Air combat games are contradictory beasts. They offer the most freedom of movement of any game genre, and yet are constrained by the emptiness of their aerial arenas into gameplay that can quickly become monotonous if you're not passionately excited by military technology. Fly to waypoint, shoot down enemies, rinse, repeat.
H.A.W.X. 2 seems uncomfortably aware of its limitations and so goes out of its way to break up the aerial dogfighting. The trouble is that in doing so it risks alienating the niche audience that is perfectly happy with lots of aerial dogfighting, without offering enough to attract a more mainstream audience.
Following on from the first game, which had a rather bumpy landing back in March 2009, the game takes place in the near future setting shared with several other Tom Clancy titles. There are references to these overlapping events, though nothing that will confuse anyone unfamiliar with the tangled web of Clancy gaming, but the fidgety story still boils down to an unsatisfying hodgepodge of stolen nukes something something insurgency something Russia something Middle East.
Much like brawny Clancy wannabe Modern Warfare 2, you hop between story strands as the plot hiccups along, following American, Russian and British pilots as they run missions that are clearly supposed to stop a Very Bad Thing from happening, even if you're never entirely clear what that Very Bad Thing will be.
Despite this narrative fog, the early levels do a great job of building pivotal moments into a flight game framework, putting you in the cockpit for scripted events that slip seamlessly into gameplay. It doesn't take long for this creativity to subside, however, and before long you're following waypoints and engaging bogeys like every other air combat game.
The game uses Clancy's obsession with technology to break things up, so at various points you'll find yourself engaged in aerial espionage. Hovering over cities and battlefields with unmanned recon drones, these remote spybots cast the world in grainy green and black night vision, and ask you to scan buildings to locate prisoners, fire IR tracers to mark targets, track cars belonging to arms dealers, or rain rocket death down on insurgent positions. In gameplay terms, it boils down to fairly simple point-and-click stuff, but when used intelligently this shift in perspective moves the game along in a way that shooting down five more enemy fighters never can.
One good example comes when you're placed in control of the weaponry on an AC-130 Gunship and supply aerial cover for a rescue mission on the ground. So, yes, it's a turret mission. And an escort mission. But it works. You can zoom right in and see the tiny figures you're helping, and the level strikes an excellent balance between giving you enough firepower to feel confident in your chances of victory and throwing enough complications into the mix that it never feels like it's handed to you on a plate. Fending off convoys as tiny soldiers make a desperate dash for freedom, on foot and in vehicles, is surprisingly exciting stuff.
It's essentially a military shooter from an RTS viewpoint, and these sporadic interludes may well annoy those who prefer their flight games to focus entirely on flight. They're certainly most fun the first time you encounter them, becoming more intrusive and less novel with each replay, which suggests H.A.W.X. might not be the best franchise to use them in.
Enemy AI has been greatly improved from the first game, which is both a blessing and a curse. It makes each engagement all the more rewarding, as even on the easiest setting you still have to compete with enemy pilots who will dodge, swoop and use flares and chaff to escape your attention. That, in itself, is fantastic. When you're up against a strict countdown, and still have 10 more enemies to down, it becomes a problem.
"Get better at dogfighting," is the obvious retort, but the game skews its missions too far in the later stages, leaving little room for all but the most brilliant pilots to succeed. While enemies are much smarter, the same can't be said for your allied wingmen.
Late in the game you finally get the ability to designate targets for them - an essential feature, given the sheer number of enemies you face and the need to split your attention between clearing the skies and defending troops on the ground. Yet they never seem to get the job done. As wave after wave of tanks and other ground forces converge on a vital allied airbase, you're ping-ponging from one threat to another while your flight team seemingly piffle about elsewhere, dogfighting with the same handful of fighters.
Since each checkpoint puts you back in the same position, with the same catastrophic damage and overwhelming odds, progress can feel like a grind, where quitting out and starting the whole multi-tiered mission from the start is the only option.
Handling, at least, is crisp and responsive, and you don't have to worry about stalling even on the highest difficulty. The only way sim fans can get that level of realism is to activate the OFF Mode, retained from the first game. This makes flying a more challenging part of the experience, but still restricts you to a fiddly external "dynamic" camera right when you really want to be in the cockpit. Those hoping H.A.W.X. might become a more serious flight game are bound for disappointment.
The game also looks stunning thanks to the use of high-definition maps provided by GeoEye satellites. It's a good thing there's a Free Flight option, since it's worth taking a plane for a spin just so you can appreciate the near-photoreal scenery. Admittedly, the illusion doesn't hold up quite as well once you dip below 500 metres, but combined with impressively detailed plane models and Tom Salta's evocative score, the result is impressively cinematic.
It's in the supplementary options that H.A.W.X. 2 shows its eagerness to please. Missions can be replayed with your own choice of plane and weapon loadout, while success unlocks variations in Arcade Mode, where variables such as ammo and enemy skill are tweaked to give the hardcore more of a challenge. There's also a self explanatory Survival Mode, which is playable in online co-op mode along with all the story missions.
It's here that game really takes flight, as the inclusion of fellow flesh-and-blood pilots smoothes out the frustrations of the aloof allied AI, and even allows for more wriggle room in what role you play. In single-player it's all painfully prescriptive - you go where you're told and engage targets based on what the disembodied voice says. Try anything different, attempt a different approach, and failure is never far away.
That's how the military works, of course, but for gameplay purposes it can get a bit repetitive. Flying alongside three other players, you can devise strategies of your own, divvy up the targets in more interesting ways, and generally feel more like you're engaged in a dynamic battle even though you're still plugging away at the same scripted waves.
Is it enough to make H.A.W.X. 2 essential? Sadly not. It's really only the one-on-one thrill of a dogfight that makes the pulse race and those moments are sandwiched between fun-but-slight shooting gallery sections and solo mission design that quickly leads to frustration. It's a game that works best as a straightforward arcade air combat game, but seems determined to exceed the framework of its genre, often to the detriment of its best features.
There are certainly enough improvements to make this a worthwhile flight for anyone who enjoyed the original game, but there's still plenty of potential left untapped. For all its sheen, H.A.W.X. remains a curious sideshow in Tom Clancy's murky world rather than a star player.
7 / 10
Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2 is released on the 10th September for PS3, 30th September for Wii and Xbox 360, before finally being available 1st October for PC.