Though the genre isn't as robust as it used to be, this console generationis 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, butwe 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 bedisorientating, this alteredthird-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, whichcouldn't be donein 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 linedus 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.