When Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. (which stand for High Altitude Warfare eXperimental) was announced as “Tom Clancy’s Air Combat”, I immediately took notice. Ace Combat had pretty much been running its monopoly on arcade flight shooters unopposed for years now and when the subpar Ace Combat 6 hit the Xbox360, I wished that someone would make a competing title to shake Namco from their complacency. Ubisoft Romania stepped up to the task. Except I wish it wasn’t Ubisoft Romania.
To clarify, Ubisoft’s Romanian division is behind one of my favorite series ever, Silent Hunter, which is widely considered to be the best hardcore WWII submarine simulator around. Unfortunately, they also made the Blazing Angels games, which is quite a mediocre series of WWII flight shooters, and since H.A.W.X. is about airplanes and not submarines, that got me worried. Have Ubisoft Romania managed to learn from their past experiences?
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. takes place in the near-future universe that is shared with the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and the Endwar games. In 2012 the United Nations signed the Reykjavik Accords (Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland for the geographically challenged.) which gives private military corporations massive amounts of freedom of operation as well as deregulates their access to highly advanced weaponry. Eventually, a PMC by the name of Artemis Global Security amasses enough power to attack the United States of America.
This storyline is easily digested if you can ignore the complete impossibility of this line of events actually occurring.
H.A.W.X. is cashing in on the whole “PMCs are conspiring against us!” craze going on right now (See Army of Two and Mercenaries 2: World in Flames) and it’s hard to fault them for that. PMCs are the perfect bad guys; stateless, raceless, immoral mercenaries all armed to the teeth provide an easy scapegoat to avoid getting your product in hot water with foreign governments or organizations (See Venezuela flipping out over Mercenaries 2 and the whole Resident Evil 5 racism thing) but this political correctness makes for a poor storyline and since Ubisoft gave Tom Clancy a dump truck full of Euros (cause dollars are useless, see) to use his name on whatever game they wish, don’t expect the political thrill of a Tom Clancy novel here (provided he wrote it himself and didn’t use a ghost writer).
To be fair, the game’s use of the real world instead of a fictional one such as Ace Combat’s Stangereal world does cause some parts of the game to be more fun. There’s just so much more tensions when you’re protecting a real live city like Rio de Janeiro (complete with Jesus statue and MaracanÃƒÂ£ stadium) from an amphibious invasion rather than protecting a fictional country called Osea or Yuktobania or what have you. You also don’t have to worry about the Japanese anime melodrama that you find in Ace Combat. (Please Namco, no more dancing with the Angels)
You have your basic campaign mode, which the story unfolds through, and the big innovation here is an intuitive Xbox live Co-op where you can jump in on an in-progress single player game and take control of one of the wingmen to help someone else finish a stage in the game. That the Free Flight mode lets you choose a plane and a stage and just fly around is a welcome addition, solely because the graphics engine is quite beautiful and the landmarks are all there (so you can go around shooting missiles at the Vasco de Gama section of the MaracanÃƒÂ£ if you wish).
Finally, there is a full multiplayer deathmatch mode and some extras (like the information on the Geo-eye satellite imagery used to make the game’s stages).
Story/Mode rating: Decent
Since airplanes these days, like cars, are designed on computers and are inorganic, it makes sense that plane and car games have been the best looking games since the jump to 3D was made, and H.A.W.X is no exception. All the planes are beautifully rendered and the game constantly runs at a blistering 60 frames per second.
However, compared to its main rival Ace Combat 6, H.A.W.X‘s jet models look slightly inferior. This is to be expected as the game always runs at 60 fps and has 50 playable aircraft as opposed to AC6‘s meager selection of 16. The effects on the planes are also slightly better than Namco’s offering, with the planes in H.A.W.X. having better lighting and reflection effects, especially when you’re playing in level that isn’t taking place in midday (which are sadly in the minority). So overall, H.A.W.X slightly edges out the beautiful Ace Combat 6 in this regard .
On the other hand, the ground detail in H.A.W.X. is clearly superior to any other flight game out there. Using commercial satellite imaging, Ubisoft Romania manage to beautifully recreate many of the world’s major cities, complete with recognizable landmarks (though if you get too low to the ground the graphics aren’t perfect but still look okay). Oh well, that means we’ll just have to wait till next gen for the amazingly detailed cities we crave.
Graphics rating: Classic
I’ve already mentioned the cliche storyline and I’m afraid the dialogue isn’t much better. Your two wingmen are you stereotypical fighter jocks who never shut up. Ever. Everyone else isn’t very memorable either, but the voice acting is done well despite the poor dialogue, so you won’t be cringing at some the lines like in certain other Japanese flight game.
The music is good and matches the mood of the game, ranging from high tempo beats to slower orchestral ballads depending on the level. Problem is, you’ll probably only hear the music in the menus and free flight mode because anywhere else it’s drowned out by sonic booms, radio chatter and explosions, which kinda defeats the point of having a soundtrack in the first place.
Ace Combat has been the sole arcade flight game for quite a while now and H.A.W.X. doesn’t really stray far from that formula. You get into the sweetest military hardware you’ll ever strap your buttcheeks into, launch off into a battlefield with an infinite gas tank and 200+ missiles, perform physics-defying maneuvers, and generally lay waste to the entire airforce and army of an opposing nation. So if you’re the kind of guy who likes games so realistic it takes you 2 hours to turn on your engines, you’re wasting your time here.
H.A.W.X. does the whole Ace Combat thing very well and manages to add some interesting new features, namely ERS and Assistance OFF mode.
