HAWX, the latest game to join the genre-spanning Tom Clancy series, is pitched as an accessible air combat title with a few twists. With a heavy emphasis on intense dogfighting and gravity-defying manoeuvres, and an intriguing story crossover with previous and forthcoming Tom Clancy titles, Ubisoft Bucharest's latest addition to the ever-expanding range has a bit of promise, so when we were invited over to Ubisoft's Paris HQ to talk to lead designer Thomas Simon and check out the latest build, we flew at the chance. Well, made our way through the Chunnel.
Read on for our in-depth interview, and check back for our first hands-on with both the single and multiplayer facets of the game.
Eurogamer: What does HAWX stand for exactly?
Thomas Simon: HAWX stands for High Altitude Warfare - X means prototype. It's a unit of very very skilled pilots who are basically trained by the US Air Force, a special force, to fly any type of aircraft. Not only US planes but planes from Russia, France, UK, etc. They are used to flying anything that has a jet engine. And they use them for special ops. The player is a former HAWX pilot that joined a private military company that is creating an Air Force branch - but he stays closely joined to the US and in a certain part of the campaign he will rejoin the HAWX unit, which will be reactivated to help the US defend itself against the private military company that launches a massive attack on the US territory.
Eurogamer: Where is HAWX set?
Thomas Simon: In the first mission, you actually replay a GRAW 2 air-strike mission in Mexico, but from the air - but it's like a flashback. When the game starts for real, you're in 2014, just after the end of GRAW 2 actually, and you've joined the private military company in a mission in Africa. Afghanistan, Middle-East are the first part. Then tension will arise in South America - we showed a map at UbiDays of Rio De Janeiro - so we have several missions there.
Then, when the conflict and the tension explodes in the US, the mission will take place over US soil. In one of the campaign missions, you have to protect a Space Shuttle in Cape Canaveral to help the US launch a new anti-missile satellite to restore the SLAM network, which is actually part of the EndWar storyline, so we have some crossover with GRAW and with EndWar like that.
On the US soil we also have three major cities that I won't disclose now, but are quite iconic locations, and other places that are all based on real locations with real satellite data. It's not like any location, it's the exact place as seen from the air.
Eurogamer: Does HAWX incorporate prototype military technology like the other games in the Tom Clancy universe?
Thomas Simon: In terms of technology, it means taking technology that's already believable and take it one generation further. It's the mature version of what's just a prototype now. So what you've seen for 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. Yes, it has all the ingredients for a Clancy title.
Eurogamer: When you're playing the single-player campaign, do you always control one specific plane, or do you flick between squadrons?
Thomas Simon: You control yourself. You are David Crenshaw, the pilot from GRAW 2. First you're flying with your wingmen, and you have the possibility to give orders to them. You haven't seen it today because we didn't want to show it - it was not necessary for the demo. You have your team-mate to cover your six, attack a specific target, and attack random targets, so it's really part of the system...
Eurogamer: Quite typical of the usual Tom Clancy game approach, then.
Thomas Simon: Yes, we wanted to link with GRAW, definitely. Obviously we are replaying the mission in Mexico, and you meet the Ghosts again later in the game. In EndWar we are really announcing some elements of the storyline in the game - and actually more than that, but we can't say everything now. But, yes, it's being part of the Clancy family, it's like the second generation of titles. Some titles like Splinter Cell have really impressed so much, and they really helped create a whole universe. And now we are able to - with other people from Ubisoft that are working on Clancy titles - start playing a bit with the universe itself, creating crossovers, and it's getting quite exciting.
Eurogamer: Can we expect crossovers with the Rainbow Six or Splinter Cell games as well?
Thomas Simon: Er, Rainbow, yes, something like that. You'll see! There's a massive attack on the US, so many US forces, secret or not, should be involved in the conflict.
Eurogamer: Is the crossover blatant or is it more subtle?
Thomas Simon: Some elements are really clear and obvious. Close air support for GRAW in Mexico or in other places in the game - this is really a gameplay feature. Some elements are referenced to the storyline, so it's part of the general flavour of the game. It's not only one type of element, we try to use as much as we can.
Eurogamer: Tell us about the multiplayer side of the game.
Thomas Simon: Team Deathmatch will be available for a total of eight players, two teams of four. This is the best mix, in terms of experience, otherwise it's too crowded. You haven't seen all of the features, for example the support kicks in when you accumulate enough points. It takes time to discover every element. It's not just killing planes - you have a bit of strategy in how you use the support and what kind of weapon you can choose.
You have some special weapons that you choose not just to attack, but to defend your team-mate. You have a system of requests; you can request that someone attack your target with you, and if you accept, it will work automatically so that you attack one target together, so you can optimize it around there. Basically you just push the d-pad up to ask your teammate to 'attack my target', and if they confirm, they will do it. Down means 'attack the target which is attacking me', and if you accept they will select it. It's just a shortcut. You can of course use voice, but this is like a shortcut.
Eurogamer: Does the voice recognition work in HAWX in a similar fashion to other Clancy titles?
Thomas Simon: Yes - you'll be able to switch targets and weapons, shoot, go on/off, call for cover.
Eurogamer: Any plans for co-op online?
Thomas Simon: Yes, there will be a co-operative campaign, encompassing all 18 missions. You'll be able to play it from the beginning to the end, or drop in at any moment, because it's simple to join in with friends. You'll be able to go off and play a mission with a friend and then continue by yourself. It really is totally flexible. You don't have to start with your friend - you could even start the game at the very last mission by joining a friend's game. It's up to you.
All the experience points you will gain during campaign solo, campaign co-operative, team deathmatch will be feeding the same pool of XP, and this will unlock planes and weapons, etc. You can really play the game in the order that you want.
