In the past few years, combinations in satellite mapping data and increases in computer processing power have given end users an unprecedented amount of access to images of every corner of the world. Whether it's a basic overhead view from Google Maps or full 3-D renderings with Google Earth and Virtual Earth 3D, anyone with a computer can easily scan the globe. Now imagine that kind of detail and clarity in a flight sim, and you have an idea of why Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is so darn impressive.
Announced last month, H.A.W.X. is the latest title in the ever-expanding Tom Clancy franchise, but it's the first flight sim to fall under the umbrella of his name. Set four years into the future, the game imagines a world where national armies have been heavily supplemented by private military companies — think Blackwater taken to the extreme. As the various PMCs start gaining more and more influence, the stage is set for a showdown.
Though the final game promises to contain a number of famous locations, our brief hands-on focused on the skies over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. To say it looked good is a bit of an understatement. Yes, it's a game. Yes, there are people shooting at you. Yes, there are objectives to complete. But none of that mattered the moment we got the controller in-hand for the first time. Instead it was a simple matter of, "Wow." H.A.W.X. certainly knows how to make a first impression.
Flying high over Rio, we immediately started to notice that the city below wasn't just a mishmash of generic textures with a few well-known landmarks thrown in for good measure. No, we were actually flying over a photorealistic version of Rio based on licensed satellite data. If it exists, it's there, and that sort of realism is a boon to the genre. Much to the dismay of the producer attempting to demo the game, we quickly abandoned the mission and started exploring. Of course, you can't see much in the way of detail from 30,000 feet, so the first order of business was a quick drop down to the deck.
Diving at a sharp angle, we kept waiting for the Rio cityscape to start blurring and pixelating, but it didn't. As you move closer to an object, it becomes larger, but there's no appreciable loss of detail. This is just as true for standard city blocks as it is for landmarks such as Maracanã Stadium and the towering Christ the Redeemer statue at the peak of Corcovado Mountain. There are some minor flaws to the presentation, such as a lack of traffic on the city streets, but when most of the game is played high in the skies, it's certainly a forgivable omission. Once we finished buzzing downtown Rio, it was time to see how well the nimble F-22 held up in combat.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome with any sort of flight sim is learning how to navigate in the air. If you've been playing for years, it's second nature, but for newbies to the genre, a full-on simulation can be devastatingly frustrating, while a straight-up arcade mode is going to disappoint those gamers looking to drop the training wheels. With its Enhanced Reality System (ERS) and switchable assistance mode, H.A.W.X. should be able to nail both targets in one shot.
By default, you're dropped into the cockpit with assistance mode enabled. This acts something like an invisible co-pilot. It's not going to tell you where to go or what to do, but it does prevent a number of common mistakes, such as stalling out. For the beginner, assistance mode lets you feel like Maverick, even if your piloting skills are a bit lacking.
What if you want to try your hand at some advanced, but risky, maneuvering? A quick double-tap of the throttle disables the assistance and puts you in full control with a wider camera view. Because there are no artificial limitations on your commands, players are free to get crazy with the stick. However, there is a caveat: With no assistance you are literally flying without a net. One mistake is all it takes to go from Top Gun to smoking crater of ash.
Unlike the assistance mode, enabling the ERS doesn't affect your handling, but it can be tremendously helpful. The best way to describe the ERS is that it acts much like a dotted targeting line in a pool game, except here, the line isn't showing you where you're going, but where you need to be. If you're in the middle of a dogfight, the system calculates the best route to get a bead on your enemy and illustrates this by way of floating yellow gates. Fly through the gates, get behind your target, and blow him out of the sky.
It's also incredibly useful when attempting to target small ground emplacements, such as tanks, that are hidden in city streets. Rather than trying to strafe low and fly between the buildings, you can simply use the ERS to guide you up into the sky before flipping and diving straight down toward your target like an eagle screaming in for the kill.
The ERS can also be employed in a defensive manner. Using it while under an enemy's missile lock shows you the optimum path needed to outmaneuver the oncoming threat. It works in exactly the same manner, though the gates are red instead of yellow, as if to highlight the urgency of the threat. Don't let all these fancy tools lull you into a false sense of security — the enemy AI is out to win.
When the Rio mission started, ground, air and water forces all started moving in for the kill. While the mission goals focused on ground targets, eliminating the enemy MIG fighters was an important survival skill. The computer makes no bones about its attempts to outfly and outgun you, so good threat management is key. No target is unbeatable, but they can be quite challenging. What to do if things get too rough? Call in a friend. H.A.W.X. is going to offer on-the-fly co-op gaming, allowing players to jump in and out of matches at any time. Competitive multiplayer will also be an option.
With more than 50 different planes to choose from and locations scattered around the globe, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. appears to be doing just about everything right. It looks amazing, controls well, and seems to cater to both casual and hardcore players. Ace Combat had best watch its six because H.A.W.X. isn't just aiming for the top. It's already well on its way there.
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