ERS stands for “Enhanced Reality System” (Ubisoft apparently likes silly acronyms), which represents all the advances avionics in today’s aircraft. Got a tank on the ground you want to blow up but he’s obscured by tall buildings? Tap X and a series of gates (Kinda like Starfox) shows up on your screen. Fly through them and you’ll be perfectly aligned for a bombing run. Can’t get a clean shot on an enemy plane? Tap X and ERS will predict the future and lead you right on his tail. Need to evade a heat seeking missle? Tap X and….well you get the picture. ERS is a really handy tool to have around, especially for bombing enemy ground targets, because the game has lots of fighting in built-up areas that obscure tanks and the like. My only complaint is that it sometimes takes you on a really roundabout route to get to the target which usually lead me to just say “fuck this!” and do it myself.
Assistance OFF mode (Yes OFF is supposed to be in capitals) is just what it sounds like. Modern jet fighters today are equipped with all sorts of computers to make sure they’re completely idiot proof. OFF mode represents you “turning off” these systems which allows you total control over your own plane, I doubt this would work in real life but in the game it’s completely awesome. The screen switches to a zoomed out third person mode that feels like you’re playing inside a cinematic replay and your plane becomes much more agile which is useful when evading missiles and close range dogfights. However, controlling the plane in this mode is difficult and you’ll definitely want to switch between both ON and OFF modes depending on the situation.
Due to the game taking place in the real world, mission variety has taken a hit. It’s not like Ace Combat where you can destroy a giant laser canon, or a giant flying fortress with a laser cannon on it, or a laser equipped satellite, or even blast off into space. That being said, the developers did the best they could within the environment provided to them and they have managed to make some interesting missions, including one I can only describe as “Metal Gear Solid but with Airplanes”, and the final mission in the game is basically a shout out to the Ace Combat team. Still, even with those missions, there is still a nagging feeling of “Not this mission again” during some stages of the game.
Unfortunately, the game is quite short with only around 20 missions that may last you around 5 or 6 hours.
Control/Gameplay rating: Great
The main game is quite short, but it utilizes a “level up” system. You get experience points for every enemy you kill in the game and can level up to a maximum of level 40. Every level unlocks new planes or weapon loadouts for you to play with (Why must the Su-47 be all the way at level 40?). A single playthrough on normal difficulty will get you to around level 20 so there’s plenty of incentive to to go back and play the main storyline again. Also, there are several in-game “achievements” (that are separate from the Xbox achievements) that, when completed, offer bonus experience points. Things like “dodge 100 missiles” or “Fly 1 hour in Assistance OFF mode”.
The problem is that the single player mode is not interesting enough by itself to warrant multiple playthroughs, and if you don’t have Xbox Live then you can’t achieve XP from online dogfights.
Replayability score: Enjoyable
I think the most impressive gameplay aspect in H.A.W.X. is that seeing some SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) or AAA (Anti Air Artillery) will result in some fear because they are far more deadly than comparative games. AAA is accurate and dense and SAMs are tricky to avoid if you’re trying to destroy the SAM launcher (’cause you’re coming at the missile straight on) which gives more tension to Air-to-Ground missions.
However, most of the airplane arsenal is sadly out of balance. Once you unlock the final planes there isn’t any real reason to use any of the 45 or so other planes in the game unless you’re a fan of one of the older aircraft (I’m a faggot for the Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker”).
Balance rating: Below Average
As mentioned before, the storyline is a cliched “America is under attack” plot and never really tries anything creative to spice up the narrative. The game is also very similar to Ace Combat despite the new features (ERS and OFF) and isn’t what I would call a revolution in arcade flight sims. Also, just how many Tom Clancy titles are released every year now?
RPGs are naturally addictive games, so when H.A.W.X. implements an RPG level-up system, it adds that addictive RPG flavor to the game. With 50 authentic planes, dozens of weapon loadouts and unique skins to unlock as well as in-game achievements called “challenges” to shoot for which give you bonus XP and bragging rights, H.A.W.X. brings a lot to the table.
However, The lack of mission variety in the single player game brings about another aspect from RPGs, grinding. You’ll be doing levels over and over again as well as multiplayer matches simply to accumulate XP to get that next unlockable.
9. Appeal Factor
Ace Combat games are released on average once every two years which leaves a huge gap for dedicated Ace Combat fans that H.A.W.X. strives to fill. With 50 aircraft to tempt aircraft fanatics with, it does a very good job of selling itself. The realistic storyline compared to Ace Combat‘s melodrama might also make it more appealing to the mass market, especially when you slap Tom Clancy’s name on it. And who doesn’t think that jet fighters are cool anyway?
Appeal Factor rating: Very Good
Just to show off their tech (or possibly because the satellite company requested it) you can see all the technical specs for the satellites that Ubisoft used to map their detailed levels, as well as look at some pictures (that you can’t scroll around) of satellite imagery which you’ve probably already seen on Google Earth. There is also some downloadable content in the form of two free planes you can get in the “extras” section of the main menu, and that’s it.
And just a little something for Ubisoft when they pick acronyms, if the games name is H.AW.X. (High Altitude Warfare eXperimental) then why is my squadron not experimental in any way? And why am I spending most of my time at low altitude bombing missions?
Miscellaneous rating: Decent
Balance: Below Average
Appeal Factor: Very Good
FINAL SCORE: Enjoyable Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
H.A.W.X. doesn’t deviate much from the template set forth by the Ace Combat series but it manages to do well within that template and is a serious competitor to the long established Namco series which was starting to suffer due to a lack of competition. Although it is debatable which game is better, if you like Ace Combat you will also like H.A.W.X. . Hopefully this will lead into a sort of flight game arms race which would only benefit the consumer.