A bit of tweaking under the bonnet can be seen that indicates that the developers have dialled back the PS3 version in a couple of ways. Similar to the first H.A.W.X, there's a longer draw distance on the 360 game when it comes to the ground-based 3D objects, but the grand GeoEye surface textures aren't affected so any impact is minimal. Minor changes in foliage levels also suggest a tweaked LOD.
Some of the cutbacks are so completely miniscule that they almost come across as bugs in the game. Here are just a couple of examples. In the top set of pictures you can see that the roofs of the background buildings have been "collapsed" on PS3, while they are fully present and correct on the 360 build. It seems to be the case for many of the buildings in the game. Sure, there's a polygon saving but it would surely be pretty minimal.
Another bizarre omission concerns the light-source generated by the plane's afterburners on take-off. The ground beneath the player's craft is lit up exactly as you would expect on Xbox 360, while the effect is absent on the PS3 version of the game.
It's hard to imagine that a single light-source or a few additional polygons would be capable of the kind of performance drops that would warrant their omission, but regardless, those differences are there. Mafia II demonstrated that maintaining performance is much more important than the removal of the occasional graphical effect, but the problem with H.A.W.X. 2 is that even with the often puzzling omissions, there is clearly still an obvious frame-rate problem: some levels appear to be much more optimised than others.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ubisoft does like to thread together the action with good, thick slice of Clancy plotting, and a series of relatively (and thankfully) brief cut-scenes are used to achieve this. Unfortunately, the out-of-date Bink video compressor is used for the game's cinematics, and as demonstrated previously in the Final Fantasy XIII video codec comparison, it's simply not up to the job of supplying consistently good quality video without being fed high levels of bandwidth. On a 6.8GB DVD with the amount of cut-scenes H.A.W.X. 2 has, that simply isn't possible... on a Blu-ray, it is.
Unfortunately, despite having about 16GB of free space left on the retail disc, both versions have equally poor cinematics. This is a bit of a mystery - quite why Bink remains popular with developers when other options with far superior quality levels are available boggles the mind, but more than that, it wouldn't take more than an afternoon's work simply to up the bandwidth allocations and re-encode superior versions to make use of the extra space on the Blu-ray.
Bearing in mind the effort that must go into these rendered cinematics, you'd think that developers would want them looking at their best - clearly they're not in H.A.W.X 2.
Speaking of video, one element worthy of showcasing happens to be exclusive to PlayStation 3. Similar to Just Cause 2, H.A.W.X. 2 features the ability to record in-game video and then dump it out onto the XMB for later viewing, or else upload it directly to YouTube. Taking the form of a 5mbps h264 file, the videos are even full-on 720p (up against the quarter-res of JC2's vids) and capture every single moment of gameplay between pressing the start and stop buttons. Encoding and final quality level is dog rough, but it's non-intrusive, fast and quick to encode once you opt to export your captures.
This is genuinely cool stuff, and a useful feature that Microsoft really should be offering within their own SDK. Thankfully the platform holder appears to have realised that there is an internet outside of Xbox Live, and in due course we will see 360 games able to access cyberspace outside of the XBL walled garden, accessing sites like Facebook and YouTube. But in the here and now there's nothing. It's also a shame that the PS3 YouTube integration isn't more widely supported.
A somewhat less laudable PS3 exclusive is the lengthy, mammoth, mandatory hard drive installation when you first boot up the game. It's just a few megabytes short of 6GB (!) so it's pretty much exactly the same size as the optional 360 HDD transfer. In effect it seems that the developer has just seen fit to bung almost the entire game onto the hard drive rather than attempt to get it running well direct from the Blu-ray drive. It takes an age to install and even deleting the data from the hard drive takes an age. Thankfully most developers these days are keeping their mandatory installs to a minimum, but this is a somewhat unwelcome reminder of the darker days of PS3 cross-platform conversions.
Overall, it's fair to say that H.A.W.X. 2 isn't exactly an essential buy, but it is definitely worthwhile. Leveraging its Clancy franchise, Ubisoft has resurrected a gaming genre that just about everybody has forgotten about, and in a market dominated by first and third person shooters, driving games and sports titles, the opportunity to play something a bit different once in a while is welcome indeed.
The first H.A.W.X. was enjoyable but flawed: the sequel addresses some of the issues we had with the game, and recognises that the genre has a lot to offer as an online experience - LAN and SystemLink support on both of the consoles is very welcome in that respect.
It's going to take another similarly large leap to propel this particular wing of the Clancy franchise into true triple-A territory, but in the meantime, this sequel is definitely worth a look on either platform - and for the best graphical and gameplay experience, the 360 game is definitely the one to buy.