Did I Catch a Niner in There?
When thinking of next-gen air combat titles, the Ace Combat series inevitably comes to mind. As such, Ubisoft decided to put the power of the Tom Clancy brand behind their latest aerial effort. One of the stiffest challenges the development crew at Ubisoft Romania had to face was walking the fine line between simulation and arcade air combat – something Ace Combat titles have done magnificently. I’m happy to report that H.A.W.X. does an excellent job of making their title seem incredibly real without getting bogged down in technical minutia. Also, the unique ERS and OFF control systems and broad multiplayer offering make Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. a contender if not the outright champ of the air combat genre.
Set over the course of the next couple of decades, much of the world’s military might is in the hands of private military corporations (PMCs), these guns for hire are neutral entities that win defense contracts through skill and performance. Taking on the role of retired USAF ace David A. Crenshaw, players will lead a squadron of hotshot fighter jocks on mission after mission, defending the world from rogue threats and collecting huge paychecks in the process. Of course, what would be a Clancy game without a major twist – the game has a doozy which will test your flying skill from the Persian Gulf and mountains of central Asia to cities in the Far East, South America, and the U.S. of A.
H.A.W.X. was touted early on as ramping up the realism by including extensive satellite imagery of real-world locations. Taking advantage of technology from NASA as well as the U.S. Geological Survey, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. does make for breathtaking vistas while dogfighting at supersonic speeds. Whether flying at high altitude or coming in for tight bombing runs, the open landscapes and urban backdrops really do look solid and help to cement the game in reality. As such, the graphics do a great job of propelling the narrative and making the story feel important and plausible – something with which Ace Combat still struggles. In addition to the sharp look of the varied, globe-spanning environments, H.A.W.X. also has a very user-friendly HUD, Radar, and tactical mapping system that give players the information they need to successfully down their foes. What’s more, graphics remain stable despite a lot of onscreen action. My only visual complaint would have to be directed at the somewhat lackluster explosions.
Combat missions in H.A.W.X. are varied. Players will take on air-to-air targets, go on bombing runs, perform escort missions, protect cities from full-scale assaults, even participate in a covert assassination mission. All of these assignments do a good job of testing different skills, and they become progressively more challenging as the game goes on. Thankfully, players won’t have to go it alone during the campaign. Should you so choose, you can hop online with up to three other friends and take on these objectives together. Best of all, co-op is jump in jump out, so it’s easy to find willing wingmen to take on a mission with you. Sometimes it can be difficult to get missions accomplished, though, simply because everyone wants to be the hero. But, the increased numbers of targets ensures everyone will get their fair share of hot-dogging should they work together. If you can find a few restrained players and strategy and covering tactics are employed, the enemy doesn’t have a chance. This is quite satisfying, making this co-op functionality what sets H.A.W.X. apart.
H.A.W.X. standard flight controls are similar to those found in Ace Combat. Players will accelerate and air-brake via the triggers, steer with the left analog stick, and control yaw via the shoulder buttons. The right analog stick allows players to glance around all sides of the aircraft, the D-pad switches weapons and delivers tactical advice to your wingmen, and the face buttons switch targets, fire your cannon, and loose missile and bomb payloads. The only truly unique mechanic is activated via the X or Square buttons – depending on whether you’re playing on the Xbox 360 or PS3. This is known as the Enhanced Reality System (ERS). What it does is map a virtual flight path on the HUD made up of triangular gates. If followed, these gates will help pilots vector appropriately to a specific target, or to evade incoming missiles. ERS even lets you know the approximate ETA to target. It’s a pretty nifty way to get used to the plane in standard control mode, but it becomes much less useful as you progress through the game. In fact, advanced players will almost never use it except for steep bombing runs and for evading incoming.
Outside of ERS, H.A.W.X. also distinguishes itself through its advanced flight controls embodied by the OFF mode. As players advance through the campaign to the year 2020, they will be able to manually override the flight computer and put the aircraft into potentially fatal maneuvers. Mastering manual control becomes imperative as you advance, as enemy pilots no longer pull punches. Pulling off physics-defying, hairpin turns and sliding into a better vector toward your targets will be the only way to succeed. OFF can be initiated or deactivated at anytime by simply double-tapping one of the trigger buttons. Bopping back and forth between the two modes is crucial. On the downside, OFF forces players to control their aircraft from a third-person perspective rather than the more comfortable first-person viewpoint – this makes controlling your aircraft nearly impossible in the beginning. In fact, switching between the two modes requires a good deal of concentration, leading to a fairly steep learning curve. On the other hand, once mastered, pulling Top-Gun air-braking techniques becomes addictively sweet! Still, I can see some gamers getting fed up with frustration, especially on higher difficulty settings.
If the interesting story isn’t enough to keep you playing, then the leveling mechanic and unlockable planes and weapons load-outs might do the trick. I found post-mission ranking up of my pilot to be compelling, and getting in-mission XP bonuses for accomplishing certain feats to be very satisfying, indeed. What’s more, rising in rank will not only help you in the single-player campaign, but it will improve your selection of fighter jets and armament whilst duking it out in the 8-person multiplayer competitive mode. Going head to head against other humans while piloting a jet is a neat spin on the standard competitive gameplay found in first-person shooters.
While sound effects in H.A.W.X. are what you would expect from an air combat title, the voice over work is painfully repetitive, especially when going over an objective multiple times because of previously failed attempts. This is to be expected, after all, if I passed the objective the first time, I wouldn’t be hearing the same mission details over again. However, where it becomes painful is in the monotony of your wingmen’s chatter and XO’s comments. Yes – we get paid a lot better than we did in the USAF… I know – the fast-movers are my priority target. It goes on and on throughout the game and will force you to shut off the chatter. Thankfully, the devs foresaw this being a problem and went so far as to allow you to mute the noise at your leisure in-game without having to hop out to a main menu. Needless to say, sounds can’t compare to the shiny, polished visuals.
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. is a very fun game – one I would suggest to any air combat buff. However, enemy A.I. feels a little stupid even on the highest settings of difficulty, which really only limits the amount of armament your jet can carry and makes damage-taken more realistic. Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. isn’t the perfect jet fighter game we were hoping for, but it is a great start. Look for the H.A.W.X. series to mature and improve over the years, ultimately challenging the dominance of Ace Combat.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.4 Graphics
The visuals are really helped by the inclusion of satellite imagery, which in turn fuels the plausibility of the story. 4.3 Control
The controls are logical, tight, and very user-friendly until you switch into OFF mode. Novice gaming pilots will suffer greatly with these advanced controls. 2.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
There is no music to speak of and the sound effects are standard fare, but the repetitive, rather canned voice over work is borderline abysmal. 4.1 Play Value
Missions are incredibly narrow, leaving almost no room for improvisation. But, the flying and fighting in the jets is good fun, especially when done with or against other players. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.