Despite initial concerns of Ubisoft taking Tom Clancy’s name and churning out and endless stream of cookie-cutter titles using the now familiar templates of Rainbow 6, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell, we never saw this coming. Ditching the Clancy-staples of best-of-the-best, anti-terrorist teams or super spies, H.A.W.X. instead takes the action to a whole new level… literally.
In H.A.W.X. you take on the role of an ace combat pilot, David Crenshaw, whose squadron has recently been disbanded by the US Air Force. In order to stay airborne and to pay the bills, you join a new PMC (Private Military Company) called Artemis Global Security. This PMC covers all areas of military service, including air combat and support, and has created a new elite unit. This unit is called H.A.W.X. – High Altitude Warfare eXperimental Squadron.
As one of the best fighter pilots around, it’s not long before you head up the H.A.W.X. and take on dangerous missions across the globe in over 50 different breeds of plane.
The story takes place in the same timeline as the Ghost Recon games (you’ll even help the Ghosts out), and runs up to events seen in the other, unique Tom Clancy title, Endwar.
One thing Ubisoft has been clear on establishing, is that this is no boring flight simulator. You won’t find any long, laborious manuals teaching you how to take off, land and operate every dial and readout in the cockpit. Instead, you’ll be thrown right into combat, using the game’s streamlined controls, which are very much geared towards arcade play.
For the majority of the game, you’ll be flying around in the ‘Assistance On’ mode, which, much like any other game of this ilk, lets you view the action from an external chase camera, minimal HUD, or full cockpit view. In this mode, you’ll fly, manoeuvre and deliver your deadly payload to your targets. Using either mouse and keyboard or a flight stick, the core controls are as you’d expect, and although those unfamiliar with flight-sims may struggle to get to grips with controlling the plane initially, it doesn’t take long for the system to set in. For best results, however, a decent flight stick works wonders, and the mouse and keyboard just can’t beat the realism a stick can offer.
When in On mode, the game features a nifty addition not seen in other flight titles. This addition is ERS (Enhanced Reality System). Using this when locked onto a target displays a path on your HUD, which you need to follow. Stay within the path and you’ll successfully intercept your target, leaving it open to your wrath. This system is designed primarily for dog fighting and outmanoeuvring enemy jets, but also comes into its own when attacking obscured ground targets and shielded SAM sites. The same system can also be used to evade enemy missiles, although you have to be very quick off the mark to make use of it, and dropping flares is still the most effective way to safeguard your hide.
The other flight option in the game is the ‘Assistance Off’ mode. This disables all of your jet’s built in safety features, allowing some ferocious and dangerous manoeuvres to be pulled off. When in this mode, the camera switches to an external view, and the controls change slightly to reflect the OTT moves you can employ.
You’re able to make the kind of turns that would no doubt pull more Gs than a man can safely take in real life by using the Off mode, and by throttling down while turning, you can even ‘drift’ your plane and make fantastically sharp banks (much like power sliding a car).
This gives you a huge advantage over enemy fighters, and by using this system, you can quickly evade attacks and return fire. Off mode does have its downfalls however, and should you throttle down for too long, you’ll stall the plane and will need to quickly recover, lest you end up making an unplanned and high-speed vertical landing.
Missions in the game are, sadly, not as radical as the additional features, and are nothing we’ve not seen a million times before. Tasks range from simple enemy takedowns and bombing runs, to defensive missions where you need to repel enemy attacks while ensuring your allies or friendly structures remain in good health.
That said, criticising H.A.W.X. for having samey and unoriginal missions is like saying beat ‘em ups aren’t exactly challenging to the old grey matter – it’s an obvious fact, and let’s face it, a flight title is always going to be limited in the challenges it offers. And, while the usual fare, the missions on offer are all very enjoyable, and are varied enough to keep you interested.
Visually H.A.W.X. climbs and falls. For the most part, it looks good, with great attention to detail on the large collection of planes you get to pilot. Of particular note, however, are the various locations you’ll fly and fight over. Ubisoft has used real world satellite imaging data to recreate the environments, and it shows, with accurate and impressive recreations of famous cities and landmarks. This all looks groovy, at least from altitude. Dropping down to ground level, on the other hand, often reveals a pixellated mess, and 3D buildings that are blatantly dropped on top of a satellite data-created flat texture. This is a shame, and rips down the façade of an otherwise impressive looking release.
Other issues also come into play that stop H.A.W.X. from being a classic. Most notably is the minimal variation in the planes you’ll acquire. As you progress you’ll earn experience points. These are used to unlock new planes and equipment so you’ll always have alternate jets to fly, other than the current mission’s recommended option. However, aside from a different fighter model and cockpit layout, nothing really changes. Yes, there are subtle differences in top speed and manoeuvrability, but not much. This means there’s little need to even try the extra planes, and sticking to the default planes and loadouts will suffice.
The handful of missions in the campaign won’t last long either, and although the multiplayer modes offer some thrills, you can’t ignore the fact that Ubisoft could have done so much more than some basic versus modes.
All in all, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X, while far from perfect, does one thing very well indeed – it appeals to gamers who wouldn’t usually dabble in the genre (myself included). It’s no-holds-barred approach to combat and innovative new features make it an ideal entry title in the flight-sim world, and while it lasts, it’s a good old blast.