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Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. (PlayStation 3) artwork

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. (PlayStation 3) review

"Though you may tweak the controls with various assistance features to curb instability, the game never feels right. For the first few hours, you will battle the controls more than the enemy. Funnily enough, the enemies are easy – so easy that there are missions where you’ll spend more time staring at the radar (to locate enemies) than the actual stage. Most enemies can be taken out in two simple steps: (1) lock-on and (2) fire a missile. To increase your success rate, fire two missiles at the same time."

One can only imagine what was contained within the design document for Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. Explosive battles, fresh gameplay ideas, the promise of friendly (let’s not say easy) stages that will pacify every skill level – it all had to be there, with notes and descriptions outlining exactly how these goals could be accomplished. If someone were to flip through these pages, it would be love at first read. “That’s a game I have to play,” they’d happily announce. “You should produce this immediately!”

But like so many movie scripts, the finished product doesn’t match the several months of hype that preceded its release, hype that was likely brought on by the preliminary concept. Players won’t be completely disappointed; if a simple, destruction-heavy flight/combat game is what they’ve been craving, H.A.W.X offers plenty of targets to suit those desires. Beyond that, however, you’d better hang onto your ejection seat – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Taking place in the near future, the story surrounds the evolution of PMCs (Private Military Companies), which have replaced the government-built armies that were once used to serve each nation. This is good news for young men looking to make a buck: PMCs pay much better than any government. The bad news falls on the player, who must endure hours of monotonous dialogue in and out of combat. Most of the character interactions play out in the middle of each mission, creating a small but never-ending distraction while trying to protect allies or attack the enemy. Line repeats are a common occurrence – you’ll hear the word “inbound” more times than in NBA 2K8. When something minor happens, such as a successful kill or the arrival of a new enemy, characters are often slow to respond. Their comments are uneventful and rarely go beyond a cheerful or fearful exclamation.

Ignoring this, H.A.W.X is hardly a showstopper at the beginning of the game. You’ll be taken back – and not in a good way – by how dreadful the graphics are. Each environment was supposedly created using real-world satellite data. But the details within each location are seriously lacking. Buildings are little more than weakly textured cardboard boxes. Trees, water and other natural elements appear to have come from the previous generation of consoles. The frame rate is solid but the game speed is nothing out of the ordinary, and the fighter jets, as cool as they are, lack the jaw-dropping polish of aircrafts featured in other PS3 and Xbox 360 releases.

But while the graphics, story and crummy voice-overs may annoy and disappoint you to no end, the most crippling feature is the one that had the most promise: the gameplay. At its best, you will soar above large cities, firing missiles at incoming planes and dropping bombs on enemy ships and tanks. The battles are never quite exhilarating but are at the very least entertaining (in the way that arcade games used to be when they were just fifty cents per play).

That is the best of H.A.W.X. The worst is somewhat frustrating and difficult to define. Though you may tweak the controls with various assistance features to curb instability, the game never feels right. For the first few hours, you will battle the controls more than the enemy. Funnily enough, the enemies are easy – so easy that there are missions where you’ll spend more time staring at the radar (to locate enemies) than the actual stage. Most enemies can be taken out in two simple steps: (1) lock-on and (2) fire a missile. To increase your success rate, fire two missiles at the same time.

Any gamer seeking a challenge will be seriously bothered by the lack of depth. And yet that doesn’t seem as troubling as the flight mechanics, which make it difficult to fly a specific way or in a specific direction. The two-thumbstick combo seems like a wise choice until you realize that the right stick is relegated to unnecessary camera pans. This piles the weight of flight maneuvers onto the left stick, which can’t do more than the usual up, down, left and right movements. Some games have made this work – H.A.W.X doesn’t. You can’t adjust your plane without losing some stability. Forget about the excitement of flying in between buildings at a breathtaking pace; even a slow trip through them will mean death, thanks to the sluggish flight controls.

This might be a more realistic representation of flying than what gamers crave. But H.A.W.X isn’t a simulator. It can’t produce easy enemies and straightforward objectives and turn around and say, “For this part of the game, we weren’t trying to create an arcade experience. We were going for realism.”

These problems are reduced toward the latter missions, but not because they get better. It’s because you’ll slowly learn to how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of H.A.W.X, which doesn’t make the game more fun to play – just less cumbersome.

In addition to the main experience, which is pretty much a get-in-and-destroy-the-enemy adventure (all the objectives, no matter how different in terminology, lead down this path), H.A.W.X attempts to produce some innovation with two unique mechanics: real-time directions and third-person flying.

The first mechanic, known as the Enhanced Reality System (ERS), projects a series of triangles on the screen. By flying through them, you’ll be able to intercept an enemy aircraft or evade an enemy attack. This wasn’t a bad idea, but the results aren’t much more than an unofficial tutorial that shows how these basic maneuvers can be performed manually.

When it comes to flying in the third person, H.A.W.X releases its strict behind-the-aircraft view – and lets go of radar and other forms of assistance – in favor of an unlikely perspective. The camera pulls back (way back), and the controls shift from the standard flight/combat setting to a weird mechanic that could be compared to controlling an unwieldy cursor. The plane is out there. You can see it. But with the camera lacking a specific destination (it often relies on the enemy’s location for guidance, jumping around with each evasive maneuver), you will have a really hard time trying to play the game from this perspective.

Though you might think these fighter jets are ready to land, H.A.W.X has one more trick up its sleeves: multiplayer. Four-player co-op and eight-player deathmatches are included. If you love the aforementioned content, this addition should make the game feel like a complete experience. Otherwise, the multiplayer mode is little more than something to promote on the box.

Tom Clancy has a great history with first-person shooters. Unfortunately, his flight/combat efforts are off to a rough start. In the long run, H.A.W.X could very well become a name to live up to – the new standard in action-heavy gaming. For now, however, it is a weak addition to a series that has given birth to classics like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.

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Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (April 16, 2009)

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