Tom Clancy's HAWX Review
A short and lackluster story, some AI issues and lack of multiplayer drag down an otherwise fun game from reaching new heights
Tom Clancy’s HAWX (High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron) is an arcade flight game where you take on the role of a US Air marshal whose destiny it is to save the United States from total destruction at one point. Sound familiar? It should, because the basic premise doesn’t change a whole lot across Tom Clancy-based games. The game was developed and published by UbiSoft, the main company behind all of Clancy’s games. This means that a high production value is retained, but also that some series-related issues can be expected. Overall though, HAWX is a fun flight game, and for those looking for a game from the genre, or simply wanting something different from the mainstream game flow, it’s definitely worth checking out.
In HAWX, you are David Crenshaw, a US Air Force pilot who is the leader of the HAWX (total of three airplanes) as you loyally serve your country and engage in a variety of missions. Without giving too much of the story away, you are laid off from the Air Force at the beginning of the game so you join a private military corporation that does work all over the world. They send you on a variety of missions, until one of them tasks you with engaging US military. At that point you and your squad realize that you are patriots, so you switch sides back to the Air Force and fight the military company the rest of the game. It’s a fairly standard setup for a Tom Clancy game, with story twists you can see coming a mile away. Non the less, it serves its purpose of keeping the campaign flowing and action relevant. The only other downside is a very anti-climactic ending, which is not a good way to finish an already short (19 missions) campaign. A couple of missions task you with aiding the Ghost team as they advance on ground targets, which you may recall from the GRAW series. There are other nice pieces of info that tie HAWX to other Tom Clancy games, and fans will surely appreciate that.
At the start of the campaign, you are presented with just one or two planes, and as you progress, you earn experience points depending on what you completed during the mission. There are various extra objectives and achievements to be completed, which gives you access to more planes and weapon loadout. The plane selection is excellent, you are presented with at least 20 or so airplanes by the end of the campaign, each carefully designed to match realistic specifications. Each plane also comes with 4 various statistics areas such as armour, top speed, agility, and acceleration. Each of these statistics will definitely become noticeable during missions. Since the plane selection is big, the game offers a “recommended” plane for each mission – there is not a tool to compare airplanes other than manually scrolling through the list and memorizing the stats, which is somewhat a disappointment. Once you select the plane, you can also select a weapon loadout, and here HAWX becomes more of an arcade experience. During the campaign you are limited to one weapon loadout, as the rest are unlocked with experience points, so you would have to replay the mission to actually use non-default loadouts. You plane can carry upwards of 50 rockets of two types, as well as 30 air-to-ground bombs at a time, so ammunition is never really a problem. The two rocket types are air-to-air, air-to-ground, and advanced air-to-ground, which are able to lock on up to 4 targets at once. There are also quick lock-on rockets which require much less skill than regular rockets, but are also in much shorter supply. Towards the end of the game you’ll also get some variety of the missiles, but they all perform the same basic functions mentioned above.
As you start the mission then, you are already flying, so there are no take off/landing mechanics here. Missions are pretty focused on the story, and before each you are given an estimation of how many air and ground targets you will face. Most missions are either escort, or search and destroy. The escort missions require you to protect a large plain from incoming enemy fighters. The plan has a certain amount of health which drains quick, but the frustration is avoided because if you enter the “attack” radius of the enemy planes, they will focus on you and your team rather than the target plane. During the search and destroy missions, there are also enemy planes, but many ground targets as well. Ground targets range from tanks and other non-threat objects, to AA guns who will do quite well shooting you down. There is also an alternation on the escort mission, which is defending a non-moving target (a city) from incoming enemy attacks. The missions are alternated fairly well so you’re never bored or feel like grinding through the same notions over and over. Especially later on, some interesting and challenging missions are showcased, such as those where you must evade enemy radar by flying very low, or when you are tasked with bombing runs and have to follow a strict path to avoid getting shut down. Missions use a balanced checkpoint system, so you don’t have to restart the whole mission if you are shut down, but be prepared to repeat some difficult fights a few times. Overall though, the game is fairly easy on “Normal” setting. There are also “Hard” and “Veteran” settings for enthusiasts. The last missions I made further disappointing because of how simple, easy and short it is, compared to those leading up to it.
