This article was originally published for GrE here.
This is a review for Ubisoft’s ‘Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.’, a flight combat game that was introduced in March 2009. Having done the preview article as well, the link in the review will point to the original location of the preview article, rather than a non-existent local copy.
Release: Mar 3 2009 (US), Mar 6 2009 (UK)
Developer: Ubisoft Bucharest
Genre: Flight Combat
A while back, I did an impression of the demo of HAWX, a flight game that is sizing up no competition whatsoever, other than the 2007 game Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. This can be found here. I want you to disregard all those notions in that article, because this is the finished product.
Setting itself in the near-future, and in the same universe as Ghost Recon Advance Warfighter and EndWar, HAWX has you take on the role of David Crenshaw, the leader of Hawx Flight, a trio of pilots that are about to be disbanded through the various cost-cutting measures of the US military. Artemis Global Security, a PMC (Private Military Company), employs them and sends them on various missions. I won’t divulge the story, not only because it doesn’t really factor into whether this is a good game or not, but also because you won’t enjoy it after it is spoiled. Much like AC6, situations change mid-air, and through adequate, although visually unimpressive, CG briefings. It carries the Tom Clancy style well, and gives only a sliver of humanity to the cold and harsh military plotline. The story itself feels distant, as the CG briefings really only tell you what the objectives are, and very little else. If you’re looking for a gripping, emotional storyline with memorable characters, you won’t find it here.
But let’s talk planes, and the flying of them. The array of fighers and attack planes that you can choose from is extensive, and each one is modelled brilliantly. You unlock planes, and additional loadouts, through two different methods; completing missions, which gives you only the planes required for the mission after (ie Mission 1 gives the plane for Mission 2 etc.) and through levelling up.
The Level system is based on a similar concept to the recent Call of Duty titles in that you complete challenges (in both the Single Player Campaign and the Adversarial modes) to gather experience points. These allow you to level up and ascend in Rank from Airman, to General of the Airforce. Each level unlocks planes, addition weapon sets for each plane, and the occasional paintjob. These are hardly a factor in playing the game casually, as by the time you have played the game through to completion on the first of three difficulties, you have a good enough choice of aircraft to be able to play the harder modes without being too held back by the choice of plane.
Playing the game feels great, and you genuinely get a sense of satisfaction each time you take an enemy out of the picture. The handling of the plane depends on what plane you choose, of course, but there isn’t a massive difference in the handling and speed of the craft you choose. Ubisoft appear to have taken a leaf out of Namco Bandai’s book and slanting the flying to the arcade side rather than the simulation side, making the game much more accessible and fun to play. The voice commands in the game feel counter-productive, as they take longer to say, and even for the game to acknowledge what you just said, than just hitting the button. They may make a difference in the more hectic situations, but unless you’re deliberately trying to avoid using the controller buttons, you will find yourself performing the basic tasks without even bothering to use your microphone.
There are two additions to the flight genre that make this game stand out, the first of which is the ASSISTANCE OFF mode. This gives you an almost Super Thunder Blade-esque view of the space in front of you, with the camera panning to a degree, to allow you to see your target. As well as this, the mode gives you full control of your plane, allowing you to pull severe turns, have a larger and more complete view of your surroundings, and stall the engine. There are limitations, though, and I was disappointed to see that it was well-nigh impossible to attack an enemy that was above or below me, because the camera’s angles are limited in vertical range.
The ERS, or Enhanced Reality System, is the other addition that Ubisoft have added to the mix, fitting in with GRAW and EndWar’s gameplay mechanics of using fictional technology to supplement the player’s actions. Even though it did feel like a gimmick through the demo, I can now say that it is definitely not. There are missions that depend on it, and when you’re attacking a tank in a built-up urban area, you need to be guided to come down right on top of it to make your attack count. It’s executed well, and when you’ve played the game through, you will have been glad to have it available.
The AI is relatively solid, and the aces will often force you to go into OFF mode to engage them successfully. The fighters will deliberately hound you and expend their missiles in missions where you defend a target, to make sure the attackers can get in range and destroy your ward. You will get tied up in them, forcing you to keep your TACMAP open during such missions to keep an eye on the battlefield as a whole. There’s nothing spectacular about the AI, but it is great to see that they are limited by their planes just as much as you are limited by yours.
The Single Player Campaign varies in mission styles from defending a shuttle as it counts down and launches out of the atmosphere, to covert strikes to knock out a facility’s defense system, where flying too high will cause a facility-wide alert. The learning curve is steady, although at about halfway through the game, the difficulty gets noticeably ramped up. This is more due to amount and location of enemies rather than the skill of them. It feels rewarding when it’s completed, although the Epilogue feels rather anticlimactic and somewhat tacked on.
The multiplayer is the standard Co-op and Dogfighting modes, so there’s nothing truly special available. The cooperative modes are a nice refresh and something that should’ve been in the genre long ago, but the dogfights feel useless and ultimately a waste of time. It’s a simple kills match, and could’ve been so much more. However, with AC6, the multiplayer was broken with missile-spamming, a tactic of attacking a single enemy with up to eight missiles at once. This is impossible to do in HAWX, and it’s much better paced than it’s Japanese-developed rival. What’s more, is that the plane’s ‘infinite-ammo’d’ cannon is a viable weapon once missiles have been expended, something which was genuinely surprising
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. has taken a genre that was in need of titles, and added itself to the roster while fitting in with the Tom Clancy universe without feeling forced. The ERS and OFF mode are a nice spin on the game, but the lack of a fleshed-out multiplayer and the irrelevant levelling system brings it down. The former would’ve been unacceptable in any other genre, and the latter just felt like it was put there to do something, but the developer forgot what that something was. That said, the game is fun, engaging, somewhat challenging, and a must-play for those who enjoy Tom Clancy titles and the flight genre alike.