It was 1992, living in Saudi Arabia and watching the F-117s, F-15s, F-5s and Tornados taking to the skies to fly sorties over Iraq, that I last remember playing a flight simulator on a console that I enjoyed. That flight simulator was F-22 Interceptor on the Sega Megadrive, and I remember thinking how far flight games on the console had come along since Afterburner on the Master System.
I never played another simulator on a console until last year, and I was bitterly disappointed by Ace Combat. I promised myself then I would never again invest in a genre that just wasn’t comfortable on the console platforms. But it’s really hard being a flight sim geek, and sometimes you subject yourself to bad games only to indulge yourself in comparison, noting the negative aspects of a game, ignoring any positive because it’s not as good as another, usually older, game that you’ve played on the PC.
Consoles have always existed to fulfil the immediate need and, with processing power an issue, it’s hard to get something as complex as a flight simulator to work as well on consoles as it does on spec-able PCs. Couple this with the infinite peripheral capabilities PC players have access to, it becomes clear that consoles really aren’t the best place for any self-respecting flight simulator fan. The only way then to combat this issue, is to make a game that combines the most successful aspects of all platforms, and wrap them into a package that will satisfy the hardcore gamer, as well as giving the geeky sim fan something familiar and real enough to appreciate.
Tom Clancy’s HAWX has somehow managed this and, although I wasn’t keen on the game when I first saw it, it has raised the bar for console flight sims. Sure each plane has a ridiculous payload, but it’s supposed to be an intense, long-lasting FPS in the sky. Sure the missiles are made up, although if you look at their icons, you’ll be able to tell the AIMs from the AMRAAMs, the mavericks from the ALARMs and the like. Sure the cockpits are accurately represented, but the cockpit view is restrictive, and not particularly conducive to dogfighting.
But somehow that didn’t stop me from playing. Now, that might have something to do with the fact that I could port my flight sim setup, sticks, throttle control, rudders and all, to the game, giving me complete control and familiarity by assigning buttons for my different functions. It could be because I found the game visually appealing – with maps based on satellite images from Google maps, one can’t ask for a more accurate environment in an FPS flight sim. It could be because there are 60 aircraft to choose from, although we’ve only played with six (Rafale C, Eurofighter, JSF,A-10 Thunderbolt, Su-37 andthe NASA F-15B Active), which adhere to their real life counterparts;some being faster, others being more manoeuvrable, and the like. Ubisoft says each aircraft has been subject to approval from the aircraft developers, and it shows. You also have a great, if occasionally frustrating, external view when you turn flight assistance off. This allows you to pull off more complex manoeuvres but limits your spatial awareness and combat ability. It’s a great addition but it would be nice to have access to the advanced flight moves in the standard views. The attention to detail in the external view, however, is incredible, most notably the sonic boom visual when the aircraft breaks through the sound barrier. It’ll be interesting to see, however, if all the aircraft in the game do that, as some, like the Harrier, are subsonic, therefore shouldn’t have that visual effect in game.
When you choose an aircraft for the mission from your hangar, you’re unable to choose your payload. Instead there is a list of three pay packets which vary from air dominance to ground suppression. This may well change in the final edit of the game, but it is a little disappointing that you can’t kit out your aircraft. You’re provided with an unrealistic amount of weapons (HAWX leans more towards action than simulation after all) but choosing the correct weapons for the job is essential. Having said that, if you are hit by an enemy missile or flak then expect to lose some of your missiles as a penalty.
When you start playing the missions, Tom Clancy you’ll recognise some names, places and missions from the Tom Clancy universe – the game is set between GRAW and Endwar. I won’t go into any more detail, but Tom Clancy fans will love taking to the sky with the HAWX team, heading the missions and making sure the world is a safer place…for the Americans at least!
HAWX slots in somewhere in-between the action flight games of old and the more recent additions to the genre. The addictive, frenetic action of Afterburner is rediscovered while the gameplay that Ace Combat tried to achieve has been captured. Instead of constantly battling with long range enemies you can’t see, HAWX forces you into a dogfight, with the emphasis on close quarters combat. Long range missiles are a thing of the past – the HAWX universe assumes that efficient countermeasures and better stealth mean the enemy has to be engaged at close range. This makes for a very intense battleground, and you’ll find yourself constantly fighting a lock froman enemy. It doesn’t just stop in the air though. Engaging ground forces, such as tanks, SAM sites and even jammers, are taxing as you’ll find them snug in a corner of a city. This wouldn’t be such an issue if you were able to take them out from long range and at high altitude, but instead you find yourself weaving in and out of skyscrapers, trying desperately to control your speed while making sure you have a sure line of fire on the target.
Throw in the co-op and things get even more interesting. Before you even get into the battlespace you have to know your enemy, and you have to know what the primary objectives of your mission are. Choice of aircraft and payloads can quickly determine whether you’ll maintain the upperhand in a battle, adding a welcome element of strategy to the game. With up to four players in a squad playing co-operatively you can have one pilot maintaining air dominance, while the other two go on bombing runs, leaving the last person to pick off the stragglers. This applies to two or three player co-op too, meaning players can experience a variety of objectives within the same mission, giving everyone a job to do.
We played the PC version with flight stick controls and it proved to be an intuitive, immersive setup. The 360 version we played was exactly the same in terms of gameplay, and possibly even better looking – if players can plug in their flight sim set up to the console versions*, then I’m sure this game will be one that flight sim geeks and hardcore gamers can both enjoy.*Although lead developer Thomas Simon, in an interview withIncGamers, said that the peripherals would be compatible with all next gen consoles, as well as the PC version, we only had the chance to check this out on the PC, and both a Saitek X-45 setup and an older, second generation Microsoft Sidewinder flight stick worked fine afterlittle calibration.