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.
On Xbox 360 (the version reviewed), overall impressions of the graphics remain highly favourable throughout, especially in light of Ubisoft's attempts to run the game at a full-on 60fps with anti-aliasing set to the max. There's sporadic jerkiness (especially evident with the thankfully-not-used-much cockpit view) but the overall impression is that it looks smooth and the control response is crisp and effective.
You can expect a comparison with the PS3 version in the next Eurogamer Face-Off. But based on what we've played of the demo (check out the tech analysis over on the Digital Foundry blog), initial impressions are that it's another decent conversion from Ubisoft: better than 360 in some places, worse in others.
Online options include a drop-in, drop-out co-op mode that sees the single-player campaign mission segue into quad-gamer mayhem - something I enjoyed it a great deal. There's a real sense that you and your wingmen are up against impossible odds. While a co-ordinated strategy reaps obvious dividends, going your own way Maverick-style remains a viable option; not a bad thing when so many online games see you teamed up with a bunch of non-communicative strangers.
While this doesn't make for an experience with a massive amount of depth, there's a real sense you're taking part in a larger-scale conflict. Supplementing this is the 16-player Deathmatch mode: fun as far as it goes (especially with the mode-specific support weaponry) but an option with limited longevity.
The good thing about the online options as they stand is that any kill in any mode counts towards your XP total. As in Call of Duty 4, the more points you have, the more prizes you have access to: in this case, bonus planes to fly and more weapon payload configurations. There are 40 levels to attain, and a run-through of the single-player game in normal mode got me up to level 20.
Although online is very entertaining, you can't help but feel that it could've offered so much more. The player vs. player options are limited (although at least one more gameplay variation is coming via DLC along with bonus plane packs), and a full-on HAWX vs Artemis spin on the campaign mode is sorely missing.
The more you play HAWX - whether online, or in single-player - the more you get the sense that although it has the nucleus of something special, there is a huge amount of potential yet to be realised. First up is the vast array of planes and weapons selections on offer. All good, and satisfying to unlock, but the default plane and payload options are always more than enough to take down the threat of each campaign.
There's no sense of there being much of a tangible advantage in gaining all this extra stuff. This is a shame because it's the key to the game's longevity - the single-player campaign is over quickly (around 8-10 hours in normal mode) and it should be the lure of further unlockables that brings you back.
The planes themselves are also much of a muchness, exhibiting little in the way of unique features. I'd expect the F-117 stealth fighter to handle like a dog, but it doesn't. I'd also expect it to be somewhat immune to radar, but it isn't. Any and all of the stealth fighters in the game seem to act very similarly to the more standard aircraft. Bearing in mind the decades of technological advances in the various aircraft HAWX offers, this is a surprise and a disappointment. The Clancy franchise should be synonymous with tactical depth and intelligent gaming, but here the gameplay feels homogenised and dumbed down.
Take HAWX for what it is, not what you want it to be or what it could have been, and you have a game that's certainly enjoyable to play, especially online. Ace Combat fans will love it, so it's a good job this title is compatible with the Namco game's bespoke flight sticks.
But in essence, HAWX is a victim of the high standards set by the other titles in the Clancy franchise. Games such as EndWar and Ghost Recon manage to strike a balance between being fun to play, while offering real challenge and depth of gameplay. This game doesn't, and as a result it's hard to recommend it as a must-buy.
6 / 10