"Get better at dogfighting," is the obvious retort, but the game skews its missions too far in the later stages, leaving little room for all but the most brilliant pilots to succeed. While enemies are much smarter, the same can't be said for your allied wingmen.
Late in the game you finally get the ability to designate targets for them - an essential feature, given the sheer number of enemies you face and the need to split your attention between clearing the skies and defending troops on the ground. Yet they never seem to get the job done. As wave after wave of tanks and other ground forces converge on a vital allied airbase, you're ping-ponging from one threat to another while your flight team seemingly piffle about elsewhere, dogfighting with the same handful of fighters.
Since each checkpoint puts you back in the same position, with the same catastrophic damage and overwhelming odds, progress can feel like a grind, where quitting out and starting the whole multi-tiered mission from the start is the only option.
Handling, at least, is crisp and responsive, and you don't have to worry about stalling even on the highest difficulty. The only way sim fans can get that level of realism is to activate the OFF Mode, retained from the first game. This makes flying a more challenging part of the experience, but still restricts you to a fiddly external "dynamic" camera right when you really want to be in the cockpit. Those hoping H.A.W.X. might become a more serious flight game are bound for disappointment.
The game also looks stunning thanks to the use of high-definition maps provided by GeoEye satellites. It's a good thing there's a Free Flight option, since it's worth taking a plane for a spin just so you can appreciate the near-photoreal scenery. Admittedly, the illusion doesn't hold up quite as well once you dip below 500 metres, but combined with impressively detailed plane models and Tom Salta's evocative score, the result is impressively cinematic.
It's in the supplementary options that H.A.W.X. 2 shows its eagerness to please. Missions can be replayed with your own choice of plane and weapon loadout, while success unlocks variations in Arcade Mode, where variables such as ammo and enemy skill are tweaked to give the hardcore more of a challenge. There's also a self explanatory Survival Mode, which is playable in online co-op mode along with all the story missions.
It's here that game really takes flight, as the inclusion of fellow flesh-and-blood pilots smoothes out the frustrations of the aloof allied AI, and even allows for more wriggle room in what role you play. In single-player it's all painfully prescriptive - you go where you're told and engage targets based on what the disembodied voice says. Try anything different, attempt a different approach, and failure is never far away.
That's how the military works, of course, but for gameplay purposes it can get a bit repetitive. Flying alongside three other players, you can devise strategies of your own, divvy up the targets in more interesting ways, and generally feel more like you're engaged in a dynamic battle even though you're still plugging away at the same scripted waves.
Is it enough to make H.A.W.X. 2 essential? Sadly not. It's really only the one-on-one thrill of a dogfight that makes the pulse race and those moments are sandwiched between fun-but-slight shooting gallery sections and solo mission design that quickly leads to frustration. It's a game that works best as a straightforward arcade air combat game, but seems determined to exceed the framework of its genre, often to the detriment of its best features.
There are certainly enough improvements to make this a worthwhile flight for anyone who enjoyed the original game, but there's still plenty of potential left untapped. For all its sheen, H.A.W.X. remains a curious sideshow in Tom Clancy's murky world rather than a star player.
Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2 is released on the 10th September for PS3, 30th September for Wii and Xbox 360, before finally being available 1st October for PC.
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