later on, fly amongst a cunning array of radar nets and SAM sites without being seen).
One of the games main selling points is the two distinct modes of play, classified as ON & OFF mode. The former grants the player an unparalleled sense of power in the form of the Enhanced Reality System which protects the player from crashing & stalls, provides escape vectors from incoming missiles and guides your plane smoothly and gracefully onto the tails of your aggressors through a series of Pilotwings-esque tunnels, allowing you to perforate their fuselage with bullets and missiles with little too no effort. Of course, as with all near-future computer assist modes, it’s easily (& conveniently) jammed when the plot demands it, making you work for kills and experience.
By contrast, OFF mode offers up the purest form of control by removing 90% of the computer aids, designed as they are to protect you, leaving just man to grapple with the machine. Your plane can stall & plummet to the ground; there are no guides to lead you to targets, instead forcing you to rely on the camera to orient you towards your target, requiring you to bring the nose in line to even attempt a lock and you can drift the plane. Yes, you read that right, OFF mode essentially unlocks the handbrake on the plane, allowing ludicrous moves that *might* be possible, but no-one has ever dared attempt in a $135 million fighter jet.
Accompanying you on these high speed jaunts are two talking heads. Officially, they’re your wingmen, but they are at best window-dressing designed to push the plot along and act as your voice (it typical fashion, Crenshaw is mute), deciding what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it, despite being your subordinates – some leeway in choice would have been nice!
Orders are dished out with a simple tap left on the d-pad/cursor keys for ‘attack my target’ or right for ‘defend me’ either sends them off like whippets or teathers them too your side like a trusty Alsatian, although the Xbox 360’s rather floaty d-pad often means you’ll be cycling your missiles rather than directing them in intense combat situations. Not that it matters much however, since they’re useless shots and might as well not exist – they rarely take down the enemy unless they’re told to defend you and can’t die. More can be said of the enemy, who, as pre-programmed as their attack vectors are, certainly know how to get in behind you and ruin a good bomb run with a missile lock or two.
The graphics engine pushing the game along is fairly stunning too look at first, with highly detailed plane models dancing amongst volumetric clouds, although the satellite-imaged terrain demonstrates the same problems as, say, Google Earth when you get low to the ground – smaller ‘buildings’ are just flat images and trees are pixellated and non-existent, allowing low-flying planes to pass through-them as if they didn’t exist. It’s rarely a problem since the majority of the game takes place at over 3000 feet, but there are a couple of later missions that take place barely 50 foot above the deck and it all starts to fall apart.
Unlike the impressive graphics, the aural experience is nothing special or unexpected, simply just solid, with the dull rumbling thud of the A-10’s Vulcan shaking the sub woofer as it tears through columns of enemy tanks whilst the stereotypical action movie music fights with the sound of passing planes and lock-on signals.
Once the relatively short campaign is done with (and a fair whack of the planes available unlocked as part of the course), there’s co-op for each mission so you can fight through the campaign again with a friend or Versus multiplayer. The former is a bit of an afterthought, seemingly bolted onto the Campaign mode with a lack of thought to logistics (you have to specify the instance of the campaign as being ‘online’ then hope people find it and decide to join), whilst the Versus is limited to fairly uninspired team death match that allows weapon load-outs based on individual unlocks, meaning players who have unlocked All-Aspect missiles (read: the Deus Ex Machina 360o Missile of Death) for the more advanced planes tend to own the skies unfairly.
The game hands out team rewards based on kills, giving the player who levelled the team up control over when to fire the special weapon, be it radar invisibility, upgraded cannons or locking the opposing teams missiles. This method of dishing out the rewards exacerbates the problem of unfair teams, although if you get a game together with a good set of gamers then a fun time can be had, especially since the game performs equally as well in multiplayer since there is little too no lag or performance difference between modes.
H.A.W.X. is a hoot too play and if you go into it knowing it’s an arcade shoot-em-up in real-world military garb then you should be sorted and not disappointed. As a rival to the mature Ace Combat, it ticks most of the boxes – flash graphics, lots of splodges and not too much going on under the hood to distract you from the fact.