Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. recension.
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***Warning: Spoilers regarding plot may occur.***
A gaming genre that has been unrepresented for quite some time is the Arcade Flight Sim. While the Playstation 2 and Xbox 360 have the Ace Combat series the PC has seen a few scattered releases with Blazing Angels 2: Secret Missions of WW2 in 2007. Now Ubisoft has tried to enter the genre with a Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. developed by Ubisoft Romania and currently available on the PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Does it have the fuel to stay airborne or does it go down in a fireball after getting a missile up its tailpipe?
H.A.W.X. or High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron (from here on Hawx) takes place in 2014 in which the world has become more dependent on Private Military Companies or PMCs and are taking a more active role in warfare throughout the world. You get to play as pilot David Crenshaw call sign Shade, whom after serving his last mission with the US Air force joins PMC Artemis alongside some of his wing mates. The game then skips forward a couple of years to 2021 when Artemis manages to secure a large defense contract with Brazil, thus making them one of the most powerful PMCs in the world. But when war breaks out between Brazil and Las Trinidad, Crenshaw and his wingmen are thrown into the thick of it and finds out what Artemis is really about.
The plot of the game is typical for Tom Clancy license game. Patriotic, American and terribly cheesy, and with a plot twist so obvious you can see it from the start. With PMCs being the writers new target after the Japanese (Chaos Theory), domestic terrorists (Double Agent) and Mexicans (Ghost Recon Advance Warfighter 1 and 2, Rainbow Six Vegas 1). But it does its job as it gives you a reason to go to multiple places around the world doing various missions. But then plot has never been a strong point for this genre, Ace Combat 5 plot isn't deeper than a war between two countries orchestrated by an outside faction and that is about as cheesy as this one.
The game itself has been said to be a tie-in to other games under the Tom Clancy license, especially EndWar and Ghost Recon Advance Warfighter. The first mission of the game does actually take place in the same location as the later parts of GRAW2, but having played that game previously I fail to see any direct ties other than Ghost Recon being there. The ties are mostly superfluous and just added for showing that it's still the same universe as the other games. A shame really as it could have been used to make actual ties to previous games. For instance one could have done missions during the second Korean War that happens in Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, or use many of the locales visited in the earlier Ghost Recon games.
The missions themselves are interesting. But they could have been more varied. Most of the time you always end up defending something from multiple waves of attackers. While there are other types of missions that take you on anti-radar strikes, dealing with enemy airplanes and so forth, you'll mostly spend your time frantically flying around not allowing the objects health gauge reaching zero. Or at least preventing it to reach red levels as it then decides to give off the most annoying low health sound ever heard as it's nothing more than a screeching sound than a warning.
The missions have a varying degree of intensity, some being easy and some being borderline frustrating. Especially one of the later missions and more or less the last mission are of that kind. But luckily, the game offers four player coop on which to play through the campaign, so if you need some help all you need to do is to drag a friend along.
One could almost see that the developers for Hawx had been looking very intently at the Ace Combat series, in particular to AC5 on the PS2, as a couple of missions we're very recognizable if you had played the game previously. One in particular involved defending a Space Shuttle as it was going through launch preparations. The missions itself was almost built the same way as the one in Ace Combat 5. One could call it an homage I suppose but the likeness was almost too good.
The epilogue of the game does however deserve the reward of being the worst mission in the game. As it's nothing more than a trench run filled with expose from other things about what has happened after the final mission and frankly it's very disappointing. I only had to redo it because I managed to plant my airplane into the ground a couple of times. It was a really weak way to end the game and felt quite tacked on as a last thought. The final mission itself is good, if not annoying in the beginning but ends with a whimper somewhat.
Two of the game?s biggest touted features are the Enhanced Reality System or ERS and then Assistance OFF mode and they're a mixed bag. When ERS is activated it offers you a guided path to avoid a missile, get into range of a ground target or dogfight opponents. Essentially its easy mode as it shows you the path you should follow in order to hit something. And for anyone with a modicum of skill when it comes to flying it's worthless. Of course the game forces you to use it at times as certain missions have targets hidden in certain places. But most of these can be defeated by your own positioning anyway. And then there's the ubiquitous mission in which you have to use the system or horribly die. This in turn makes the mission more of a chore than fun to do as you need to stay within the path as it twists and turns around. I myself barely used it unless forced to.