Soaring above the land, you will likely notice the much-hyped GeoEye landscape. From above 1000ft, it looks quite amazing, as if you are flying above a copy of Google Maps for a certain area. As you get closer though, as you often have to, the pixelated textures starts to show. Flying above 1500ft or so puts you above the clouds in most maps, so the detail level of the ground is not even visible. I reviewed the game on absolute highest graphical detail, and it looked rather shallow when flying low. The developers also made the choice to model any important/downtown buildings on the maps, so while that adds realism and certainly makes the cities look good, it also looks very odd, as if large cubes were placed on a flat surface. Also, contrary to the box art, you can forget flying anywhere near or through these downtown areas, as you are bound to crash into something.
Flying in HAWX is enjoyable, even if it feels like you are lacking speed sometimes. Your plane turns and accelerates well, and the controls feel responsive. There are no G-Force effects to worry about, the only risk presented during flight is the possibility of a stall – this will happen when you lose too much speed by braking or turning too sharply. This will cause your plane to free-fall, and you have to level it and hope it will recover before you hit ground. It’s a pretty forgiving system, you will not enter stalls very often and they are easy to recover from. During flight, you have a choice of cockpit view, first person view, and special “Assistance off” (AO) third person view. Which you use is a matter of preference, but there is no doubt that AO mode works flawlessly during aerial dogfights with enemy planes. AO removes most of the HUD elements, and positions the camera quite far from your plane and at a slight angle (looking at your plane from the front). In a fight, the camera will position itself so that you can see your selected target at all times, which often means looking behind your plane from the front. AO definitely takes time getting used to, but once you have a handle on it, it’s a system of choice to fight enemy planes. It allows you to dodge incoming missiles very effectively, perform advanced aerial manoeuvres to position yourself behind the enemy and lock on to them with the missiles. The enemy AI is hard to determine in HAWX, as most of the time you are too involved in the fight to notice what the enemy is doing. Most of the time though, enemy planes are very good at getting behind you and locking on to you, so there will be many rocket dodges to perform. At the same time, however, enemy planes seem to have no ability to dodge your missiles or even use flares. If you have a good lock on an enemy from behind, there is a good chance it will hit. Most of the time enemy planes will fly frantically around you in circles, trying to engage, and your two co-pilots are not any better. Your co-pilots only have two settings, defend and engage, and to be honest they are not very good at either. The defend setting is completely useless, as your team mates will just follow you around and occasionally launch a flare or rocket at the enemy. The attack option at least puts them to use, and they usually get a couple of hits on the enemy, but never enough (at least never fast enough before you get there) to bring them down it seems. The AI also has some kind of an ultra-speed setting, as ordering your planes to attack a target that is far away will send them flying towards the target about twice as fast as you can. Enemy planes are similar, doing insane manoeuvres and flying very fast with seemingly no stall warnings. Your team mates also seem to have infinite health, so if you are running low, just order them ahead and arrive later to pick off the low health targets. In other words, the AI in HAWX is good enough to keep the game fun, if not realistic or fair towards the player’s plane.
HAWX lacks any kind of online multiplayer, which is disappointing. You can play local co-op (and LAN, if you do some game modification) which has a team death match mode. There are a couple of achievements associated with the mode, and any planes and equipment unlocked in single player can be used. The game also features a free-flying mode, which allows you to fly on any of the maps by yourself, enjoying the scenery. But other than that, the game is not very long and has little replay value, unless you want to get all mission-specific bonus objectives and unlock all planes and weapon loadouts.
The game runs well on medium systems, with little slowdown. Effects all look very good, including the water if you don’t fly too close. Rain, clouds and sun are all realistic and add to the game’s atmosphere. There is no setting for custom weather though, so you are stuck with the same weather depending on the mission. The game is locked at 60FPS and usually stays there (I did not experience any frame rate issues reported on consoles, even during the most intense firefights). The sound in HAWX is a bit generic, with background music providing solid tunes but nothing to distract you from the game. In-flight, there is no music, just the sound of your planes and team mate conversations. Voices are of average quality, some standard military-sounding characters associated with Tom Clancy game series.
HAWX is a standard entry in the Tom Clancy series. If you’ve played any of the Tom Clancy games before, you should already know what you’re in for. The story and characters all translate similarly from other games, and you can expect the high production quality also associated with the series. A good step forward here is the much reduced difficulty compared to games such as GRAW, so HAWX is more relevant to Rainbow Six Vegas in terms of difficulty. Considering that the most popular PC flight action game, IL-2 Sturmovik, was released (also by UbiSoft) all the way in 2001, many users have been starved for some high flying action for our platform. So if MS Flight Simulator is too difficult and slow for you, HAWX is definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of flight games. Those that are looking for a new genre to explore, the game is also a good match, providing accessibility for those new to the genre. With a demo being available for the PC, there is no reason you shouldn’t check out HAWX if you are even a little bit interested.