Friday, May 8, 2009

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X review

Way back in 1996, military thriller writer Tom Clancy and British Navy Captain Doug Littlejohns formed a company called Red Storm Entertainment to cash in on the growing videogame market by making games based on Tom Clancy's books. The first two games were strategy games based on actual novels, and the third was one of the first 3D RTS games. But it was their next game, Rainbow Six, that caught the attention of Ubisoft, and Ubisoft who went on to make the "Tom Clancy's" label a gaming household name.

Since the original Rainbow Six there have been numerous sequels, as well as the Ghost Recon series to do the first and third-person shooters. There's been the Splinter Cell series to cover the espionage aspect of war. Endwar brought the whole "Tom Clancy's War Games" full circle back to the RTS genre.

Of course, there's one major aspect of modern warfare that's been glimpsed in other Tom Clancy games, but never really experienced: air combat. Which is where H.A.W.X steps in.

Air combat games have traditionally been one of two types. In one corner, there's the realistic PC games that involve complicated controls, limited ammo and health, and missions that often come down to dogfights with guns. In the other corner, there's the console "arcade" games with simple controls, planes that can take a few missiles to the tail before going down, impossible ammounts of ammo, and crazy missions that make you think the course of an entire war is decided by one ace pilot. Namco's Ace Combat series has absolutely dominated the latter, becoming a sort of gold standard to which all other arcade-style flight sims are compared. Some (Air Force Delta) have fared marginally well, while others (Lethal Skies) seemed way off the mark.

The truth is, H.A.W.X is not Ace Combat. Ace Combat games have this odd mix of truly crazy missions, boss fights against super weapons, cheesy stories set in fictional countries, and tendency to give you the really cool planes at just the right point that you can enjoy them for a bit before the game ends that no one has been able to match. Judging by the most recent Ace Combat, even Namco might be having a little trouble keeping up with past efforts.

Despite the game's flaws, though, H.A.W.X is probably the best game in the genre that's not Ace Combat. The game is at it's best when it's mimicking Ace Combat. There are a good number of planes in the game, each better suited to different missions with a variety of different weapons. Control is also very similar to Ace Combat, so fans of the series will find themselves quite comfortable in David Crenshaw's flight suit. Your plane can sustain a reasonable ammount of damage, and can apparently carry around 200 bombs and missiles. The story, while lacking the over-the-top cheese of the Ace Combat games, is a serious story of a Private Military Company, and is enough to keep you engaged in what's going on. And H.A.W.X has excellent graphics with scenery of real places including D.C. and Chicago modeled with images taken by GeoEye's IKONOS satellite.

H.A.W.X does try to bring a few things to the table. The simplest is that your plane carries a few flares. This real-life countermeasure is very welcome when you're just about to line up a shot on a target, only to have a missile coming at you. The biggest is the E.R.S, or Enhanced Reality System. The E.R.S. has two main functions. On some levels where you have to fly at a certain altitude or stay in a certain area, the E.R.S. displays holographic boundaries automatically for you. It helps the game retain some of the high-tech futuristic hallmarks of other Clancyverse games without being obtrusive, and can be easier to watch than your altimeter during a mission. The second function, only used at certain times, creates a series of colored gates for you to fly through, showing you the optimal path for a certain task. At times, it's necessary, like one level that you use it to show you the only path you can take through a certain area to avoid being hit by surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs). At times, it's sort of useful, like when you're trying to line up a shot on a tank tucked between some buildings. Most of the time, it can be used for lining up a shot on an enemy plane or to dodge an enemy missile, and in both of those cases, it's sort of useless.

The other big feature the game has is called "Limiter Off Mode." The idea is that modern planes have flight control software that keeps you from performing maneuvers that would cause the plane to stall. By turning that software off, you can pull off sharper turns and more extreme maneuvers. This is supposed to be one of the game's big features. There's even an entire mission devoted to training in Limiter Off Mode.

The problem with Limiter Off Mode is that it switches to the most ridiculous camera angles. When there's no target, the angle makes it look like the plane is flying from the lower left corner to the upper right, and slightly away from you. When there is a target, the camera is centered on it. Flying in Limited Off Mode isn't just a pain because it's awkward to fly a plane with those angles, but you also have to worry about stalling as struggle to point your plane in the right direction. The developers at Ubisoft Romania shouldn't be bragging about this crap, since I'd call any feature that broken a bug, not a highlight. The only good thing I can say about it is that aside from the aforementioned training mission, you never actually have to use it.

There are other little flaws, too. Most of the game's missions are very similar. They seem to either involve taking out some ground forces before they take out your allies on the ground, or taking out jet planes to protect some other plane. None of the missions involve any superweaon boss fights, either. In fact, after playing two or three missions, I found myself wanting to do something else, because I didn't feel like doing the similar tasks that the game's missions require. This might help offest the fact that H.A.W.X is also very short, at just 19 missions. In fact, I finished the single-player campaign after two days of playing it.

There may be some replay value. Unlike Ace Combat, where you buy your planes and weapons with cash you earn, you gain experience in H.A.W.X for completing levels, completing other goals, or basically killing stuff. Completing missions will unlock new planes, but so will gaining experience levels. By the time I'd finished the campaing, several planes and weapon packages were still locked, simply because I hadn't reached a high enough level. This seems a bit like forced replay value to me.

So H.A.W.X wound up being a game that I wanted to stop playing after playing a few missions, but wanted to play again after taking a short break. H.A.W.X's flaws keep it from being a stellar game, like the Ace Combat series (which, I confess, is one of my favorite series), but the stuff that H.A.W.X does right does make the game ultimately entertaining, at least for a little while.

Final Score: B-

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