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From a distance, HAWX could be mistaken for last year's excellent Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. As we got closer and actually started playing, the level of ground detail and overall polish exceeded the already impressive visuals of Ace 6, with far more skyscrapers reaching for the clouds and tons of clutter choking the oft-ignored terra firma. Once the shock of the clean, smooth imagery wore off, we plunged into the gameplay, which left us with two entirely different opinions.
Default plane control is handled by the ERS (Enhanced Reality System). It's basically a "Help Mode" for people not accustomed to flight games that gives them a bit of leeway with chasing down targets, avoiding missiles and pulling off fancy acrobatic moves. Flashing icons direct you to or from targets and you can't really stall the plane in this mode either, so it's perfect for a newcomer or Ghost Recon fan eager to earn his wings.
Trouble is, we're not that audience, and neither are the millions who love Ace Combat and have been playing for 13 years. HAWX felt restrictive and insisted on us using the newfangled assist mode for nearly all jet operations. Avoiding a missile, while 50/50 when using chaffs (a welcome addition, mind), was damn near impossible if you didn't follow those giant red arrows along the one safe path. What about those of us who are confident in our evasive maneuvers? We can't just bank hard away ourselves?
So, for the hardcore players who could potentially blow through HAWX with little effort, there's a much harder "help off" mode that gives players more control over the plane. With this added control comes the danger of stalling the plane and no cues for evading missiles. Sounds good, sounds like a challenge for sure, but guess what? You can only gain superior control by double-tapping the triggers and switching to a weird third-person, isometric view that pulls far away from the plane. At first it's extremely disorienting and difficult to line up (and evade) missile locks, but after a few attempts we were icing bogies left and right.
When you're playing in this view, the game takes on a different feel altogether. There's a bob and weave to it that you don't see from the first person view, so instead of feeling like you're slowly sailing through the air, you can literally see the your own vapor trails and watch missiles narrowly buzz your craft - it's pretty cool and definitely a change of pace from the Ace Combat series. We're just not sure if we'd want to play an entire game like this, switching back and forth from assisted mode to wacky-third-person mode.
One other ultra-nitpicky thing that Ace fans might want to hear: multi-targeting missiles don't all auto-target. You have to switch to them, then keep hitting "new target" and it'll continue to highlight new targets until the maximum number is met. Not a problem per se, but not as easy as just having the computer do it for you.
We don't want to sound like we're coming down really hard on a game we've only played for 25 minutes though. It's certainly welcome to see competition for Namco's long-running, uncontested series. Our demo lead even told us, "If we make them make a better game, that's great."
We couldn't agree more. Look for more on HAWX and its 2012, semi-futuristic take on air combat as its fall release date prepares for landing.
May 28, 2008