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Though the genre isn't as robust as it used to be, this console generation is in truly desperate need of a quality flight combat game. Ace Combat is still carrying the torch, but the Blazing Angels games were too dull and too difficult, Warhawk is as much about the ground vehicles as the aircraft (and is PS3 only), and Heroes Over Europe is still a bit of an unknown quantity. HAWX swoops in at just the right time then, bringing an original and largely successful take on how to appeal to novice flyers and veteran pilots without alienating either. More importantly, it just feels pretty damn awesome getting into high-speed dogfights and firing loads of missiles.
For those who want nothing more taxing than shooting at stuff and trying not to get shot, flying with Assistance mode switched on gives you the breathing space to do so. You get the full benefit of your pilot’s Enhanced Reality System (ERS), an info-packed visor that’s kind of like the Cross-Com in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. This enables you to find and target enemies, warns you of any incoming missiles, lets you know how much damage you’re taking, and lots of other stuff vital to keeping your bird aloft.
If the ERS makes the game sound too easy, it isn’t. You’re still the one flying the plane, controlling the altitude and speed, selecting the right weapons, lining up targets, and telling your wingmen to protect you or attack your current target. The ERS just gives you a bit of a helping hand with everything.
Playing with Assistance off is what separates the men from the boys. By double-tapping either of the triggers, the view changes to a weird, distant third-person view and removes the ERS, but in return you can perform advanced moves to get the jump on enemies and dodge missiles. Some players will hate it and find it completely disorientating, but we know there’ll be plenty of Ace Combat fans desperate for a feature like this that’s really gonna test their skills. And though it can be disorientating, this altered third-person view with its visible missiles, vapour trails and nicely textured landscape below at least brings an immediacy and a sense of speed that the default view from behind the plane just can’t match.
It definitely works too. One mission goal was to destroy a cluster of radar hubs, which couldn't be done in just one pass. Instead of having to fly several hundred feet away from them before slowly arcing back around to have another go, we switched to Assistance off, braked and pulled down on the left stick to perform an immediate flip-turn that lined us up perfectly for a second pass. It was quick, seamless and pretty amazing to see. The constant risk of stalling only adds to the pressure of pulling off these kinds of advanced moves, and the only way to recover from a stall is to increase your speed and point the nose down.
Missions in flight combat games usually end up going down one of two paths: either you sit there flying in a straight line for ten minutes before encountering an enemy or they descend into a series of mindless dogfights. Not so in HAWX, which manages to pack in a number of gameplay twists just when you start to get too comfortable.
Take Operation Stiletto, which tasks you with flying through a tightly packed network of radar zones to find some radar hubs within a time limit. Fly into one of the red-ringed zones and you only have a few seconds to get out before you’re detected and automatically fail the mission. Fly the longer route around them and you could run out of time, as well as come into contact with enemy frigates and Surface To Air Missile (SAM) sites. It’s a tense and tricky mission.
Then there’s Operation Torchlight, an escort mission where you must protect none other than Air Force One. The plane flies along a set route that’s marked on your map. Also highlighted are squads of enemy fighters flying in from different directions. Do you fly away from Air Force One to intercept them before they get within shooting distance? Or stick close to the plane and try to draw their fire? Using your wingmen wisely and making sure you have multi-target anti-aircraft (AA) missiles on board are musts here.
One of the hardest missions is Operation Iron Arrow. In it, the enemy has placed a number of jamming stations on the ground in Chicago, which scramble your ERS, but by staying within a certain radius of an AWAC the signal remains clear. Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds when you have to protect the AWAC from enemy aircraft as well as destroy the jamming stations it finds.
These kinds of multi-layer missions where either a slight restriction is placed on where you can fly, or you’re faced with a difficult choice whether to pursue enemies or stay put and protect an ally are the ones that work best.
Others are more straightforward dogfights, but even these manage to look and feel epic in scope, or carry a kick in the teeth right at the end just when you think it’s all over. Operation Glass Hammer is probably the best example of this, with Rio under attack from all angles from fighters, landing craft, tanks and CAS planes, followed by the appearance of some Ace pilots, who prove pretty adept at dodging your missiles until you’re willing to switch Assistance off and try some more advanced aerial moves to take them by surprise.
Even the climax of the first mission, Operation Adder, is pretty testing thanks to the introduction of a few bombers who end your flight career prematurely if just one of them gets through your defences and drops its entire payload on an oil refinery you’re supposed to be protecting.
If all these missions sound a bit taxing and exacting, the checkpoints are superbly spaced and positioned right before the main action begins, so you’ll never get stuck for too long or have to fly looking at scenery for ten minutes. It’s such a simple thing to get right, but you’d be surprised at how games such as Blazing Angels managed to cock up its checkpoint saves and suck the fun out of the game like a deflated Zeppelin.
The online co-op and Team Deathmatch multiplayer mode look to add a whole new dimension to the single-player missions. Now, instead of issuing simple attack or defend commands to two AI wingmen, you can bark more detailed orders over your headset at up to three team-mates and even engage in a little friendly competition to see who can rack up the most kills. Imagine the difference the wingman command system will make to, say, Operation Torchlight; three players could cover the different flight paths the enemy squadrons take, while the remaining player could stay with Air Force One at all times and mop up anything that gets through. If you’re thinking about playing co-op, or even four-on-four Team Deathmatch for that matter, it won’t be half as much fun or as rewarding if you don’t have a headset.
HAWX is exactly what you want from a flight combat game. It’s instantly accessible without pandering to thickies, it leaves it up to the player whether they want to use a more advanced control scheme (but cleverly incorporates the two), and the missions are varied and exciting. Ubisoft Bucharest has obviously learned one hell of a lot from the underwhelming, period dullathon Blazing Angels, making HAWX leaner, meaner and more addictive. It’s our current flight combat game of choice.
Mar 4, 2009