Last month we went to see Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. at Colindale RAF Museum where we had the chance to look at the new game as well as talk to lead producer, Thomas Simon.
The acquisition of the Tom Clancy universe has been quite successful for Ubisoft, let’s just talk about why a flight sim combat game appealed.The idea came quite naturally because air combat and Clancy are just a natural match. It’s high tech, it’s powerful, it’s fast, its really into the Clancy universe. Pilots perform all kinds of operation which are sometimes highly secret inside the enemy territory, which is definitely Tom Clancy. The idea has been there for many years actually, it’s not something we just came up with, it was always on our mind from the beginning asking how we could make a Clancy [game] with jet-fighters.
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So how does the story fit into the Tom Clancy universe? Where is it placed?
The player is actually David Crenshaw who is the pilot you see in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) 2, the pilot who performs the airstrike to support the Ghost [team]. You will actually replay that mission in H.A.W.X. but from the air this time as the introduction mission to the game. So you’re a member of the elite H.A.W.X. unit performing all kinds of operations for the US Air Force (USAF). You leave the USAF to join a private military company (PMC) which will take you across the world with missions until tensions rise between the PMC and the US over a conflict in South America that will degenerate. The US will step in, the PMC will lose control of the situation and they will actually attack the US. You will then re-activate the H.A.W.X., join the US and protect their interests.
So you’re on the US side?
Yes. You are a US pilot, you join the company, but you keep your loyalty to your country. So you will protect the US against any aggression.
The story is set between the end of GRAW 2 and [a few years before] the beginning of Endwar, where some elements of the story will announce what’s to come in Endwar such as the SLAM shield, the uplinks system, even an Endwar plane in the prototype stage in the game.
How many planes are there to choose from?
We have around 60 planes. In Endwar though, you can choose the faction you fight with. And with 60 planes, presumably they’re not all going to come from the Western “allied forces” as we like to call them today. So does that mean you’re in a mercenary capacity which allows me to fly, for example, Russian Su-37s and MiG-29s?
You will be a mercenary in several missions when you’re with the PMC and it’s then you can fly all types of aircraft. One of the specifications of the H.A.W.X. unit is that they’re able to fly any type of aircraft, including any aircraft from any other country. When the US is under attack you get the support of other forces such as NATO, so you will be able to use a MiG-29 to fight over the US to protect the president for example.
So you only have access to a limited amount of aircraft to start with at the beginning of the game?
Of course. You will unlock everything through an experience point system. Every action you do in the campaign, and in the team deathmatch [multiplayer] option actually, will feed the same pool of experience points that will unlock new aircraft, new weapons, new skins for your plane, etc. So progressively you will have access to many more aircraft for different types of missions.
You said there you unlock things during the campaign or multiplayer, which you said in an earlier presentation is jump-in/jump-out. Can you expand a little bit on that? If you can gain experience points in co-op presumably you can get the same points in single player?
Exactly. Actually the co-op is a really strong feature and we don’t make a difference between the campaign solo mission or the co-op mission. You just have a campaign, you can start it by yourself and, if you leave the session open, a friend can join you at any time, help you in a mission, the mission will automatically adapt for two, three or four players, but all the XP you get from playing this mission you keep and will unlock the same amount of stuff.
So there are no separate unlockable features or achievements?
It’s totally the same stuff, so there is nothing preventing you from playing co-op. All that you do in co-op is beneficial for you. You won’t lose anything if people join and it’s totally free and totally seamless. You can start with a friend in their campaign without even starting your own one.
I’d like the player to play the way he wants so of course we build the campaign to be a coherent progression of experience, but if you want to start straight away by going into dogfighting or team deathmatch, it’s possible.
So it’s possible to play online, unlock stuff with friends and go back and play your solo campaign with the achievements and unlockable items, such as aircraft and weapons, to give you an advantage.
So how many wingmen do you have in your squadron?
TS: When you play alone you have two wingmen who are former H.A.W.X. like you, but you were their squadron leader. You’ll be able to give them orders such as defending you or attacking your targets. When you play co-op everyone becomes a squadron leader, but you don’t have any wingmen. You have to co-ordinate yourselves. You are part of the same squadron.
Does that mean that you can choose what kind of aircraft you want to fly and what weapons you can carry? For example, if I wanted to do air dominance and my friend wanted to do bombing runs, could we choose different aircraft and weapon payloads to do that?
You can choose the aircraft you want, even if you’re part of the same squadron. So it’s up to you to decide. If there is a need for air dominance and everyone has opted for long-range missiles, then maybe it’s a good idea for someone to have shorter range missiles to pick up aircraft that have managed to get through. You have the same victory conditions, but it’s up to you to choose the way you play.
The problem I see is that most aircraft are now equipped to deal with threats beyond visual range, which means that dogfighting is all but eliminated. So how do you go about creating close quarter fighting when, in the real world, development on missiles to take out targets before you can see them is paramount?
