Everyone has a guilty gaming secret and mine is this: I like Blazing Angels. Ace Combat might get the plaudits, but Ubisoft's World War II games captured the essence of close-quarters dogfighting - as opposed to locking on to a target kilometres away and dispatching it with a solitary button press.
With that in mind, I was looking forward to Tom Clancy's HAWX. Ubisoft Romania (responsible for Blazing Angels) is the studio behind the game, and the recent playable demo showed major technical leaps and bounds had been made. HAWX looks lovely, feels good and plays well online. The best of Ace Combat combined with the close-quarters gameplay of Blazing Angels? Yes please.
Adding to the allure is the guiding presence of master storyteller Tom Clancy - or rather those in control of his megabucks franchise. The game features a decent enough, if rather implausible plot, set between the events of Ghost Recon 2 and EndWar (both of which have a small influence on the HAWX storyline).
You play the part of David Crenshaw, ace US fighter pilot. Swayed by the six-figure salary offered by Artemis Global Security, you swiftly discover that life as Top Gun for hire isn't all it's cracked up to be. After defending Rio from invasion, it becomes apparent that Artemis has megalomaniacal aspirations that could bring down the US Government. Crenshaw and his wingmen dutifully switch sides, using their prodigious combat skills to foil Artemis and return balance to the (Air) Force.
In essence, HAWX offers a 19-level campaign, with flight sim trappings sufficiently tamed for the less technically adept console audience. Ace Combat with knobs on, if you will, as this gameplay video reveals.
There are two key innovations designed to set this game apart from Ace Combat, while at the same time making it more appealing to a wider audience. First up is the Enhanced Reality System (ERS). It's HAWX's equivalent to the death-defying magical prowess of Elika in Prince of Persia.
If you're having trouble locking onto a troublesome fighter, one press of the ERS button will make the computer plot a route guaranteed to get you behind your opponent. Fly through the gates Pilotwings-style and you're perfectly lined up for a zero-skill missile kill.
If rockets are heading for your plane's posterior, ERS will guide you to safety. Check out its magic in this montage of clips over on EGTV. You'll see that ERS is sometimes used by default to guide you towards hard to reach targets. This isn't so bad, but in terms of the basic gameplay, you can't help feeling it's more like a cheat button and should thus be avoided - unless you're really having issues getting by without it.
The second innovation is an evolution of HAWX's Blazing Angels dogfighting DNA. Double-tapping either trigger turns off the multitude of computer aids that stop you flying like an idiot and crashing the plane into the ground. With 'Assistance Off' in effect, a third-person exterior view kicks in and you're able to pull off steeper turns and more extreme throttle control. It gives you an edge against tougher opponents, but you're in danger of stalling at any given moment.
Blazing Angels' dogfighting used a similar approach but arguably did it better, by focusing the camera on your opponent and letting you guide your plane towards the target. HAWX doesn't do that, making you feel oddly detached from the plane you're flying. The lack of a target-centric viewpoint also makes it more difficult to get a lock-on. On the plus side, you do get some lovely views of the scenery, as you can see in this Assistance Off video we've prepared for you here.
Speaking of the visuals, there's no denying this is a beautiful-looking game... From a high-up perspective, anyway. Ubisoft Romania has taken base satellite imagery and extended it into the third dimension with varying levels of success. From a couple of thousand feet up, everything looks superb, but fly close to the ground and the flat satellite scans look very rough - particularly in the night-time Los Angeles level, where the static lighting really lets the side down.
Buildings are realised in 3D, but with varying degrees of success. For example, the Chicago cityscape looks like what it is - a series of flat ground textures with boxy skyscrapers overlaid on top. The likes of Tokyo and Rio are much more convincing: better-lit, expertly modelled, and a joy to behold. For the most part, the gameplay keeps you up on high, maintaining the illusion. But when you're skimming tree-tops to avoid SAMs, you can't help but notice the lower resolution visuals.