Game designers love the war on terror, but judging by its output Ubisoft positively salivates at the thought of it. Under the ever-malleable Tom Clancy umbrella, we've waged open-air war in various Ghost Recon titles, engaged in close quarters hostage rescue in Rainbow Six, and snuck around the darkest corners snapping necks in Splinter Cell. Now it's time to rule the skies in the latest addition to the Tom Clancy family, HAWX.
HAWX stands for High Altitude Warfare X (the X meaning 'prototype' and sadly not 'kiss'), and you play as pilot David Crenshaw, an ex-HAWX veteran who rejoins the squadron to restore peace to various parts of the world, including Brazil, the Middle-East and Central Asia [are we still using "restore peace" as a euphemism? - Ed], in the aftermath of a "massive attack" on the USA. A fine excuse, in other words, for engaging in high-speed dogfighting in a collection of technologically advanced aircraft over a series of iconic locations.
In keeping with Ubisoft's desire to create a coherent Tom Clancy 'universe', with overlapping narratives between the various games within it, HAWX kicks off with a reprise of a mission some of you might recall from GRAW 2. "You actually replay the GRAW 2 airstrike mission in Mexico - but from the air," says lead designer Thomas Simon. "When the game starts for real, [it fast-forwards to] 2014 - just after the end of GRAW 2 - and you've joined the private military company in a mission in Africa."
After the African introduction, you and your squadron head to Afghanistan and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. From there, the aforementioned conflict in the US explodes, and Crenshaw eventually finds himself back on board with HAWX once again, protecting space shuttles over Cape Canaveral. In fact, this part of storyline crosses over with the forthcoming EndWar, another new addition to the Tom Clancy gaming dynasty.
"In EndWar we are announcing some elements of the [HAWX] storyline - and actually more than that - but we can't say everything now. Some titles, like Splinter Cell, have really impressed so much in that they really helped create a whole [Tom Clancy] universe," offers Simon. "With other people from Ubisoft that are working on Clancy titles, now we are able to start playing a bit with the universe itself, creating crossovers. It's getting quite exciting." Okay, so we've got GRAW and EndWar covered off, but what about narrative crossover with Rainbow Six? "Errrr, Rainbow...yes, something like that. You'll see," teases Simon.
As you might expect from a Clancy title, cutting edge, near-future hardware is firmly at the top of the agenda."[We've taken] technology that's already believable and [moved] it one generation further. It's the mature version of what's just a prototype now," Simon says. "So, the ERS (Enhanced Reality System) for some planes that you've seen is in that spirit. And it's not just technology and military authenticity; it features a strong storyline with high stakes. It's also the elite forces, hence the HAWX squadron you're coming from. It has all the ingredients for a Clancy title."
Fortunately for Ubisoft, such claims are given credence when we're allowed to put the opening single-player level through its paces a few times. Two things immediately mark HAWX out as one to watch: the impressively slick 60 frames-per-second game engine and the intuitive controls. "Right from the pre-production stage we wanted 60fps," Simon nods. "And any time we did something to disrupt that, we worked on it until it was fixed. It was very important."
Surprisingly for a flight-combat title, the controls take a matter of seconds to adjust to - but it was all part of the plan, as Simon explains: "We really want the game to be accessible very quickly, so that you immediately feel like you're in control and can have fun killing enemies, or just manoeuvring, and feeling in control. You have a huge possibility to improve yourself - to learn the manouevres, make more flips, and push the plane to the closest possible stall limit and give you more manoeuvrability. This is part of the skill - depth and accessibility at the same time."
But while the general left stick for plane control/right stick for camera control isn't a whole lot different to the classic flight combat games of the past, where HAWX really improves matters is the way it uses an external camera to give you a new and useful perspective. Not only does it give you an idea of your current orientation, but it also locks onto your current target, which proves to be a more useful way of following your enemy than simply chasing an off-screen cursor. Tight turns and flips suddenly become far easier to pull off thanks to this greater degree of visual feedback.
"We worked quite a lot on [the external camera]. It was the most difficult feature that we developed and also the most iterative," Simon admits. "It started by us wanting a way to dodge a missile with a special camera, and we realised we would like to do more stuff with that camera." And in a game where you spend a significant amount of time playing dogfight cat-and-mouse, being able to dodge missiles effectively becomes arguably the crucial gameplay mechanic - both in single and multiplayer.
