Tom Clancy's HAWX
HAWX's greatest failing is that, as ace pilot David Crenshaw, you never quite pull off the dazzling aerial moves that the various cinematics lead you to believe are possible: one in particular has an aeroplane pull a 180 degree flip in a millisecond, and unleash two rockets at a pursuing target. The whizzy futuristic technology goes down a treat, but it's hard to fall for the illusion of being a maverick pilot when you're cruising around a turning circle wider than the gap between reality and Tom Clancy's personal version of it.
Set between GRAW 2 and EndWar, HAWX's storyline plonks Crenshaw and his squadron in the money-loving arms of the Artemis Corporation, a private military company with a promising future: the six figure salary is certainly more attractive than the redundancy package offered by the US Military.
HAWX is completely obsessed with economy, and is more than happy to throw up footage of businessmen at any given moment. It exists in a narrative that's privatised the military, creating a utopia for free-market lovers everywhere. Tom Clancy's heritage means there's about as much subtlety in HAWX as a foghorn, so it's not long before the avarice starts corrupting and the morality seeps in, with Crenshaw turning tail and fighting the good fight for the USA.
Artemis goes from good to evil in a single cut-scene as their devotion to the company's stock price becomes apparent. It's absurd, putting the antagonists in an untenable position: if Artemis will do whatever looks good for their stock market value, why do they launch an offensive attack on the USA? Embroiling yourself in a costly, dangerous war with the world's biggest superpower isn't a sure-fire way to guarantee great bonuses on the NASDAQ.
Of course, this is not what a simple fighter pilot need concern himself with, and I'm hardly in an eligible position to dish out analysis on the economic situation of 2021. For all I know everyone will be zombies by then. Artemis are evil. Fly about and blow up their stuff.
The flight-sim is a dying breed of genre, so it's with a touch of genuine respect that I am thankful to Ubisoft for continuing to pump them out. With a game like HAWX there are always going to be great moments inside its glossy confines. Pulling off the perfect drift is guaranteed to activate latent masculinity genes, and the machismo of successful upside-down cannon runs on targets is unshakable. Its allusions to Top Gun have been rife since conception, and they're unlikely to go away, but it's the chance of experiencing the same rush of narratological adrenaline as the twenty-three year old popcorn-action flick that will draw most people into HAWX to begin with.
Ubisoft have done their best to make the genre accessible, so flying is mapped out to the 360 controller in a comfortable way. HAWX pushes its accessibility and sets itself apart from the competition (chiefly Namco's venerable Ace Combat series) in two primary ways: it's ERS and OFF modes.
ERS, or the Enhanced Reality System, kicks in whenever you're having a bit of trouble positioning yourself to attack an enemy plane or trying to dodge a particularly pesky missile. It's HAWX's equivalent of a Get Out of Jail Free card, mapping an on-screen trajectory that will put you in the perfect location for an attack or get you out of the way of whatever it is chasing your tail. It is, by conception, quite useful. But it's also optional, so any flight veterans who consider it a bit on the cheap side can just avoid it.
The other trick up its sleeve is the OFF mode, achieved by tapping the right or left triggers twice. The camera pulls away to a distant third-person view and the whizzy on-board computers are turned off, allowing you to perform tight drifts and make better shots at the expense of potentially stalling the plane. You're also, quite conveniently, permanently locked-on to the nearest adversary. It's an occasional necessity (some enemy planes are too nimble to be shot down without it) but its fixed camera point makes the whole affair visually distorting. It's certainly a while before nipping around in OFF mode becomes second nature.
Of course, making it all third-person is another way for the developers to show off the graphics. HAWX is an attractive title, with its pretty plane models cruising at an unshakably smooth sixty frames per second. Along with that, the game makes a big deal about realistically mapped land surfaces, which all looks sublime when you're flying three thousand meters in the air. Zoomed in, however, it's a bit rougher around the edges: terrain and explosion effects are especially underwhelming close-up and the graphical compromises for having so much freedom to fly around in become quite apparent.
The campaign is stretched over nineteen levels, and whilst there's a focus towards replaying its fiscally-conscious narrative it's not nearly a titillating enough experience to warrant a second go. There's the potential for drop-in, drop-out co-op, though, which is an expectedly joyous affair if playing with a mate.
HAWX is also in receipt of a persistent XP system, granting you points for every enemy you take down both on and offline. You're assigned a rank based on your level (1-40) and the further you progress the more cool swag you unlock. This is quite competently mapped to the single-player game, with some powerful, awesome-looking planes being unlocked towards the end of the campaign. The same planes are then made available to pilot in multiplayer. Or vice-versa.
Multiplayer, then, is a big focus, but a weak effort. The 360 version's Achievements are weighted heavily towards the online side, but for all the drive towards getting people shouting "GOOSE" down their headsets there's very little to actually encourage you play the game. The adversarial modes are nothing more than simple dog-fighting spread out over three rounds, with the average game lasting far longer than the caffeine-addled, hyperactive Xbox Live player will be able to stand. Team Deathmatch games of HAWX online will collapse quicker than a souffle at a rave when the first player quits. The tame multiplayer is certainly a bit of a shame: there's potential in HAWX to be a unique, entertaining online game.
Potential is a key word for discussing HAWX. There's a lot of hope within the engine, and the core gameplay is competent enough to secure its position as an emerging IP. It's still a bit rough around the edges, though, and Ubisoft should perhaps be a little bit ashamed for not allowing its natural potential to shine through. Or, to coin a final cliche, for failing to give HAWX an adequate set of wings.