Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. wants to stand up among the elite flight sim titles on the market, and it wants to be the next Ace Combat. Trying to take cues from games like Crimson Skies, H.A.W.X. ditches realism in favor of trying to be an intense arcade dogfighting title, and it occasionally manages to succeed at doing exactly that. However, too often the game feels like you're just going through the motions, leaving me to sit at my desk and wonder where the fun is and how to find it.
H.A.W.X. might be a new series, but it is not new ground for developers Ubisoft Romania, who have already tried their hand at the dogfighting arena twice in the last few years with the forgettable Blazing Angels series. H.A.W.X. is set in the near future, which is a fantastic move on the developer's part, as they're no longer limited by historical accuracy. With the future as your playground, you're welcome to toy with all kinds of neat things to lure in players, and the game does a couple of things quite nicely in that regard.
The biggest thing that H.A.W.X. brings to the table is the EMS, which is a gadget that essentially programs a route for you to follow that will line up a perfect shot, assuming you can follow the route. At certain points during gameplay, you'll be told to press the EMS button, and the head's-up display will suddenly display a line of gates for you to follow, which serves one of two purposes. One leads you to safety if you need to dodge incoming fire, and the other will take you directly behind the enemy. This system works really well — so well, in fact, that it takes a lot of the skill out of dogfighting and turns it into a guided mini-game of following gates. There was only one time when I followed the gates and was not given a perfect shot (the game had told me to crash into the ground). Either the game has terrible enemy AI, or the system is so good that it adjusts for random flight paths by enemy planes. The challenge is largely removed due to the handholding by the EMS system, and although the kill is still satisfying to watch, you don't get the feeling that you earned it.
Thankfully, H.A.W.X. manages to make a very good use of its future setting by having a halfway decent plot. Putting the Tom Clancy name to good use, H.A.W.X. actually manages to tie in with both the Ghost Recon franchise and EndWar. The plot involves private military companies but hits interesting territory when the PMC you work for decides that attacking the U.S. mainland is a good idea. Being the patriotic fellow you are, you steal the plane you're flying, re-enlist in the army mid-flight and defend the skies from your former employers.
This is probably the neatest part of the game, as it never really gets old to fly over Washington D.C., and blow up anything that moves. During these scenes, the game becomes genuinely fun for a while. With the arcade-style action and ridiculous war setting, it feels like you're playing your way through a summer action movie.
It's unfortunate that H.A.W.X. can't keep up these thrilling settings during the entire game, as the gameplay doesn't hold up well enough in most of the scenarios. Of the game's 19 missions, the first five serve as slow tutorial missions where the combat difficulty is even lower than usual and just gets the player accustomed to the game's mechanics. Spanning locations such as a "random Afghani mountain pass," or the always-popular "protect the Middle Eastern oil field," H.A.W.X. just doesn't work when there isn't any interesting terrain around. It's not until the sixth mission of the game, a defense of Rio de Janeiro, that there's any intense fighting.
A lot of this can probably be blamed on the flying and the combat not being a lot of fun. The biggest problem with the flying is that there is absolutely no sense of speed. A sonic boom will let me know when I've broke the sound barrier, but that's about it. My plane gives off vapor trails and the ground slowly passes by, but I sure don't feel like I'm flying at over a thousand miles per hour. The fighting isn't very exciting, either. Use the EMS to get behind a plane, wait for the lock and fire a couple of times; even the description of the process isn't very exciting, and by the time you get to your 100th plane, you're absolutely sick and tired of it.
H.A.W.X. tries to challenge the player every now and then by imposing special requirements on certain missions to make things more difficult. Sometimes, it makes things interesting, but more often than not, they end up getting in the way and remove the novelty of the new ground rules. One good case has the player weaving between radar fields that would alert the enemy to the fact that you're charging them. It's the stealth mission seen in almost every action game, but weaving between all of the radar fields manages to remain fun. A bad example includes a mission where your ability to use missiles is removed in the middle of a dogfight, and in another assignment, if you fly above a certain height, you'll be detected and the mission will end.
You're rewarded for performing well on these missions, though. There's an extremely light RPG element in that as you kill things and complete mission, you're awarded experience toward the next level. With each level comes new unlocks, whether it's new multiplayer maps, planes or weapon loadouts. While each plane is supposedly fit for certain situations, each plane ends up handling almost identically, so the only worthwhile unlocks are the new weapon loadouts. Unfortunately, customizing weapons is extremely limited, and you're usually fine with whatever the game recommends for that mission.
The planes are still one of H.A.W.X.'s highlights, though. Each flyable plane is beautifully detailed and modeled to look absolutely amazing on-screen. Unfortunately, everything around the planes could stand to look a lot better. Environments look fine as long as you're at least 1,500 feet in the air, but once you get lower, the textures turn to mush and lose any believability. Several of the maps even look like somebody took some satellite photos and pasted them onto the environment. It's a bit disorienting when you're staring at a gorgeous plane and suddenly zoom by a 2-D tree.
The sound fares better in that it flies under the radar. There's nothing exceptional about it, but there's nothing noticeably wrong with it, either. Everything sounds like you'd expect it to, the soundtrack is completely forgettable, and the voice work largely serves its purpose without sounding out of place. Military games are always easier to do voice work for, but in several of the mission briefings, your commanders sound like each sentence of the dialogue was recorded separately. The slight changes in tone and emotion between each sentence can have players scratching their heads.
H.A.W.X. includes several multiplayer components if you can find another person to play with, but on the PC, the player count is extremely low. Every time I checked it out, there weren't more than seven people playing the game online. If you can find somebody to play with, though, the entire campaign can be played cooperatively, which is great since the allied AI in most missions isn't the greatest (they can get the job done … very slowly). The competitive multiplayer isn't remotely exciting and ends up feeling like a throwaway component.
When all is said and done, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is a salient effort to leave behind the misfires of the Blazing Angels series, but it feels like a bit of a misfire. The combat isn't very exciting, and the absence of any sense of speed removes the fun factor of flying your jet around. The lack of an online community has rendered the multiplayer useless, and while there are occasional moments of brilliance in the single-player campaign, it's not nearly enough to warrant a purchase. While there's fun to be had here, most people will want to look elsewhere to get their dogfight on.Score: 6.5/10
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