If Will Young taught us anything, it’s that zooming around in a jet fighter for a living is about as homoerotic as any man can get: from the phallus-shaped planes to the cute little nicknames for each other, being in the US Airforce must be like one big Village People party. Which is fine, Ubisoft have made games for smaller niche markets for sure, and besides, H.A.W.X ties in to the whole Ghost Recon canon which is about as macho as you can possibly get: gruff men barking at you through carefully trimmed facial hair, big guns, big muscles; it’s akin to putting flowers down the side of your PS3 fansite with a nice pink background behind: it’s about diversification.
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X [High-Altitude Warfare Experimental Squadron] is from the developers of the Blazing Angels games, Ubisoft’s Romania studio. It’s an flight-sim-lite with story-based, visual and geographical ties to the Ghost Recon universe that lots of gamers are so rightly fond of. It is purely routed in arcade mechanics though: there’s no fuel limit, simple controls, ridiculous amounts of weaponry and physics so basic you’ll think you’re playing Afterburner.
But that’s not a negative, and not just because Afterburner was brilliant. H.A.W.X doesn’t ever pretend to have it’s feet in the shoes marked simulation, it’s clear from the outset when you’re loading 200-plus guided rockets to the wings of your aircraft that this isn’t going to require a fifty page manual just to perform a basic take-off, and the basic fact that the PS3’s joypad doesn’t really lend itself to exact cockpit replicas anyway should go some way to reinforcing Ubisoft’s decision to make H.A.W.X fun to play, rather than a boring stat-fest. The controls are essentially perfect; there’s not a single button that feels out of place and you’ll soon get the notion of tapping ‘triangle’ to target and ‘x‘ to unleash rocket-hell on whatever’s in your path whilst screaming through the air with the left stick – everything in H.A.W.X is meant to be easy to understand for those unfamiliar with the concept of air flight – even the throttle is marked as ‘accelerate’ and ‘brake’ and attached to the main triggers, with the right stick mapped to your ‘head’ as you’d expect, although there’s no option to reverse the x and y axis’ independently.
The main game consists of 19 plot-twisting story-based levels based around the world. The story itself is typical Tom Clancy fluff, with your character, Captain Crenshaw turning to private military factions just to earn a living. Artemis, the group he opts for, ends up taking Crenshaw on a whistle-stop tour of the planet making some not-at-all-obvious decisions amidst a Haze-like middle ‘twist’ that seems almost entirely unnecessary but will have our American friends pumping their hands in the air and provides the reason for a lot of the backdrops to be based in the good ol’ US of A, and putting the smart geomapping technology to good use.
Each campaign level can be played either with the PS3 providing AI support, or (preferably) over the internet with co-op being fully supported. The computer controller wingmen can be incredibly dumb, often ignoring your limited rudimentary commands and picking up targets defined via the radio anyway, so the option to scream down the headset at a fellow human is much appreciated. Co-op play is nice and smooth and totally transforms the game at the higher difficulty levels, but away from the storyline multiplayer is restricted to just an eight player deathmatch and whilst sometimes quite exciting the actual games don’t ever really lead anywhere and tactics are fairly basic apart from a few team-up special powers like the EMP. It’s possible that extra modes can be patched in, but these are planes, not foot soldiers, so we’re not entirely sure what Ubisoft could do here.
The real problem, though, is the game often feels a little bit soulless. There’s only so much you can with metal birds when you can’t interact directly with your teammates or see the whites of your enemy’s eyes, but the distance-based missile mechanics mean that you’re rarely up close and personal with the opposition and the fact that most of the planes feel exactly the same and most of the rockets do the same thing entrusts the job of keeping the variety fresh lies entirely with the missions. To their credit, Ubisoft have tried to mix up the mechanics – take out targets, protect a target, make sure a target takes out another target – but again the combat itself isn’t exactly ground-breaking and the presence of the Enhanced Reality System, which brings up a tunnel on your HUD to enable to you get behind an enemy or outrun a missile simply serves to further distance you from the heart of the task at hand.
There are over 50 aircraft in H.A.W.X, and they all look great. They do – the game’s graphics engine is fantastic and the light bounces off the wings like a good ray of sunshine should, and it all dances around at sixty frames a second. But like the rest of H.A.W.X, the good stuff plays off against the bad all too often: the aircraft look stunning, yes, but in that showroom-ready Gran Turismo style in which they never take any visual damage, and the lighting might look like they’ve been taking lessons from Guerrilla but up close and personal everything else manages to look blocky; the ground modeling is a wonderful idea and from the air can be stunning, but when you’re buzzing the rocks it’s much less impressive.
But overall it’s a nifty bit of coding. The frame rate’s a surprise and manages to hold that magical 60 for the majority of the game, faltering only when there’s a minor war erupting around you and whilst some of the visuals are over exaggerated for effect in the midst of a frantic firefight the fancy smoke effects and an occasionally awe-inspiring draw distance all conspire to produce an impressive display on a decent screen. The camera moves smoothly, the internal cockpit view is brilliant and the tiny little specs on the horizon that you have to shoot at? Well, they’re wrapped in the best little yellow box you’ve ever seen.
Aurally the game is unremarkable. The jet engines lack punch and the rockets just seem to fizz out of the launchers, but the music’s powerful and is perfectly suited to the game. It does all sound infinitely better through a decent surround sound system, however, or a top quality pair of headphones, but we were just expecting to be blown away, and weren’t.
The experience-point based leveling system will be familiar to anyone that’s played a FPS shooter recently, but it’s nice to see it here in H.A.W.X. Progressing through the missions and skillful online play reward you with new planes and weapons and there are Trophies built in and around this system, as well as for general campaign mode success as you’d expect. The PS3 version also offers exclusive YouTube uploading facilities built in which is a really neat feature and if you’re swaying between one platform or another this is really the only deciding factor. Well, that and the absolutely abysmal install time; seriously, we’ve never seen anything quite like it and there’s absolutely nothing to read or do whilst it’s churning away copying what feels like the entire disk onto your hard drive. Set aside a cup of tea, 3 Hobnobs and at least 30 minutes, not including the day-one patch, at your first sitting whilst H.A.W.X does its thing. Slowly.
H.A.W.X is what it is: an arcade flight game with plenty of whizz-bang, decent controls, patchable but iffy multiplayer and a decent enough script but with a few sticky points for solo pilots. If that’s what you were looking for then you’ll be well served here, and if you were expecting anything else, then, well, more fool you. Nicely produced, consistent but with a few flaws and some silly wingmen mechanics that often threaten to get in the way of the fun, but there’s nothing else like this on the PS3 and for that reason H.A.W.X stands out more than perhaps it might if it were a FPS, for example.