Eurogamer: Is the XP system similar in essence to Rainbow Six Vegas 2?
Thomas Simon: Yes, 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. Obviously the best learning curve experience would be to start playing the campaign by yourself and then play with friends, because with more people in the co-op 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.
Eurogamer: What do you get for ranking up?
Thomas Simon: Better planes, which will be very interesting for multiplayer or to play the campaign in a different way. You also get different types of weapons, different skins for your planes, Achievements, etc. You unlock everything in the game through the XP system.
Eurogamer: Commercially, as a genre, flight combat games haven't done spectacular business for quite a long time now. It's almost five years since Secret Weapons Over Normandy - a real favourite of mine - and Crimson Skies. Despite rave reviews neither sold well, and neither had sequels. We've also had loads of Ace Combat games since, and the two Blazing Angels titles, but nothing that exactly set the charts on fire. How does HAWX break through this genre apathy?
Thomas Simon: The problem with the genre is that is started to be a prisoner of this very specific frame. It was mastered and working very well, but a bit limited for people who were not a big fan of air combat games or planes. And what we're trying to do here is respect what was done before, because these games were really great and brought a lot to the table. We want to open the frame, bring new features, refresh the genre and open it up to more people.
I think that with the satellite data of the real world, iconic locations and a strong storyline based on the world you know. It's not some theoretical places. It's the US, it's Rio de Janeiro. It means more to people. We also have new gameplay features, like the assistance on or off, with the external camera which completely changes the perception of the way the planes manoeuvre.
Eurogamer: That is an interesting feature - how did the external camera view come to fruition and why did it get implemented in the first place?
Thomas Simon: It's an iterative process. I mean, for me, this feature is what makes HAWX a totally new experience. We have a lot of features which are of very high quality that create the whole package, but this feature in terms of pure gameplay joy is totally new. When you look at videos of aircraft on YouTube, and you see them doing great manouevres, or you see Top Gun or STEALTH or whatever, it's great. But when you play the game you find yourself with a camera stuck behind a plane and when you move, the world moves with you. You lose all your orientation - it's not the same.
Here, you play as if you were in a replay, but you're totally in control. You see exactly what your enemy is doing, you see what your plane's doing. It's incredibly gratifying, I think.
Eurogamer: And yet, the external camera viewpoint is instantly intuitive, I found. You don't feel like you should be in control, but somehow you are.
Thomas Simon: Yes, you are. We worked quite a lot on that. Obviously it was the most difficult feature that we developed and also the most iterative. It started by us wanting a way to dodge a missile with a special camera, and we realised that, hmm, we would like to do more stuff with that camera. 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, and this changes everything, because it's not just a plane game, it's also pure gameplay joy.
If you add the Enhanced Reality System and trajectory system - which are really new also - I think all these kind of features change the experience, and open the game to people who are not especially into the air combat genre. It also brings people in who are just into big juicy games!
Of course if you love planes, there are over 50 models with very high realism, a cockpit for each of them, etc. But if you just like pure action, like a shooter-in-the-sky game, you have the same kind of pleasure you have when you are playing deathmatch in an FPS.
Eurogamer: How do you maintain awareness of two people attacking you at the same time?
Thomas Simon: Well, when I find myself in that situation, what I do is, first, I try to take them into a spin. I don't just move, but I don't attack immediately - I take them into a momentum and I wait for one to shoot, because it means he's going to have reload time, and I'm going to have something to do. I try to take them into a loop that is tighter and tighter, considering that I will master my speed better than them. The time it will take for them to make a drift and stabilise will be longer than mine. So while they are still manoeuvring to get a shooting opportunity on me, I'll be locking and shooting and dodging. So when they will be shooting, they will already have two missiles coming to them while I'll be moving and dodging - and they will be still.
If you have two guys on you, what you have to do is wait for a good moment to do it when one has shot, so they're out of the picture for a moment. If the two enemies are on the same [skill] level as you, you have almost no chance, but that's like that in any game. But you can be really smart. It really is very organic. You have to practice.
Eurogamer: You also haven't gone for those endless boring Air Combat-style tutorials. Was that deliberate?
Thomas Simon: 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 manouevring, and feeling in control. As you will have seen with Team Deathmatch, you have a huge possibility to improve yourself - 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.
Dodging missiles depends on two things: distance between you and the missile. The closer you are, the sharper you have to turn to dodge it, but it also gives the missile no time to manouvre if you avoid it. So, basically the longer you wait, the more dangerous it gets, but if you have good reflexes you can dodge it better, so you have to choose optimal timing.
The second element is who is attacking you at the same time, because stopping in midair to dodge a missile is good, but, if you have another guy who is locking on at the same time, when you do that you're a sitting duck. You're going to get two more missiles coming at you while you are still.
Eurogamer: I guess everyone asks this at some point, but what input does Tom Clancy himself (or his minions) have into the games these days, if any?
Thomas Simon: Well, the situation has changed quite a bit since Ubisoft acquired the license. The games bearing his name obviously started a long time ago. [Originally] Tom Clancy was involved - all the scripts were reviewed on his side and he approved the storyline.
Eurogamer: Do you think Tom Clancy ever bothers to play them himself?
Thomas Simon: I'd be happy to show him [HAWX] and demo it for him, definitely. I mean, planes and Clancy are a natural mix. In 'Clear And Present Danger', [there's a] special operation where planes go and bomb a car to kill drug lords, for example.
Obviously, planes are the most powerful, most technological weapon available on the battlefield, so it's really a natural 'toy' for the Clancy universe, I think.
Tom Clancy's HAWX will be released on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in Q1 2009.