Make no mistake. Tom Clancy's HAWX (short for High Altitude Warfare eXperimental Squadron) is not a flight simulation game by any means. The realism just about ends with the appearance of the planes because the developers at Ubisoft have removed things such as a fuel gauge and threats such as blackouts and redouts. They have geared their multi-platform title to operate outside the realm of possibility with boundless physics and a high missile count.
HAWX consists of a forgettable cast of characters whose main purpose is to defend landmarks and cities. The narrative tries to be something other than its cliché self but rarely hovers out of the radar of predictability. The real focus here is the planes and that's all that really matters in a game like HAWX. Ubisoft does score a few points for tying the title to a few of the other Tom Clancy franchises but not many.
The controls are solid and responsive but there is an unfortunate lack of customization options since players are only given a handful of control schemes to choose from. Players familiar with the Ace Combat series will ease into HAWX without a problem, but that doesn't mean that Ubisoft hasn't included a few new gameplay features to differentiate their title from the rest.
The OFF System allows you to turn off your limiters, vital fail-safes which prevent modern aircrafts from spinning out of control. With the limiters turned off, players can add flair to their maneuvers. Missiles can be evaded with ease and impossible stunts can be performed which can give you an edge in combat. It is highly entertaining and adds a palpable sense of glee to any dogfight. These evasive tactics will come at a price however. The OFF System affects your plane's controls. Gunsights, gauges and your anti-stall system will no longer be available and their absence can potentially end your mission with not-so-favorable results. The OFF System feature, while completely optional, can be beneficial if properly managed and the player doesn't get caught up with showmanship in flight maneuvers.
Also available is the Enhanced Reality System, or ERS, a mini-game of sorts that guides the player to their target by putting up a series of gates. It allows for the best possible route to the target and sets up the player for the most ideal position of attack. Successfully piloting through each of these gates will keep the ERS active. It is an intriguing addition to the genre but unlike the OFF System which provides an even trade-off of evasive action for traditional features and failsafes, ERS takes the urgency out of the action, and leaves the gameplay a tad neutered because it considerably slows down the pace of the dogfights.
The planes themselves are very well done, incredibly detailed and as close to their real-world counterparts as they can possibly be. The view from within the cockpit is even more impressive when smoke and cloud effects emphasize the magnitude of the battlefield and help deliver that overwhelming sense of vertigo as the plane shoots across the sky at increasing speeds and high altitudes. All types of explosion effects, gunfire, aircrafts and vehicles are well detailed and definitely attention grabbing. The details supplement the underlying tension of dogfighting and add to the realism that Ubisoft wanted to achieve. The points of defense – real life locations such as Washington DC, Tokyo, Brazil and Los Angeles – are recognizable and look pretty from afar, but the closer you get to the ground, the more the textures of the cities begin to blend and stand out in a not so eye-appealing way. It doesn't detract from the fun however, and HAWX delivers a decent dose of enjoyment when it wants to.
There are a total of 19 missions in HAWX, all of which can be played cooperatively online. Players will definitely want to take advantage of this feature; the AI won't ever be as cooperative as a friend. It tends to fare well with attacking ground-based targets but when commanding the AI to fend off a squadron of fighter planes, players will have to take matters into their own hands to avoid being blown up into itty bitty pieces.
The missions leave a lot to be desired; their varying degrees of entertainment and annoyance create a rather uneven gaming experience. Sometimes the gameplay elevates to a level of fun you weren't exactly prepared for; blasting planes and soaring through the explosion-riddled skies will be cleverly interlaced with providing support for ground troops, a deep sense of urgency all throughout. But the gameplay isn't all smiles, and often takes a tailspin into not-so-fun territory when awkward limitations to the player will be needlessly imposed as a frustrating way to making the game more challenging.
But the shortcomings won't dissuade some players from being drawn into HAWX's true goal, the unlocking of new planes and weapon packs. Rather than having players earn currency by blowing up a bunch of stuff, they are awarded experience for their troubles. Ascending to the rank of General of the Air Force, players will also unlock interesting online features as they earn new planes and fun weaponry to play around with. Multiplayer is a very basic affair with matches limited to eight players and Team Deathmatch. There is no lag at all and when the promised DLC surfaces, it will give players a real incentive to engage in online matches.
Ultimately, HAWX is a game which tries to soar to greatness but falls just short of its destination. But compared to other titles in its genre, it performs admirably in the action department and delivers a satisfying level of excitement for those looking to take to the skies and defend cities from imminent destruction. Casual fans of the genre will want to try before they buy, but gamers who enjoyed titles like Ace Combat 6 will find a whole lot of fun to be had with HAWX.
Fun Factor: Despite a few hiccups, HAWX is fun when the missions aren't bogged down by limitations.
Game Length: On Normal Difficulty, 4-6 hours minimum.
Difficulty: Some of the later missions can be a handful. Escort missions are notorious for retries.
On the Negative Side: ERS can oversimplify gameplay if used too much. The multiplayer option is just there, without any real reason to play for the time being.
Bang for your Buck: With downloadable content on the way, HAWX has potential at replayability. Still, with a lackluster multiplayer, players will want to rent this title first.