All the space in the world and nothing to fill it with – this has been the primary problem at the core of all air combat games since day one. Sure, the planes have got prettier, the details more exact and the world below ever more impressive, but beyond the occasional innovation, the core gameplay has remained largely restricted by the forced design of the genre – find bogey, shoot down bogey, rinse, repeat.
The original HAWX, like so many air combat games before it, fell afoul of this very problem. It wasn’t that the game was bad; it just didn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the crowd. Ubisoft did try a few things to make the game more appealing to mainstream audiences, but in doing so found itself in something of a no man’s land, failing to capture the imagination of either the casual or the hardcore – it didn’t have the depth to please fans of simulation-inspired air combat and wasn’t interesting or diverse enough to steal away fans from the superior Ace Combat franchise. Needless to say, it just kind of existed.
Ubisoft, clearly aware of these problems has bravely attempted to widen the appeal of HAWX 2 by delivering numerous unique gameplay mechanics that, for better and for worse certainly make HAWX 2 one of the most diverse air combat games in recent years. Some additions to the core gameplay work, some don’t, but the fact is, despite Ubisoft’s best efforts to introduce various gameplay styles to a traditionally rigid genre, HAWX 2 is still at its best when it focuses on the fundamentals.
Rather than continuing the story of HAWX’s original protagonist, Colonel David Crenshaw, who has now been relegated to a supporting role, HAWX 2 has gone all Call of Duty on us by introducing three pilots from the US, UK and Russia in order to deliver the clichéd, but nonetheless entertaining story from three different perspectives. Involving the usual threats to the free world, namely Middle Eastern bad guys, Russian ultranationalists and nukes, the story moves along at a reasonable pace and, despite its inevitable familiarity, manages a few pleasing twist and turns. The story also manages to involve other Clancy franchises with certain missions and story strands involving the fellows from Ghost Recon. It’s a nice little cross-over for fans and in no way affects the story for those with no knowledge of Ghost Squad and their ongoing military shenanigans.
Whether it be delivered mid-dogfight or via the games so-so pre-mission cutscenes, HAWX 2’s story does a good job of linking worldwide events into gameplay, making mission progression feel surprisingly natural rather than the usual loosely linked reason to go blow things up. This inevitably gives more weight to HAWX 2’s numerous interludes, even if, from a purely gameplay based perspective, they are somewhat basic in design and limited in appeal.
Be it using recon drones for a bit of aerial espionage or taking control of the gun turrets of an AC-130 to clear the way for ground troops, these subsidiary missions manage to belie their simplicity via an implied sense of urgency and importance. Of course, this sense of urgency won’t really apply if you are not invested in the story or are playing through the game for a second or third time, but as part of the campaign experience, they do a pretty good job of keeping things fresh. Sadly, these missions become less exciting on each subsequent playthrough due to the reliance on entertainment inevitably being pushed towards the core mechanics which, at a base level, are painfully simplistic.
The fact is, despite these missions providing a pleasing enough distraction, HAWX 2 only comes into its own when it focuses on the basics. While it certainly won’t please fans of simulation, HAWX 2’s handling model is responsive, slick and extremely proficient. Ok, so you’re not going to stall anytime soon and you’re certainly not going to have to worry about any form of simulation micromanagement, but as an arcade styled air combat experience, HAWX 2 does just about everything right.
Despite the relative simplicity of the controls, the selection of 32 fighter planes and their subtle differences manage to keep things fresh while the inclusion of taking off, landing and the surprisingly tense mid-air refuels keep the action focused on the central gameplay while still delivering pleasing levels of diversity. Add to this a solid mix of mission objectives that include taking on stealth missions, attempting low level flybys and making last ditch escapes and it would be easy to argue that HAWX 2’s core gameplay has enough variety without the need for the forced distractions of turret missions and drone flights.
Whichever way you look at it though, it’s still the dogfighting that delivers the most excitement and, in HAWX 2, Ubisoft has delivered some hugely entertaining mid-air warfare. From the improved AI that makes shooting down enemies a much more tense, challenging affair, to those Michael Bay moments that see you flying through the debris of a recently destroyed bogey, HAWX 2 certainly delivers where it matters most.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its faults mind. Enemy aircraft letting off an array of flares and pulling off believable evasion manoeuvres are all good and well in a traditional battle, but as soon as the game starts throwing time specific challenges at you, that’s when things start to get a tad frustrating. I’m all for a challenge, but with an array of enemies to deal with and such a small window of time in which to defeat them, a reliance on luck becomes all too prevalent. You can issue your wingmen with orders in the latter, significantly more difficult battles via a selection of easy to use commands, but other than keeping a few enemies busy, they do little to whittle down the numbers.
