Ubisoft gets us into land rovers then shuttles us down to a secret location just outside of Hammersmith. It's an aircraft hangar located in the middle of a field where a cluster of Xboxes have been set up to be played. Playing pilot in H.A.W.X. 2 while sitting in a hangar of fully functioning planes has the kind of meta value you'd find playing Runescape at a LARPing convention in a fort. You might be in-game doing barrel rolls, but look over your shoulder and you have a properly authentic aircraft. And it's really a metaphor for the game itself.
H.A.W.X. 2 might try to give you a fictive re-imagining of air combat but it's also chock-full of genuine military models and tech. And between the single player and multiplayer is a laundry-list of improvements made in an effort to polish the real-world aspects of the game. So this is what the game is now: H.A.W.X. 2 responds to the fan requests that had been made since the original's release last year, and those requests largely relate to polishing the immersive aspects of the original.
Unlike the original game there is no system to let you issue commands to AI wingmen, but all campaign missions in the game are playable in up to four-player co-op, local or online. Campaigns go beyond the original plot of American H.A.W.X. squadron and expand to let you see an international story take place between Russia, Britain and the States.
The gameplay expands too, vertically this time. The multiplayer experience of H.A.W.X. 1 had taken place entirely in-air. It was an obvious move for a flight game, but throwing the player into the sky in medias res took away from the full experience of combat, the kind of experience available in many modern combat games. Driving, refuelling, and landing are made to be an important addition to your campaign; while including take-offs and landings may seem pedantic, it gives the game some sense of context.
Creative Director Edward Douglas points to the television in the middle of the hangar when he gets ready for take-off in the first mission. He points to the space next to his plane on the runway and tells us this is where we'll be able to see our buddy peripherally as he readies for take-off in co-op mode. It's a sliver of an addition to the game but it was an aspect noticeably lacking in the original. You can now actually see the Goose to your Maverick, puttering down the runway.
The studio has also been eager to turn their focus to arcade challenge modes that will coax players back to the game to complete missions in different ways, using new planes that are specialised for particular roles. The game features 30 playable aircraft and a weapons system that encourages you to fight from different ranges, allowing each player to play the role they're best suited to play. You can use a fire-and-forget missile from long-range; your friend can take a different tactic and cue up the guns. Enemies will continuously use different tactics on players throughout these campaigns, using flares against you or flying too close to your plane and forcing you to use short-range weapons over long-range. It also forces you to co-operate with other players, as you all switch between weapons depending on your position in their air.
When you make contact with an enemy, the clear-sky view from your cockpit quickly devolves into a picture of fiery explosions and metal, and while you're at the centre of it all it can often become difficult to orientate yourself. If you've lost your play-mate in co-op, just keep an eye out for their contrail in the air. The game continuously tries to push all of you in closer to the action. H.A.W.X. 2 was built to be an up-close dog-fighting experience, Douglas continues to explain. Even lighting has been adjusted on in-air explosions just to make fights slightly more visceral.
Strangely the camera modes that were criticised in H.A.W.X. 1 remain generally the same. Assistance OFF mode activated an external Dogfight Camera view that let you access more advanced flight moves, moves that couldn't actually be accessed from inside the cockpit view. It was a wet blanket for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in the game as a pilot, but for H.A.W.X. 2's career and multiplayer campaign Assistance OFF mode remains the same. You can set up any situation you want in multiplayer, letting players set their game for cockpit-only view or OFF mode-only, but advanced moves are still tied to a third-person camera.
But the true improvement here is the variety of missions. H.A.W.X. 2 attempts to create an air-combat game that takes you out of the air to offer you a slightly larger slice of the world. The game implements air-to-ground destruction missions, missions that have you destroying large target areas under cover of night, and makes use of modern aerial combat weapons that are precise enough to avoid doing collateral or civilian damage around smaller towns. There's a modern brain behind the game, and it's trying to drag the arcade fiction of flight games back down to reality.