Besides being an interactive weapons manufacturer catalogue, its roster of true-to-life planes lounging against pseudo-Matrixy menu backdrops like underwear models with fuel-air bombs for tits, HAWX the First was a game about ‘enhancing reality’ via a ‘system’ known as the Enhanced Reality System.
As it turned out, Ubisoft’s method of ‘enhancing reality’ was to fill reality with rubbery pop-in video, daisy-chains of electro guide hoops and so forth, all of it in the interest of adding body and nuance to the relatively bloodless business of virtual air combat. This was championed as a revolutionary angle, and what with all the acronym madness very much looked it, till the point dawned that almost every preceding action game had offered something similar, that something being the humble heads-up display.
To maintain the impression of raw, unmitigated advancedness, the developer was obliged to create an artificial distinction in-game between ‘Assists On’ or ‘just another Ace Combat wannabe’ mode, in which interface convention applied and life made sense, and ‘Assists Off’ or ‘WTF’ mode, in which the cameraman took a sudden leap from the port wing with most of the HUD in his shirt pocket.
While justifications were offered at a mechanical level – the new perspective made it easier to dodge missiles – what Assists Off really amounted to, one suspects, was psychological warfare on critics, a bucket of icy data loss violently hurled over any accusations of wheel-reinventing. ‘Oh, so you’ve seen it all before, have you?’ HAWX seemed to be saying. ‘Then I guess you won’t mind if we – snip! – take it right away from you. PERISH IN FLAMES, UNBELIEVER.’
The feature’s still there in HAWX 2, albeit stamped into the sublayer like a furtive cigarette end, Ubisoft having realised, presumably, that warming over the line about pushing envelopes might provoke some sort of armed reprisal. In homage to presentational hubris, and also because we don’t let a grudge go gracefully here at VGD, I’m going to model this review on the idea of ‘assists’. Ours won’t keep you airborne, but they might keep you interested in what few doubted would be a flight sim of profound and unflinching… adequacy.
Let’s start with the assists on. HAWX 2 is awesome! The globe is up to its unmentionables in peril, or at least the Arabic-speaking parts of its unmentionables, fierce and spectacular shoot-outs erupting over tracts of oil-rich desert and poverty-rich hovel, but don’t get your harness in a bunch, pilot, because you’re well out of that – way, way up in the brilliant blue fastness, where the only things to worry about are jarheads on the radio getting chippy because you haven’t strafed the bunkers yet, goddamn flyboy.
In the course of the campaign’s 20 missions, you’ll occasionally find yourself spying on brighter stars in the insurgent cosmos, siphoning their phone conversations or overseeing the blowing-in of their doors and windows by Ghost squads, but what you’ll mostly be doing is participating in tweaked and tucked replays of the original’s solid dogfights.
Homing missiles with a splash of cannon fire are still the bread and butter, but the enemy AI is just that crucial bit smarter. Evasive turns are either well-timed or believably desperate, flare deployment often calculating (though, later on, rather excessive). On regular difficulty, there’s a much solider sense of a ‘sweet spot’ between loosing a homer from so far off the other pilot is able to square up his bird and light a match off it as it buzzes harmlessly past the cockpit, and loosing one from so close that it whirrs straight through his jet streams.
More high-falutin’ breeds of armament are doled out to cleanse palettes numbed by propellant, and while a few (e.g. the AC-130′s side-mounted howitzers) are just there to prop up certain scenarios, others are part of a thinking pilot’s tools of war. Radar-guided missiles, for instance, ignore all attempts at misdirection providing you keep a circle reticle over the target, making them deadly at range but crap within a thousand metres.
Completing campaign missions unlocks wild card ‘arcade’ remixes which ask you to repeat the trick with a gimped load-out, or in the face of withering odds, or both. They provide a nice upper level of engagement for the dedicated, and should set players up nicely for the multiplayer’s five maps and grab-bag of eight-player modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch and some decent ‘pressure-cooker’ episodes that pit pilots against one another and a flock of NPC craft.
Stuffed all that under your belt? Off with the assists then. HAWX 2 is dismal. It gets everything its ambivalently received predecessor got right a little more right, but it does everything its predecessor did wrong almost as wrong. A lot of the misery has to do with the ground, from which you may now, in a bold and brilliant twist, take off, and on which you may now, in another bold and brilliant twist, land.
Pulling off the latter is a mild challenge, especially when stepping down for a hasty refuel and rearm in the middle of a raging battle, and as Edward Douglas told us in August, seeing an airbase up-close does indeed help with the sense of actually sitting astride an enormous, throbbing turbine. But once you’re airborne, the ground is just a spawn point, however attractively contoured with the aid of satellite mapping. It yields forth things to bomb, and things to defend by bombing the first things, and on these two brittle touchstones many of the missions are once again founded.
Which means countdown timers and (decreasing) friendly damage percentages. Heaps of them. Plane to plane combat is an edge of the seat affair in itself, but it’s driven right to the final few threads of cushion fabric by the consciousness that, at any second, you might be imperiously recalled to pick some tank column out of a pickle, dry its eyes and dust off its knees. Screw the cliché about keeping a dozen plates spinning – more cluttered levels made me feel like a Space Invaders pro turned nursery assistant, scuttling from cabinet to cabinet to rescue a series of shrill, sticky, juvenile obscenities from their own failures of hand-eye coordination.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle missions vary the pace in the same way that lying facedown on a mattress for ten minutes will vary the pace of a marathon. Boredom, it seems, is the only alternative to baby-sitting for the men and women of HAWX squadron. Cruising at a fixed altitude, the view locked earthward, you lay down waypoints for friendlies and packets of smoky death for unfriendlies till Ubisoft gets bored of Pacmanistan accents and unhoods the next batch of ham-fisted infants.
Part of HAWX 2′s problem may be that it’s a Tom Clancy game. I’m starting to feel dubious about Mr Clancy, frankly. Many great stealth-em-ups and fixer-flankers have been concocted in his name, but the fiction’s fascination with straight-up mano-e-mano warfare rings a little hollow, seems a little insensitive to the flex of a medium which allows battlefields to morph into poker tables, or entire levels to be built out of trapdoors.
Certainly, the last thing the unloved flight combat genre needs is a specimen that sticks to its guns. With its jazzy interfacial facade consigned to the chorus, HAWX 2 is all the more familiar a tune. You’ll taxi, take-off, turn, lock on, let rip, dive, plunge and bomb and wonder whether grabbing the nape of a multi-million-pound jet fighter is really this tepid an experience in real life.