Reviewed: March 13, 2009
Released: March 3, 2009
I’ve always had a thing for flight sims. I’m guessing it goes back to the days of the original Flight Simulator – that crappy CGA (3 color) game where you took off from Meigs Field Airport in Chicago and flew around a grid-based landscape with two or three buildings (polygons) that popped off the surface. I was happy if I could take off, circle the Hancock Building and land where I started. Then again, it didn’t take much to make me happy in 1982.
Today, we have amazing games like Crimson Skies, Blazing Angels, Ace Combat, and Battlestations: Midway. These games run the gamut from arcade to realistic simulation; from fantasy to historically accurate. But what would happen if somebody took the fun and excitement of the Ace Combat franchise and mixed it with a rich and engaging story from the Tom Clancy universe?
Welcome to the near future and the world of H.A.W.X; a world where governments have turned much of their military might over to PMC’s (Private Military Corporations). With these guys, war is business and it’s all about the bottom line and making a profit. When you begin the game you start off as a hotshot Navy pilot on his final missions. Your reputation has earned you the recognition of one of the largest PMC’s, so with the end of your Navy career begins a new life in the private sector.
Things start off fairly well until Artemis, the firm you are employed with gets a better offer and turns against the United States. Tough choices have to be made and you quickly rejoin the U.S. military to defend your country against some of the most original and brilliantly scripted attacks on our government and our country. While the gameplay in H.A.W.X may be considered atypical of the genre, the story and mission structure is worthy of the big screen, or at least a season of “24”.
Amazing story aside, when you climb into the cockpit of the more than 50 licensed planes, nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking adventure you are about to experience. A big part of the appeal of this game is that you are fighting in real world locations like Rio, Washington D.C. Chicago, and L.A. You’ll attack and reclaim a naval base on the east coast and even head to Florida to defend the launch of the space shuttle. These locations along with the story consume you in a way that no other flight action game ever has.
When it comes to gameplay H.A.W.X builds on the established genre then takes it to some exciting new places. For those looking for the classic Ace Combat look and feel you can settle in to the Assistance Mode where speed is regulated and its impossible to stall. In this mode you can cycle through the traditional views like the chase cam, cockpit, and nose view. It is also in this mode that you can engage the E.R.S. (Enhanced Reality System).
The E.R.S. can be toggle on in a variety of situations from missile avoidances to engaging an enemy in a dogfight or plotting a complicated course toward a concealed ground target. When activated a sequence of triangles appear on your HUD indicating the desired flight path. All you have to do is maintain course and speed through these “rings” to accomplish your goal.
Later in the game you will encounter advanced enemies and in greater numbers and you can’t always rely on computer assistance. It’s times like these you need to turn Assistance Off and get more tactical. In this mode you’ll switch to a third-person perspective from an isometric angle that allows you to see your plane and multiple enemies. This mode can be a bit awkward at first, almost like playing Blazing Angles with the enemy lock on. Your joystick and flight directions are no longer relevant to your viewpoint and it can become extremely easy to crash if you are engaging in low-altitude combat. But with this mode turned off your plane has much greater maneuverability and the ability to perform slip turns so you can lock in on the enemy’s “six”.
For most of the missions you will have several other fighters at your command. You can either order them to defend you while you attack or specify a target and order them to attack it. The A.I. is functional and they will take out a decent number of targets but rest assured, you’ll be doing most of the work. They seem better at attacking ground targets rather than enemies in the air.
Another interesting element to the gameplay is the optional voice command system. You can toggle this on and off by squeezing RB/LB and then issue voice commands to activate flares, toggle map and radar, or issue orders to your squad. This is an awesome feature that had me thinking of that Clint Eastwood movie, Fire Fox where he only had to “think” the commands. The voice recognition is excellent – apparently using the same technology as End War.
H.A.W.X supports several flight sticks including the one that came bundled with Ace Combat. I haven’t had the opportunity to try the game with any of these sticks, and while I’m sure they might add a bit of “perceived immersion” to the game, I found H.A.W.X played perfectly with a standard gamepad. This game is much more action and arcade than simulation, so a stick would likely only complicate matters…I’m guessing. It would be like trying to play GTA with a wheel.
Over the course of the 19-mission campaign you will earn experience points that will rank you through various levels, earning you new planes, weapons, and access to new missions. While you often have several choices of planes and weapons for each mission, there is always a recommended plane and load-out so you can jump right in.
H.A.W.X offers a fantastic multiplayer component starting with a drop-in/drop-out co-op mode for the campaign mode. Nothing is quite as exciting as having a friend actually playing as your wingman. Hopefully they will serve you better than the computer A.I. You can also engage in PVP modes for solo dogfighting or even team battles with up to 8 players. Experience earned in multiplayer is shared with that earned in the solo career.
Visually, H.A.W.X borders on photorealism when flown at typical combat altitudes. When you dip down to skim the surface things start to get a bit blocky. There is obvious use of satellite reference photos scaled for a certain altitude and when you start to artificially zoom those photos it will naturally get a bit ugly. But no other game comes close to touching the realism of these all-too familiar landscapes and landmarks. Zooming around D.C. or spiraling around the shuttle as it streaks into orbit or flying over the night skies of Los Angeles…H.A.W.X is a scenic feast for the eyes.
The presentation is fairly barebones with mission briefings that could have been lifted from Rainbow Six or GRAW. You’ll get a brief aerial fly-through of the level before the mission and then a replay mode after the mission is over where you can cycle the cameras and relive the combat from your favorite vantage point. Make sure to keep your fire button held down for an awesome CNN-style missile cam.
The audio presentation is superb with a great soundtrack that will get your patriotic blood pumping and even boiling at times. The rest of the sound experience is mostly your engines, which are muffled unless you are playing from the chase view, the whoosh of missiles, the clatter of machine gun fire, and powerfully deep explosions. You’ll also get the occasional mid-mission briefing and chatter from your wingmen.
H.A.W.X is a good 8-10 hour game on the standard skill setting and there is no telling how long you will play this online. There are plenty of people playing and it’s a fun way to rank up and earn new planes and weapons you can use when replaying the story mode at higher skill levels. The co-op mode is also insanely fun and more strategic than playing with the standard A.I. There is a healthy mix of Achievement Points that covers completing missions to performing well and hitting various milestones during combat.
I enjoyed Ace Combat but I love H.A.W.X and it’s mostly because of the story and the locations for the missions. I’m burned out on WWII and history sims and Ace Combat is always so futuristic and detached from reality. In this game I am flying real planes in real recognizable locations. Where else can you save Washington D.C. then defend Air Force One while the President escapes the invasion of the capital, or defend the space shuttle then seek out and destroy a nuke hidden in downtown L.A.?
H.A.W.X is flight action combat at its best and is served up nicely with a heavy dose of political espionage, intrigue, and betrayal, Tom Clancy style. Whether you rent or buy you’ll definitely want to take part in this supersonic ride of your life.