The Tom Clancy franchise is now pretty well established on next-gen consoles, with a large range of titles now carrying the author's name, which seems to generally be associated with a level of authenticity and realism.
The newest addition, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X is no different, however flight combat is an area where the series hasn’t been taken yet, so it's settling in to play this title wasn't without some anticipation.
The year is 2014 and you are ex-US Air Force pilot David Crenshaw, who has been hired by a private military corporation called Artemis. Initially this partnership goes well, with various deployments in Brazil, the Middle East, and general support for the US military. However Artemis grows too powerful, at which point your allegiance to the US is too strong and you rejoin your former employer to fight off Artemis with its vastly superior technology.
The story links in with the other Tom Clancy titles, such as EndWar and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, with missions where you protect Captain Mitchell, amongst other things. This places the Tom Clancy series in a sort of all-encompassing universe, with a flowing story from game to game which is quite enjoyable for people who have played them all.
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X joins a small number of flight combat titles on next-gen consoles, with its only real competition coming from Ace Combat, which also focuses on a similar style of distanced aerial combat. If you are familiar to the Ace Combat series, the first thing you will notice when kicking off Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X is that there are fifty different licensed planes, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-22 Raptor, F-15 Strike Eagle, and the Eurofighter Typhoon. This gives Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X an edge over its competition, and adds to the weight of the title as more of a sim.
Adding to the realism, all the levels are made using satellite imagery, meaning that each level will be accurate to the real world down to the number of cars parked on a street. The unfortunate side effect of this though is that many of the ground textures are washed out and blurry, but this is only noticeable when flying very low to the ground. We certainly were amazed flying through Washington darting past the Pentagon and Washington monument. From higher up the realism is exceptional and everything from the wispy clouds to the smoke trails from your missiles looks spectacular. Some reviews have mentioned slow-down, but we found no evidence of any slow-down with a solid frame-rate throughout.
The flight physics themselves are not simulated as we would have liked, and certainly not as realistic as the attention to detail on the maps and planes would have you think. You certainly won’t be taking off from aircraft carriers or limping home at the end of a difficult battle.
Flying is relatively straight forward, however mastering it does take some work, particularly when you get further into the game and experience some of the more advanced dog-fights. The controls are simple yet functional, and velocity is handled by keeping your plane up to speed, but hitting the right trigger will result in using your after-burners which launches you upward of 2000km/h depending on the plane. Despite the lack of simulation controls, we found ourselves totally addicted to the control style. Put simply, it works, and makes the game extremely fun.
A strange move by the developers was to include something called Assistance OFF mode, essentially a limiter that prevents your plane from stalling, but thus also prevents you from performing some of the more dangerous manoeuvres. This sounds fine, but when in OFF mode the camera switches to some bizarre external view which focuses on your target and has you spinning around trying to figure out where up and down is. It would be much more preferable to be inside the cockpit in OFF mode, where we have our instruments and altitude displays.
It's a shame, as due to the camera problem this OFF mode never got used, which meant we couldn't use the braking drifts that swing your plane around much faster than a normal turn.
Another element that increases the ease of use in the game is the Enhanced Reality System (E.R.S.). This is essentially a virtual computer that assesses missile trajectory, as well as how to get behind an enemy. It displays virtual markers for you to fly through to reach a target, or to evade a missile. Some missions even require you to use it to get to a target under heavy AA fire. It is done so that it feels like a plausible feature in a modern military fighter, which is possibly why we have little aversion to using it. Even those wanting more of a sim will likely be satisfied with it. It also means that even new players will quickly get into the swing of things, although there are a range of difficulty settings which do a great job at making the game friendly to most ages.
During the game, you will have help from your two wing-men whom you can issue attack and defend orders to. They are relatively simple AI however, and although they do an okay job they definitely cannot replace a human player. It does however increase the realism considerably when you have constant radio chatter from the AI, warning you of someone having a lock on you or sticking to your tail. It was exhilarating to have a wing-man tell me to release flares and break right to evade. Overall the sounds are spectacular, and the only thing seriously missing is a ground alarm warning you of an imminent impact with the ground or a mountain, but we can live with that considering the amount of time we spent darting between buildings in some of the cities.
As is to be expected in a combat-jet game, most of your kills will come from missiles. This is done by locking onto an enemy and firing, however enemies will try to outmanoeuvre your missiles, and this can be successful depending on from what angle you fired your missile from.
The game includes a large range of different weaponry, each with strengths and weaknesses, and as you progress through the game you will unlock more and more of these, along with fighter jets. The weapons vary from long range missiles, to bombs for those pesky ground targets, to the good old cannon, which you will soon find can be tricky to master but very satisfying to down an enemy with.
One of the real strengths of the title is the fantastic co-op mode. You can join up to three of your friends online for some serious co-op play, being able to jump in and out mid-mission as you please. It is definitely a lot of fun when your wing-men aren’t AI controlled, and much more satisfying to have some real chatter over your headset. This whole mode is great fun and has little noticeable lag. On top of this you have a versus mode, in which it is excessively difficult to get a decent lock on a human opponent and you’ll have to use all your flying finesse to make a kill.
There's not a lot of variety here, so it can only be hoped that new modes might be added in some DLC in the future, as it would be awesome to have to destroy a target while another team protects it, or similar.
Overall we were very impressed with Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. This may be due to low expectations, but overall it really succeeded in giving us the thrill of high-speed aerial combat, in a realistic environment with real planes. The flight model might not be simulation enough for hardcore flight sim fans, but it certainly does a good job at balancing the sim elements with arcade fun.
Aside from the bland ground textures (which are a side effect of the satellite imagery) it is a real pleasure to sit inside the cockpit of some of the worlds most high-powered machinery and dog-fight with deadly foes. Having said that, if you don’t like the idea of picking off most of your enemies from a distance, then you might like to wait for the next WWII genre flight sim. HAWX is a great game which really satisfied our hunger for a decent console combat flight title, and is a solid addition to the Tom Clancy line.
Now if only we could get some more multiplayer modes, and allow OFF mode for the cockpit view...