The other major problem with HAWX 2 is the relatively poor collision detection. While not a huge problem for the majority of the game, any collision from a third-person perspective looks decidedly last-gen, while some of the latter missions that require some extremely pinpoint handling are made all the more frustrating by the engine’s inability to accurately read collisions.
The only other problem, and this will be open to debate, is that HAWX 2 is still somewhat undecided on whether it wants to please fans of simulations or aim itself squarely at a more casual crowd. A lot of the new additions feel like they are aimed more towards a sim crowd with landing and refuelling being obvious examples, but the fact is, these additions are mechanically too simple to please the hardcore and maybe a bit unnecessary as far as the casual crowd is concerned. Don’t get me wrong, HAWX 2 will certainly please fans of the original; I just don’t see it expanding the fanbase of the series despite its obvious improvements. I hope I’m wrong – HAWX 2 is a great game, I just think that for the HAWX franchise to grow, Ubisoft are going to have to pick a side and stick with it.
Regardless of my personal views on the potential future success of the series, one thing that cannot be questioned is HAWX 2’s level of content. The campaigns 20 missions are likely to take the average gamer a dozen or so hours to get through, with each mission then available to be replayed with your own choice of plane and weapon loadout. Arcade Mode and Survival Mode also offer up plenty of challenge with variable options ranging from enemy skill and ammo levels available to make them as challenging or casual as you wish. Of course, if challenge isn’t your thing, you can always try your hand at the Free Flight Option which lets you take in the game’s extremely impressive visuals at your own pace.
Using geographical maps provided by GeoEye satellites, HAWX 2’s photo-realistic vistas are incredibly impressive and extremely accurate. Knowing that you are flying over perfectly re-created areas of the world is quite an experience and, while that commitment to realism does inevitably come at the price of artistic expression and imagination, it’s nonetheless a real calling card for the game as a whole. Although locations do take a hit when you get below a certain height, with the majority of the game being played up in the clouds, HAWX 2 does have the ability to genuinely wow from a graphical standpoint. The real stars of the show however has to be the planes; each re-created with pinpoint accuracy, the collection of planes, from Russian MiG’s and the American F-15C Eagle through to the British Harrier GR.9 are all blessed with a near OCD level of precision.
All this is backed by a truly tremendous score from Tom Salta and set of consistently impressive audio effects. From the sound of missiles launching from your fighter and machine gun rounds tearing through the hull of an enemy craft, to the growl of engines roaring to life and the pleasing purr of your fighter jet as it cruises along during one of HAWX 2’s quieter moments, Ubisoft’s commitment to quality audio is apparent at every turn – if you’re lucky enough to have a decent surround sound set-up, this is one of those games that make the purchase worthwhile.
To cap off the package, HAWX 2’s multiplayer options offer an extremely robust experience with numerous co-op and adversarial options available. Like in the original, missions can be played with up to three other players in tow. Not only does this open up numerous tactical options with players able to split the team between attacking ground forces and airborne enemies, but it also makes some of the more frustrating missions a lot more enjoyable thanks to the added firepower.
As for the competitive modes of play, the eight player battles run smoothly and are generally intense, exciting affairs. Team battles also offer up secondary targets to keep things diverse and, while the primary target tends to be other fighters, it does give less experienced players the chance to pick up some experience points by taking out satellites and enemy bases. These points then go towards the games perk system that sees you unlocking numerous skills à la Call of Duty, along with additional planes to be used in competitive online battles. These perks do have the adverse effect of making entry level multiplayer quite daunting, but they do add an extra tactical option to take into consideration once you start moving up the ranks.
HAWX 2 is far from perfect but it’s nonetheless a vast improvement over the already solid original. It may not broaden the appeal of the franchise as Ubisoft had clearly hoped, but it does offer up an extremely polished, feature-filled package that will keep the majority of air combat fans extremely happy…at least until Ace Combat: Assault Horizon comes out anyway.
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