What's the one thing that enters the consciousness of every warm-blooded American when you mention dogfighting fighter jets? If the answer isn't a movie starring a bunch of sweaty dudes playing beach volleyball in tiny jean shorts with Anthony Edwards wearing a painfully awkward cutoff t-shirt, then you're lying to yourself. Luckily that very same flick is home to some of the coolest aerial battles ever set to the silver screen. It's called Top Gun and it has more man material than anything you'll find on Cinemax.
Ever since then game companies have been trying to emulate the feeling that so many imagined with Goose and Maverick in the cockpit. The latest game to try its hand is Tom Clancy's HAWX from the Ubisoft Romania studio that brought us two Blazing Angels titles. HAWX is a spiritual successor of sorts but benefits from being in a slightly distant future which means that players have the benefit of flying some moderately futuristic aircraft as well as some handy dandy navigational technology that's a bit too smart for its own good.
It's important to note that HAWX (High-Altitude Warfare Experimental Squadron) is not a flight-sim. There's no fuel gauge to worry about, no real ammunition controls -- planes carry upwards of 200 missiles -- and no worries of blackouts, red-outs or any other kind of 'outs.' While I fully understand not wanting players to have to be mindful of their gas usage like they're in a Chevy Suburban, the planes in HAWX move with very little realism. They look like their real life counterparts, but you can essentially fling them around the sky with reckless abandon, regardless of make or model.
One issue I had with every plane, and this is a common occurrence for games like HAWX, is that there just isn't a good sense of speed as you careen through the skies at more than 1,000 miles per hour. Even getting close to the ground isn't all that inspiring. It feels more like you're flying an airliner than a fighter jet going faster than the speed of sound.
So why are you zooming around turning enemy aircraft into mangled metal? Well, it turns out there's a bit of a conflict going on in the world. You play as Captain Crenshaw, a former United States flyboy whose squadron has been dissolved for whatever reason. Looking for work and money, Crenshaw turns to private military groups and stumbles upon a company called Artemis. Long story short, Crenshaw works for Artemis, Artemis gets contracted to protect Brazil; Crenshaw follows. Then Artemis decides to attack the USA; Crenshaw revolts. Before you know it Crenshaw is fighting for the red white and blue again, trying to repel the attacks by Artemis over some of our nation's landmarks.
Flying above locations such as a pitch black Los Angeles, Washington DC, Cape Canaveral and Tokyo, players will see some recognizable spots. Flying low to the ground can reveal some nasty texture work, but it's still cool to be defending these famous cities from an off-shore assault. That said, the characters involved are pretty forgettable. The stars are obviously the planes themselves, but hats off for at least attempting to make an engrossing storyline and tying in a few other Ubisoft franchises (Ghost Recon and EndWar) along the way.
There are 19 missions to fly throughout the campaign, all of which are available for cooperative play over Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. For the sake of fun, I'd recommend hitting up a friend to be your wingman (or, as Iceman would say, you can be his) as the AI and your control over their actions is very limited. You can tell them to attack or cover you, but that's about it. Assigning them to attack a ground target works out pretty well, but telling them attack an incoming squad of fighters typically yields poor results.
My main issue with the campaign is with the inconsistent design of each mission. Some are fun, like a later level that has you providing air support for three squads of ground troops as they make their way to a nuclear weapon that needs to be disarmed one way or another. Other missions, however, are just plain annoying. It's almost as though instead of making the enemies more plentiful or making them more cunning in battle, the developers decided to add annoying limitations to the player. Perfect examples are the missions where you can't fly above a certain altitude for fear of being shot down by a radar tracking system. It's a needless thorn in your side that will result in plenty of deaths. Then there's the mission that starts with a terrible version of "hot and cold." I'll let you discover this for yourself.
On top of that, the combat in HAWX isn't all that engaging. Ubisoft Romania tossed in a similar camera mechanic to what we saw in Blazing Angels, meaning that with a press of a button the camera pulls back from your fighter and focuses on your target as you move independently around the screen. It affords more maneuverable dogfighting moves, but can be disorienting for newbies. The camera angle (known simply as "assistance off") is a good attempt at spicing things up and adding skill to dogfighting, but even playing through the game on hard didn't force me into flipping assistance off for the sake of strategy.