The Assistance OFF mode on the other hand allows your plane to do insane stunts, some which are physically impossible for certain planes, such as pulling of Pugachev's Cobra in an A-10 Warthog or similar. When in ON mode the plane is very limited in what it can perform. The feature is fun to use and very handy in avoiding missiles. However, for some reason the developers decided to move the camera outside the plane and place it at a fixed angle. This to counteract the fact that you can do such extreme maneuvers. And it's here my main problem with the features lies; the angle the camera places itself makes it almost impossible to get situational awareness as it also moves around with what target you have locked on. This after a while makes it irritating to use than actually fun, especially since it also removes any altimeters, which can result you plummeting into the ground without realizing it. Also you usually get problems aligning yourself to your target, which means you tend to unnecessary turns figuring out just where you are in relation to the plane you're chasing. Had it camera been located behind the airplane in a third person perspective or something similar it would've been a lot more useful. Right now it feels a bit too gimmicky and I prefer using a cockpit view.
Graphically the game is good. The massively touted GeoEye satellites images for ground textures are impressive at a high altitude but quickly descend into Microsoft Flight Simulator levels when you get lower, with buildings being nothing more than gray blocks sitting on flat ground. Otherwise the game offers graphics that is good for the current generation.
The in-game HUD could have been better designed though. Or at least have some things removed. It has a video screen that shows the target through magical cameras you have locked onto in real time. It felt a bit pointless as you barely spend any time looking at it unless you've got a lull in combat.
The video screen that shows who is talking to you is also unnecessary as you are most of the time too busy flying around to actually bother watching it. It also suffers somewhat from the magical camera syndrome from time to time showing an impossible outside view that does not make any sense. It's something that radio subtitles could have done better and the video screen is quickly filed under pointless gimmick to fill space. But otherwise the HUD is good showing off information without being cluttered; the Tactical Map is probably one of the better things on it as it shows your location and the enemies alongside your target objective. There's barely any point switching between that and the radar as the second one only shows what's in your proximity and that is handled better through the HUD showing active targets.
When it comes to sound it's a mixed bag. Explosions sound forceful enough, while the airplane cannon sounds horribly underpowered and something more of a toy gun than a chain gun. Especially disappointing is the fact that the A-10 Warthog's cannon sound exactly the same and not the impressive BRRRRRRT sound that has made it's so famous. (Still a fun plane to fly though.) Voices from various characters are okay, even if I wonder why they had to make the Ghost Recon leader sound extremely constipated while taking.
The music is lackluster. There is a soundtrack for the game composed by Tom Salta who did the music for the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter series. Problem it that's muted and so generic that you never tend to think twice about and generally forget it. Which is a shame since the Ace Combat series is known for its excellent and very fitting soundtrack. Thinking back after playing Hawx I can't actually recall hearing more music than the menu music as the rest was just so drowned out by everything else. While I on the other hand can vividly remember tracks such as First Flight or White Bird Part 1. A shame really since Salta did a really good job on the music for the GRAW series.
The game offers a wide selection of modern aircraft, ranging from small fighters like F-5 to modern planes like the F-35 and F-22. But also a couple of fictional aircraft and a couple of odd but interesting choices such as the SR-71 Blackbird prototype as an example. As you play you unlock you acquire experience points to bolster up your ranks and unlock more planes and weapons. A neat feature is that you generate experience also during multiplayer which goes towards your total rank. This is further bolstered by various challengers that you can complete to get more experience.
Multiplayer itself is a lackluster affair, with only Coop and Team Deathmatch available from the start. Hopefully Ubisoft will add more modes via DLCs but at the same time it's a bit sad to see them relying on them to add extra content.
The access to such a wide range of airplanes is fun as it gives you a chance to toy around a bit with them, but in the end you'll most likely ignore a majority of them for just one airplane that has the best advantages and statistics. Both in singleplayer and multiplayer. The fact that you have access to various weapon kits is also fun, but one would almost wish for the ability to completely customize your load out to fit your specifications and not the ones set by the game.
One sad point is that essentially all planes handle virtually the same with no real differences. While there is a noticeable change in flying an A-10 compared to an F-18 it's otherwise barely noticeable.
