The Tom Clancy bandwagon continues to roll in 2009, but this year Ubisoft has abandoned the ground-battles of Mexico and close-quarters combat of Las Vegas for the franchise’s first foray into the flight combat genre. Taking to the war-torn skies over the likes of Rio De Janeiro, Afghanistan and the Middle East, HAWX tasks you with jumping into the cockpit of a variety of realistically-designed planes and partaking in 19 deadly missions in the guise of former U.S. Air Force pilot, David Crenshaw. Crenshaw stepped out of retirement to work for a private security firm that is motivated by cold, hard cash.
HAWX boasts a wide variety of mission types, including Infiltration, Recon, Interception and Escort objectives. Inevitably, they all involve navigating the skies, keeping your eyes glued to the radar for incoming enemies, and using the various strengths and weaponry of the 54 planes on offer in order to see off a mixture of naval and ground forces, as well as dealing with aerial threats from the likes of bombers, fighters and helicopters. HAWX has a steady learning curve that gives players ample time to get to grips with controlling the planes and their weapons. The action builds nicely, starting you off with defending the U.S border against Mexican troops, where you simply need to fly over the targets and execute covert airstrikes. Later, you’re given missions like the manic and exciting air, ground and sea assault on Rio De Janerio where you need to juggle weapons and change tactics depending on the current threat.
Despite the vast variety of plane types on offer, and the effort that has undoubtedly been put in to make the context of missions different, HAWX does lack the tactical depth of other Clancy games, mainly due to the overly-helpful Enhanced Reality System (ERS), the simplistic control system, and the rigidly accurate auto-lock on function. Hardcore Clancy fans may find this disappointing, but ironically it’s these features that are also HAWX’s strengths and are what essentially makes it accessible to anybody who has a small degree of hand-eye coordination. If you’re expecting HAWX to be a flight simulator, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Still, you may be pleasantly surprised by its arcade-like enjoyable flight combat experience which, despite its simplicity, rarely has a dull moment in its 8-10 hours of single-player gameplay and enjoyable online co-op mode.
You can jump seamlessly into a game with up to three other fighters and work together against a wave of enemy attacks in missions based on the single-player campaign. Co-op mode takes into account how many players are in the game and adjusts the amount of enemies accordingly. Competitive multiplayer is quite disappointing, however. The Team Deathmatch mode simply splits players up into two teams and pits them together to see who comes out on top. You can unlock support items along the way for your team, allowing you to send in a repair drone or damage the other teams’ radar, but with just one game mode, prepare to get bored very quickly. The action runs smoothly enough, but when you compare it to the solid multiplayer component of other Tom Clancy titles, HAWX is less than impressive in this area.
HAWX is at its most enjoyable when you’re kept on your toes by a mixture of ground and air-based enemies, rather than one particular threat. If you need to take out a tank that’s parked up in the tightly cramped city streets of Rio, for example, you’ll need to dive bomb toward it and use an air-to-ground firepower weapon to destroy it. To take out the SAMs, you’ll have to glide over them, dropping your freefall bombs at precisely the right time. Alternatively, you may want to switch to the AA multi-target missile to strike down four fighters simultaneously. There’s a good variety of weapons on offer, including radar and joint strike missiles, rocket pod units, cluster bombs and the devastating EMP strike, which causes all enemy planes to stall. It’s juggling with the ground, air and naval units and switching between these various threats and adapting your tactics accordingly that provides the most challenge and the most fun. HAWX certainly has its exciting moments, especially when you’re attacked from all angles and multiple threats, or your mission is set against the clock.
As mentioned earlier, the much shouted about Enhanced Reality System (ERS) does make things a whole lot easier. ERS gives you a small window of opportunity to gain an attacking advantage over your enemy or to make a defensive maneuver to get out of the way of an incoming missile. You simply press ‘X’ when the prompt appears on screen and then you need to follow a set pathway, which lights up on screen and is accompanied by a timer that ticks down to zero. If you follow that pathway for the required amount of time then you get a free strike on your enemy, or you’re able to evade a locked-on missile. ERS is a handy tool that’s obviously there to broaden the appeal of HAWX for those seeking an accessible experience, but it’s very tempting to use it at every opportunity. If you do that, it does feel like you’re just following tunnels on the screen for the majority of the campaign and therefore not getting the full game experience, but instead just taking part in a shallow, and rather insignificant experience, rather than one that relies on you using your piloting skills to actually earn your EXP and ranking. Nevertheless, you don’t have to use ERS if you don’t want to – it’s there as an aid (cheat) if you don’t have the skills, or if you need it when overwhelmed by enemy craft.
That doesn’t actually happen very often because the controls are geared toward making things relatively simple; however, gameplay does get more challenging once you reach the level where you’re tasked with defending Rio De Janeiro. Prior to the mission, you’re introduced to flying with ‘Assistance Off,’ which renders ERS inoperable. A few other control mechanics also come into play which gives your plane more maneuverability in the air. Drift, for example, is used to make sharp turns by breaking and then drifting, which allows you to trick the enemy and maneuver yourself right behind them, while dodging their missiles. Go too slow with ‘Assistance Off’ and your plane will stall and nosedive to ground. There’s also the introduction of cannon fire, where you need to chase planes, get up close and hone in on a small target reticule that’s attached to the back of each enemy. Though ‘Assistance Off’ does offer more freedom in-flight and means that you need to use more skill in dog-fights, you do feel strangely detached from your plane. The camera zooms right out in this mode and the smoke trails that spurt out your jet look very 1980’s. It reminded us of playing the multi-directional 2D shooter, Time Pilot, on arcade all those years ago. With ‘Assistance Off’ HAWX is a totally different game to the one it started out as being. Even though it’s less challenging with ‘Assistance On,’ we prefer it by a mile. Once again though, as with the ERS system, you’re only forced to use ‘Assistance Off’ on a very few occasions, so it doesn’t intrude too much on the game, unless of course you want it to.
Visually, HAWX is a bit of a mixed bag. When you take into account the beauty of other Tom Clancy games, the Ghost Recon series in particular, HAWX doesn’t quite emanate the same quality. Accurate satellite imagery makes the ground far below look relatively impressive, but head down low and the sea doesn’t look very realistic, and the landscapes are very barren and bland. Occasionally, HAWX impresses with an accurate depiction of the sprawling city of Rio De Janeiro, for example, or when you’re gliding through a glorious sunset, but largely, even the plane models and mid-air explosions lack the detail that the trailers had suggested.
As an overall experience though, HAWX is fun to play. The storyline is told in typical Tom Clancy fashion, with superb briefings which gives the missions real purpose. The simplicity of the control scheme, which only really relies on you steering the plane and pressing the fire button, means that you won’t get frustrated while playing. It therefore has instant pick up appeal, both in its single-player, co-op and competitive components. There are also some nice touches, such as being able to watch a replay of each mission from various camera angles and being able to launch flares to interrupt enemy missiles. HAWX isn’t going to win any awards for innovation, but it does bode well for future iterations of the series. While it could certainly be improved on both visually and in terms of depth of gameplay, it’s a fine debut for the franchise and as enjoyable a flight combat game as we’ve played in recent years.