Strategy is one element that could be worked into HAWX a bit more heavily. Too often I found myself just trying to fire missiles and cycle through targets as fast as possible so as to not have to make another pass. I wasn't worried about taking down minions before working towards a larger warship, instead there's just a bunch of flies swarming in the air for you to swat one at a time in any order you choose.
Aiding in the mindless gameplay is the ERS (Enhanced Reality System) which, when activated, puts up a series of gates that will lead you to your target. It plays like a pseudo-mini-game as you have to pilot your jet through each gate to keep the pathway active. This is a seriously smart system, too smart if you ask me, as you'll wind up with a perfectly lined up shot every single time. It takes drama out of the dogfighting, which is something that it's lacking as it is.
As I said before, there are no true physical constraints on the planes. Every craft has a set turning radius depending on speed, but from there you can frenetically whip your scrap of metal through the air however you want. The best way to dodge a missile is just thrashing around in random circles and twists. Forget flares, just act crazy. I'd have preferred to have some sort of physical limitations on my craft so I had to strategically plan a route to safe ground. As it is everything is pretty mindless, ERS on or off.
One important thing to note is that I played through HAWX with Ace Combat's flight stick on Xbox 360. We don't have a PlayStation 3 stick in the office so I was confined to a regular controller while playing on PS3. Let me just say, the experience was much more fun with the sticks in my hands. The controls are remapped to fit logically onto the flight stick and things like toggling voice command and accelerating while using the rudders are much easier. Not only that, the experience of flying a jet with a mock flight stick is much more immersive than without.
There's no question that HAWX's gameplay has issues, but the myriad jets and weapon packs that you'll unlock throughout the game and the fact that you get to fly said jets around American landmarks is cool in its own right. The combat might not be all that inspired, but it's engaging enough to push you through the campaign one mission at a time. One word of advice, never use the ERS unless absolutely necessary. It dumbs the experience down quite a bit.
HAWX has a handy dandy experience point and leveling system that crosses between the single-player and multiplayer gameplay. You'll unlock things like planes and weapon packs that can be taken into battle. Little challenge acknowledgements pop up when you kill X amount of enemies with a given weapon and you'll get a nice sense of accomplishment every time you're rewarded with a hunk of XP for the time you've put in. I think I would have preferred a spending system that let me unlock items from a set list however I wanted, but the auto-unlock system that's in place works well enough.
Multiplayer, as it is right now, is pretty barebones. There's only one mode where eight players can join up and take on the usual team deathmatch affair. Granted, flying against human pilots is much more exciting and challenging than flying against AI, but the fact that you're relatively constricted in the number of players and modes is disconcerting. The multiplayer does have cool support powers that chime in when players string together multiple kills. Things like an EMP strike that sends all enemy planes into a stall or the ability to limit all baddies to guns is definitely cool and can change the tide of a battle very quickly.
Of course, the upside to substantially limiting the number of players comes in the form of no lag. Granted we here in the IGN office play on a T1 line, I saw no evidence of lag or dropping frames. At least, no more than I saw in solo play.
The sights and sounds of HAWX do a good job of creating a world that is clearly within the universe of other Tom Clancy games, while still inventing an identity for High Altitude Warfare. The picture-in-picture cutscenes could certainly use a lot of work, but the planes (the stars of the show) have some nice details, mainly when you enter into the cockpit view. The exterior of the planes have all the right angles and parts, but they seem a little lifeless. There's no scoring, no battle scars; no real signs of life on the outside of the aircraft.
Likewise, the ground level in all of these major metropolises across the country is pretty barren. They're accurately modeled to a T and you'll spot things like Tokyo Disney on the ground, but it looks a bit too much like they took a satellite picture and wrapped it around objects.
Sound-wise HAWX performs a bit better. The music pumps through and while not up to Hans Zimmer quality, it's still solid. Explosion effects also provide adequate thump if you're close enough to the impact. I'd like if your jet had more of a roar when going max speed, but the clash of breaking the sound barrier will have to do.
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