While the game is quite fun it still lacks something. Mainly something that made games like Ace Combat 5 fun. I'd suppose you can call it feeling. Hawx has a problem of it trying to take itself way to serious throughout the game. Time and time again it keeps on mentioning in various ways on how serious it tries to be. And generally falling short. I suppose it has something to do with it taking place in the modern world instead of a different one that's more of an analogy to the real world as what Ace Combat does. Then you can just go with the story and all its silly little things. Something that Hawx seems incapable of actually doing. Instead it keeps on trying to act all serious instead of just going with the cheesiness. It does take one step in that direction in one point when you get to fight a giant super advanced enemy battleship before it can reach friendly forces. It made me remember of the fight against the missile submarines in AC5, sadly it's really the only instance of that happening in the game. I'd love to fight really silly super weapons like giant submarines that fires missiles that burst into molten rain of hot steel or giant flying carrier wings. It's a great missed opportunity.
Another missed opportunity is the game giving you a feeling of superiority. Sure you are flying around and kicking massive amounts of behind, but at the same time it doesn't feel special at all.
One thing that made AC5 so fun was that you heard what the enemy was saying, and there was no bigger joy than to hear the enemy pilots literally crapping themselves with fear when you and your squad appear on the battlefield in later parts of the mission. It made you feel good and it boosted your ego to great heights. Here all the communication you hear comes from your side, only one can you really hear the enemies? radio transmission and that's during a cutscene. So it's another lost chance of doing something. If anything, more games should try to boost your ego by showing how the enemy reacts when you show up by making them afraid or nervous about what you can do. Since many games do feature the main character as something out of the ordinary if not superhuman in some cases it's surprising it hasn't happened more often.
The game also has a tendency to hold you by the hand and never really letting you go. Everyone keeps on repeating what your mission objective is, acting like you're too stupid to remember what you were supposed to do. The same feeling permeates when you're flying in ON mode, the game doesn't really want to let you go and let you flying around doing all kinds of crazy stuff. And when it lets you do it forces you to do it from an angle which makes it hard to keep attention and not get distracted as your plane is turning the other way. It would've been so much better just to let you go and complete the mission without having someone doing backseat driving all the time.
Also the stock replies that your wingmen have to certain things can get annoying, especially when the same guy can twice in a row exclaim how serious the enemy is acting when four more planes show up on the radar.
At the same time I wonder the choice to give the main character a full name. He has supposedly a call sign as mentioned before but I didn't know of this until I was told of it by someone else as the game never really openly mentions it other than your wing men or your AWACS support sometimes calling you by it. Otherwise it Crenshaw this or Crenshaw that. And yet you never really say anything back like what Mitchell does in GRAW so trying to build a character falls kind of flat. Just calling the main guy Shade, no matter how cliché that actually sounds, works better as you can almost identify better than having a real name forced upon you.
It's probably because of this that the mission you do in Tokyo is actually one of my favorites. Because there you're playing a completely different for once that fights a whole different fight in comparison to what happens elsewhere. It felt closer to a normal mission in Ace Combat than anything else in the game, as it's you and your wingmen and some buddies against the enemy. That's really how it's supposed to be. You and the enemy going toe to toe in an aerial ballet of death with missile streaks flying everywhere. (It's time to dance with the Angels!)
It's just a shame that it's a single mission as they lost a great opportunity to do something with it. Even if the Japanese accents were hilarious and utterly horrible.
Speaking of the wingmen while they are really competent in the game they feel very flat. One is supposed to be a bit cocky but it never goes through and just falls flat. While in AC5 you had several very different wingmen (and women in one case), who all had their own individual voice and style. You had the joker character, the rookie and so on. They were all separate individuals that were distinguishable from each other. Even the AWACS radar operators felt separate from each other. Here they just sort of meld together into a formless generic mass and you just tend to filter them away unless they have something mission specific to say.
All in all, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X is okay. It has its flaws with lackluster multiplayer and somewhat gimmicky features but if you enjoy arcade flight games it might be something to try. But for the PC I'd recommend waiting until the price drops before buying it. And if you've have an Xbox 360 I'd suggest checking out Ace Combat 6 instead if you haven't tried that.