I don't know what Tom Clancy dreams about, but at a guess I'd predict that his nights are filled with horrible visions of America being attacked by unstoppable evil forces. That's the impression I get from his books and video games, at any rate. Whether it's the Ruskies, Middle Eastern terrorists or a renegade corporate army, he's always worrying about a big load of baddies invading US soil. He must barely get a wink of sleep, the poor lamb.
In HAWX this threat takes the form of Artemis - a private military contractor that eventually decides to invade America. This is a pretty big thing to attempt, but Artemis is up for the challenge: They've got planes, tanks and moustaches they can twirl while laughing evilly. They might have even gotten away with it, if it weren't for those pesky kids in their flying machines. Yes sir, super-pilot David Crenshaw is on the case; he's going to send a radar-guided missile right up their private military sphincter. And the good news is this: David Crenshaw is you.
The plot of HAWX is absolutely ridiculous, but it's also exactly what the game needs. This isn't Flower - it's an arcade shooter where you scream about the skies, blowing stuff up. HAWX is a flight sim in the loosest possible sense: the plane models may look accurate, but they can carry over 200 missiles (so many, in fact, that you drop a few when you get hit by enemy forces). Under the circumstances, a subtle story is the last thing you need. You want to feel like you're in a Jerry Bruckheimer film, and thanks to the bombastic action and shiny presentation, that's exactly the experience you get.
HAWX is as slick as a lubed-up otter. As soon as you pick up the controller for the first time, you'll notice how well-produced everything is. The plane models are crisp and detailed, and as far as my untrained eye can tell they look like the real thing. They handle well too. Control wise, everything is where you'd expect it to be (throttle on the left stick, jet controls on the triggers and weapons on the face buttons) and most of the time the game maintains a silky frame rate. All of this makes for a very playable action game, even if what you're actually doing is largely that same-old shooty planes stuff we've been doing for years.
There are a few new bells and whistles that Ubisoft have thrown into the classic mix. The first is ERS - a sort of optional AI guiding system that can be triggered during specific situations. By holding down a button, your HUD will summon a series of coloured gates for you to fly through; following this prescribed flight path will help you to get behind enemy fighters or to evade incoming missiles. It works so well that at times it almost feels like cheating, but few people will mind since it's so genuinely useful. Besides, it fits in with the near-future setting of the story.
Slightly harder to grasp is the much-publicised "assistance off" mode. Here your perspective cuts to an external view of your craft, with the camera swirling about to keep track of your current target. When played this way the game also relaxes all safety restrictions on the way your plane moves, giving you greater freedom to steer yourself behind the poor blighter you're trying to shoot down. You can also use this mode to pull of all manner of aerial acrobatics, though you're also more vulnerable to stalling. Essentially assistance off is there to let you really mess about with your plane. By holding the left trigger (decelerate) and tugging back on the throttle, you can perform super-tight drifts and turns that are highly fun to watch and execute. It's not all about looking flash either, since this increased manoeuvrability does actually make it quite easy to shoot down other planes. Once you realise this, you'll probably appreciate it quite a bit.