When it comes to console flight action, Namco's Ace Combat series has been the de facto king of the hill for years. Not content to let Namco rest on its laurels, however, Ubisoft decided to take the Tom Clancy license in a new direction with H.A.W.X. First announced early last year, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is an arcade take on the classic flight sim model.
High on the priority list for the H.A.W.X. developers was accessibility. They knew that fight sims can sometimes alienate mainstream gamers simply because the genre tends to rely so heavily on the "sim" part of flight sim. If you're a hardcore fan, that's awesome, but the average player just wants to get into the action. This is one of the reasons why MechWarrior sold more copies than Steel Battalion.
In keeping with this concept, H.A.W.X. defaults with the game's assist mode on. Assist mode is a basic sanity check designed to prevent novice pilots from making simple errors, like slowing down too much and stalling out. The assist mode won't prevent you from major screw-ups, like flying into the side of a mountain, but it does remove a good deal of complexity from the mechanics of flight. Think of it as an invisible autopilot.
Because some of the more advanced maneuvers cannot be performed with assist mode enabled, H.A.W.X. offers an option to disable the assist. A quick double-click of either trigger zooms out the camera to a three-quarters view and removes the safeties from your aircraft. With assist off, you can execute extreme turns, stalls and all manner of aircraft acrobatics. It is by no means a full sim; after all, one of the highlighted maneuvers in the tutorial mode is a drift turn that looks exactly like it's been lifted from "The Fast and the Furious," but if you don't mind a bit of arcade flavor, this is where H.A.W.X. has the most potential to shine.
Strangely enough, there is no way to disable assist mode and keep the camera view in the cockpit. While it is nifty seeing your jet whip around in a dogfight from a three-quarters view, everything feels more intense when you're up close and personal in the cockpit. Enter cockpit view, though, and the assist mode automatically enables, preventing you from pulling off anything incredibly cool from the first-person perspective.
Targeting an enemy is a basic affair. Just point your craft in the general direction of the target and tap the targeting button. Once a target is locked in, your computer will track its location no matter how many twists and turns you make. When in the cockpit view, you have the option of enabling ERS (Enhanced Reality System) to display a series of virtual gates on-screen (think Pilotwings). Flying your craft through these gates lines you up with a perfect shot to your target. The ERS system can also be used to outmaneuver inbound missiles. Oddly, there was no option in the preview build to cycle through targets. In order to lock on, you have to first have it in your sights. It doesn't matter if you can see it on your radar; if it's not in front of you, no dice. Hopefully, this is something that gets changed for the retail release.
Missions within H.A.W.X. can be played in solo or co-op campaign mode, with mission types varying between offensive and defensive ground and air assaults as well as running escort to defend a VIP target. Longtime fans of the Tom Clancy games will notice a familiar location setting the stage for the game's first battle. It's not a blatant tie-in, but it is enough to firmly plant H.A.W.X. within the existing Tom Clancy universe rather than as a one-off title, as you'll be reliving the fourth mission from GRAW 2. All of the missions feature jump-in/jump-out co-op.
We hopped into our first co-op mission as we were escorting Air Force One across the western part of the country and had to defend it against incoming hostiles. With four plans under our control, firepower wasn't an issue, but communication was something that we overlooked. In the chaos of battle, it was incredibly easy to let the attacking force draw out a single player and attack en masse. It also did a good job of keeping us busy with minor dogfighting while a second wave attacked the now-distant Air Force One. Oops. Ah well, at least there was a "restart" option.
In our second co-op run, we fared a bit better. This time out, our group had to escort an AWACS flight as it circled downtown Chicago looking for jamming facilities. While inside the plane's zone of influence, our computer systems worked perfectly, but if we strayed too far, all of the targeting gear was disrupted. Success here was another balancing act. We had to defend the plane from attackers as well as target and destroy the jamming facilities as soon as they came into range.
According to the developers, H.A.W.X. will feature roughly 60 different aircraft, which are based on real models. You'll see planes from the Cold War all the way through to current prototypes. Planes from France, Japan, Russia, Sweden, UK and the U.S. are all slated to make an appearance. In another Tom Clancy tie-in, the Razorback from End War is included in H.A.W.X. An implementation of the voice command system used in End War is also used, allowing you to give commands to your wingmen.
You start out with a limited number of aircraft, unlocking new models via an experience system. Every kill you make earns you experience, which can then be used to unlock new planes in the game. Experience is earned in every game mode, so it's quite possible to compete online in the competitive multiplayer mode, rack up a bunch of kills dogfighting and unlock every plane before you even touch the single-player mode. In addition to the unlockable planes included on the game disc, Ubisoft planes on releasing new planes via DLC.
Visually H.A.W.X. is a treat, using real maps and imagery for every location in the game. When you go soaring over downtown Chicago, not only is the skyline immediately recognizable, but landmarks are also visible. Flying down low with your plane reveals a city with the accuracy of Google Maps. Given that you'll spend most of the game at 20,000 feet, it's a dead city, but we'll forgive the lack of traffic here since it's otherwise gorgeous.
As a package, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is shaping up nicely, though there are still a few rough spots that need to be cleaned up. Even though the game has a strong bent toward arcade action, a few more control options would be appreciated. We would love to get the cockpit view with the control of no assistance mode. A more robust targeting system would also be a plus. Despite these speed bumps, H.A.W.X. should still present itself as a competitive alternative to Ace Combat 6.
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