Tom Clancy's HAWX
Let's be honest, Tom Cruise is a bit of a wally. But Top Gun was fun, I'll admit that. If only that do or dare attitude could be replicated in a videogame that really captures the fun of air combat, without the need for dials and lengthy, overly realistic sequences flying between the good bits. In step Ubisoft with a risky new entry in their Tom Clancy range, HAWX.
Developed by Ubisoft's Bucharest studio, HAWX begins during the closing events of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2, and will end a few years before EndWar takes the Tom Clancy brand into freshly apocalyptic territory. As such you'll be engaging foes in real-world aircraft, planes presently being prototyped, and more futuristic craft that will be employed heavily in, cleverly, EndWar.
Playing as ace pilot David Cranshaw, you'll begin the game as a combatant in an elite US airforce unit, before the plot takes you off to work for a powerful private military company. The story promises to be pure Clancy, offering geo-political intrigue, coupled with a gritty central character who's eyes you will view world changing events through. As lead designer Thomas Simon tells us, the plot blends seamlessly into the Clancy IP, Ubisoft keen to create a whole world and a consistent narrative, with an ongoing yarn told through multiple, overlapping games and genres.
Despite the backing of the Clancy brand, then, the advent of HAWX - years in the making - does of course represent something of a gamble for Ubisoft, who don't have a lengthy pedigree in the air combat genre. Can Top Gun really meet Tom Clancy? Will the game's Romanian developers strike the right balance between realism, and pure action-pack pleasure?
Needless to say, leaping into the game itself was an intriguing proposition. A firm focus is placed on co-operative play (a la Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six), and from the get go I'm in a mission flying over Rio de Janeiro, alongside three other pilots, protecting the Brazilian capital from a hostile invasion. Bombers and fighter jets swoop over head, while ground forces descend on the city. Your choice of plane will make a big difference to your best role in the city's defense. Slower bombers are better at tackling sluggish ground units, anti-aircraft gun, tanks and the like. Speedier fighter planes are better at dog fighting with similar enemy craft, occupying the bad guys while allowing the bombers to do their work.
Immediately in co-op play it is obvious that teamwork is going to play a vital part, players having to work together in order to repel the attack on Rio, using the attributes of different airplanes. The action itself comes thick and fast, too, Ubisoft unashamed in their efforts to open up the genre via battles that never let up; where you always seem to be fighting a losing battle. The way the game handles plays a large role in this, for most of the time you have the option of playing with various flying assistances switched on, this stops you stalling, and provides numerous visual aids on the HUD to help you find, chase, target and destroy enemy units.
Ubisoft seem to be working hard to make your technologically advanced flying aids vital to the experience. The aids should, and in the segments I played did, successfully make taking on targets easier than it really should be. Likewise moving between tussles is quicker, giving the game an arcade dynamic. Of course, whether these aids remove too much of the challenge remains to be seen, and you can switch them off if you wish. Indeed, you'll have to sometimes, you're flying assistant preventing dangerous stalls at the expense of a little maneuverability. This means that when a missile has locked onto your plane, you'll need to perform a well-timed stall in order to dodge the incoming projectile. During these sequences, the camera swings to an exterior view of the plane, the HUD disappearing as you're offered a cinematic view of your avoidance tactic. Again, this all seems to have been surprisingly well implemented, but it remains to be seen whether it stands up to extended play.
Another element of HAWX that grabs the attention from the outset are the visuals. The craft are detailed, the particle effects - tracer, vapour, clouds, smoke, et al - a joy to behold. More impressive still is the level of detail present in the ground vistas you'll be duking it out over. From the previously mentioned Rio, to oil refineries set in vast, barren deserts, the scene is never lacking in realistic touches; detailing unparalleled in past examples of the genre. Even when swooping in low the textures and detailing seems to hold up well - and it was only in my efforts to get a closer look that I actually crashed into tower blocks and spied, ever so briefly before my demise, a little unsightly pixilation.
Speaking to Thomas Simon, the game maker reveals to us that the game world of HAWX is based on heavily licensed satellite data - real-life landscape information so complex that if Ubi had used everything available we're reliably informed that one map would have consumed an entire DVD. None the less, this dedication is noticeable, as is the size of the maps, which can reach 120km by 120km.
Having failed in a mission to defend Rio (damned flak), I took on the defense of oil facilities in the desert and even escorted Air Force One during an attack by hostile forces. This variety and imagination helps add colour and interest to the game's missions - which not only need to keep the player hooked but also tell a compelling story. Other missions will see players defending a space shuttle launch over Cape Canaveral (something to do with satellites and saving America from a nuclear attack), as well as dealing with a vicious attack on Chicago. Iconic, real world locales are key to HAWX, and this once again ties in with the plausible world Ubisoft are trying to build through all their Clancy offerings.
Other diverse settings are promised in the final game, alongside over 60 kinds of plane, not to mention voice control unashamedly pinched from EndWar, and used here for issuing wing-man commands. The co-op play looks important, and deservedly so, while much of the game's hopes seem to be pinned on the combat keeping the player hooked - striking a balance between action and arcade 'lightness', which won't do much for the plot, the centre of the developer's loftier ambitions for this new title. We're certainly eager to take to the air once again when HAWX is released in the coming months.