We do want some situations where you carry out long-range interceptions, but still the most thrilling thing to do is dogfighting, engaging plances at close range and perform all types of manoeuvers, especially with the off-mode where you really free the planes’ movement with the external camera and it’s like playing in a replay.
We decided, with the progress of technology, it was harder to engage planes from a long distance because they have better countermeasures, more stealth capacity, so the dogfight will bring planes closer and pilots will have to develop new techniques to master the dogfight. We want intense dogfights, a kind of FPS in the air. There are still times where you can take out planes from up to 12km, but those aren’t the main rules, the main rule is engage, and engage well in a tight space.
There are over 60 aircraft, but how realistic are they to their real-world counterparts?
All the aircraft have been tuned based on the actual physical capacity of the real aircraft. The engine we have for the game is highly physical and has millions of parameters. We tried to reduce the extra layer of complexity that is hardly perceivable and tried to concentrate on what has real meaning in terms of gameplay.
Each plane is different with some being faster but less manoeuverable, others are slower but more manoeuverable, weapons are different, stall speeds, etc. So each plane has its personality based on the real plane. We worked very closely with the manufacturers to make sure the plane was as realistic as possible, visually too. We also tried to tune them in a way where different aircraft offer a different style of play. So you can have a plane which is able to push its stall limit if you want to be slow, or you can have a very fast plane which is highly unstable, but will be more efficient if you master it. It’s a question of style of play. We’d like the player to not focus on one plane, but for all planes to have different personalities which appeal to the player and the mission type.
What about micromanagement? Will players have to keep their eyes on fuel, weapon systems and the like? How’s that going to work? Are players going to have a limit of missiles and fuel, will there be air-to-air refueling, landing and take-offs?
At the moment we’re not talking about landing or take-off, but we’re working on it, I’ll be able to give you more information in that in time, but at the moment we’re focusing on gameplay. We want the game to be authentic. We don’t need perfect realism on everything. So managing fuel is realistic, but it’s not fun. We decided to take this out of the game and concentrate on action.
We carry more ammo than a real plane, obviously, otherwise carrying six missiles would mean the gameplay sequence would have been very short. Although it’s not realistic, we believe it doesn’t hurt the authenticity because you’re making the dogfighting more intense in a realistic environment. It’s for the sake of fun. But even still, you have the option to increase the complexity of control and you can play from any view you want. If you push all the expert controls to maximum, you’ll have a realistic experience. It doesn’t mean you have to play like that, you can still play with simplified controls.
Let’s talk peripherals. What makes a flight sim for me is the ability to plug in peripherals in the shape of joysticks, rudder pedals, throttle controls and the like. Will there be capabilities to do this?
Definitely. You will be able to use the peripherals on all platforms. Using the USB ports, you’ll be able to plug your setup in any machine. It’s a different experience. It’s much more precise, a lot more demanding and it’s available to use.
You said the story is in between Endwar and GRAW 2, and H.A.W.X. uses a different engine to Endwar, so it’s not a seamless world in the sense of being able to have cross-game compatibility even though you’re expanding the story.
We work on the same story, we belong to the same universe. We have our games and they have their games. There are synergies between the games, but they’re different games. What happened in GRAW 2 has implications in H.A.W.X. and what happens in H.A.W.X. has implications in Endwar, so it’s the beginning of merging the storylines.
We heard at Ubidays in Paris that, eventually, they’re going to merge all the games, so if you’re playing, for example H.A.W.X. and someone was playing Endwar an they needed an airstrike, you’ll be able to fly to the Endwar battlefield and deliver the airstrike. Is that something you’re working on now?
Well, it’s not happening now. It’s a great idea and we’ll see what happens. At the moment we’re still really at the beginning of this kind of interaction. You can still play with the Ghosts, but it’s in your own game.
The inevitable question now, and I have to ask, which is your favourite plane? I assume you’re a bit of a plane geek too…
Well, I might say Rafale because I actually have a little crush on that plane. Eurofighter is also a damn good aircraft.
Have you spoken to the pilots of the aircraft, got them to play it and had feedback from them?
We spoke to them, but we’re probably going to have more events where they can play the game with all the settings on realistic. We have had a lot of input from manufacturers though. And they require us to work to a lot of precise guidelines and there was a real collaboration to how we put a real plane from the real world doing real missions while respecting the basic rules, technical as well as things like civilians and buildings.
One final question, and it’s about the name. You chose H.A.W.X. which stands for High Altitude Warfare Experiment. Why did you chose that and not stick with High Altitude Warfare? And why did you not include the E in H.A.W.E?
(Chuckles) I’m not a native English speaker, so it means nothing to me!
No, the reason is we like the name, it’s easy to recognise and it’s the name of the squadron and it personifies well what the player is. He’s a special ops pilot who’s in a unit that can fly any aircraft. That’s unique.
The game should be on time? We’re not expecting a delay as we did previously?
No, the reason the game was delayed initially was because Ubisoft had lots of games releasing at the same time and we didn’t want it to get lost in the releases. It also gave me time to polish it, and if you give me more time, I’m more than happy to take it.
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Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.