"Suddenly you have a tool that allows you to understand who is doing what, what your plane is doing and how you can act against a specific enemy or specific threat," Simon explains. "This changes everything, because it's not just a plane game, it's also pure gameplay joy."
It's also apparent that Ubi's Bucharest studio has made a conscious decision to design the missions in a free-flowing manner that ultimately requires intelligent, strategic decisions. The opening mission, for example, tasks you with protecting a refinery from waves of attack, both ground and air based. Your first instinct might be to shoot whatever happens to be in the vicinity at any given point, but further inspection reveals that taking out incoming AH-64s and Jaguars might prove to be a better idea than wasting time slow-moving tanks.
In common with other Tom Clancy games, there's a subtle but not overbearing degree of strategic command over other units, allowing you to call for assistance in both single and multiplayer by pressing up or down on the d-pad. In multiplayer, you're able to instruct your team-mates to attack your target, and they can press up to accept or down to cancel. Voice recognition will also be included, allowing players to bark a limited array of orders over a headset like a hassled Tom Cruise.
Elsewhere, Ubisoft is making heady boasts about the sheer scale of the maps. While the 120km-by-120km maps might sound impressively vast, Simon says that the player is reined in to stop them drifting too far from the action. Escort missions, meanwhile, gradually take in the full scale of map, including daring low-level runs where you take out anti-aircraft equipment to allow the safe passage of nearby bombers.
With "one pixel-per-metre" detail levels promised, the overall look and feel of the game builds on Ubi's long-running track record of jaw-dropping fly-by sequences, as seen in GRAW and R6 Vegas, as well as some of the potential in the promising-but-flawed Blazing Angels. If, like me, you've been skeptical of HAWX based on Ubisoft Bucharest's patchy recent console track record, a few minutes of actual hands-on time with its latest effort blows apathetic preconceptions out of the sky.
Ubisoft also had the game's online team deathmatch mode for us to get to grips with. Based on four-on-four dogfighting, it takes some of the instant action elements of the campaign mode and turns them into a crazed fight to the death. The rules of engagement are simple: both teams spawn at opposite sides of one of 17 maps, and hare after each other with violent intent. You start by selecting an aircraft, and each is grouped into three different categories: Air Superiority, Ground Support or Multi-Role. For example, the FA22 is a bit of a show pony, specialised for air-to-air combat with a high angle of attack and small payload, but generally unstable, whereas the A10 is a good ground support choice, able to lock onto fast ground targets and deliver a heavy payload. In a team situation, a good tactic is to mix up the ammo types, with, say, one player tooling up with quicker reloading but shorter range missiles, and the other opting for longer range, slower reloading missiles.
Overall, more than 50 licensed aircraft feature, with even more promised post-release via downloadable content. As was the case in Rainbow Six Vegas 2, a fully-fledged experience system is prevalent in all aspects of the game, both offline and on, unlocking useful items as you progress, from more powerful weaponry to skins and more advanced aircraft. "The spirit is the same. You play in the order that you want. Whatever you do during the game will be rewarded by experience points, so you don't have to worry about starting at the beginning of the campaign," says Simon.
"Obviously the best learning curve experience would be to start playing the campaign by yourself and then play with your friends, because with more people in the co-operative campaign, the more the difficulty increases, but it's really up to you. You also have some challenges that will either unlock Achievements or special XP rewards that are designed to be achievable with more than one person. I mean, one single guy could do it, but it could be really hardcore." Online co-op is completely flexible, allowing friends to join in and aid/hinder your campaign regardless of their own progress.
Simon insists that a host of new features will not only introduce a new audience to the genre, but tempt back many lapsed players who haven't bothered buying a game like this for years. We can buy that. The easy-to-use Enhanced Reality System (ERS) acts like a sky-based Sat Nav system, gently pointing you in the right direction without holding your hand too much. The new external camera system works far better than it logically ought to, while the use of real-world satellite data helps give the game that sense of place that few flight combat games have ever been able to pull off convincingly. Factor in the intrigue of a decent storyline, and the extra context given to it through weaving the narrative into several concurrent events in other Tom Clancy games, and it suddenly all starts looking an exciting and convincing prospect. And gutsy.
Tom Clancy's HAWX will be released on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in Q1 2009.