When terrorism was invented nine years ago, few would have been able to grasp the effect it was going to have on our video games. You only need take a peek at Tom Clancy’s wide net of venerable franchises for proof, with our boy Tom happy to party with terrorism in Vegas, attack it from the shadows and even defeat it with the power of voice commands. With H.A.W.X. 2, however, terrorism returns to where it started: the skies. Again.
But H.A.W.X. 2’s main failing, which will sound like déjà vu for anyone familiar with the maligned original, is that there’s just not a whole lot you can do once you’re actually up in the air. The potentially liberating feeling of flight is quickly eroded when you realise that you’re just whooshing around a 360 degree box complete with nice sky and ground textures. Aerial bogeys can be shot down, and ground targets can be bombed, but that’s about it.
Furthering the annoyance, the game has a peculiar habit of repeating the same mission structure over and over. The life of each H.A.W.X. is mostly spent protecting clumps of tanks as they march toward an enemy encampment, perpetually alternating between attacking a wave of aeroplanes and then a pack of ground units – in that order. Rinse and repeat. From the lofty view of 1500 feet, they look like ants. You will treat them as such, too. No wonder pilots are jerks.
Still, Ubisoft Romania has to tread a fine line between adhering to staple routines of the flight sim genre and attempting to further their formula. Intermission sequences have you piloting a UAV or AC-130, switching the view to birds-eye and allowing you to track high value targets before shelling them to oblivion. You occasionally get to take off, land and refuel in mid-air, but these feel a bit like tacked-on mini-games – the latter, especially, has you wildly jangling around two pipes to the point you’ll gain a newfound respect for the fallopian tube.
The campaign takes you across 20 missions of espionage, betrayal and the patriotic waving of American flags. Certain landmarks, such as the Kamchatka peninsula, Nevskaya dam and Caucasus peaks, are undeniably gorgeous – especially when viewed from high altitudes. The illusion is somewhat shattered when drifting too close to the ground, though Ubisoft Romania has done its best to make the ground seem a little less flat than in the original.
In terms of plot, the villain is now Russia (Mexico having retired after being evil in every other Clancy game lately) and the virtuous American H.A.W.X. squadron is doing their brilliant best to stop a cartload of nukes going off and destroying everybody. With H.A.W.X. 1’s original protagonist stuck in a comedic sling, you’re stopping the Bad Thing as Major Alex ‘Liberty’ Freedom for the majority of the game. Occasionally, though, the perspective will shift to Lt. Colin Geezer of the British Royal Navy, or Dmitri Russia of Russia – but these sequences are few and far between.
You also get to play through the same campaign affecting Tom Clancy’s Future Soldier, but I’m only aware of this because it’s written on the back of the box. Which says it all, really.
The plot is fairly forgettable fodder, and the game’s woeful CG cutscenes certainly don’t help the cause, one real draw is that enemy planes are now much smarter in the air. They’ll actually try and dodge missiles now, for a start, which makes dogfighting far more intense and intimate. And while this is a fairly unrealistic take on modern aerial combat, it’s certainly a lot more fun than firing off a missile at a blinking dot on the horizon; to compensate, it feels like your cannon has been beefed up considerably.
H.A.W.X.’s fancy OFF mode returns, switching perspective to a faraway third-person with a double tap of the trigger buttons, allowing for tighter turns and supposedly easier dogfighting. I’ve always found it to actually make things far fiddlier, though, as the twisting camera angle makes aiming harder than it has to be. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if time wasn’t of the essence, as your most pressing concern is almost always the clock. Fail to kill a certain pack of bogeys quick enough and you’ll lose your ground forces or get swamped by another wave, both situations taking you quickly to the game over screen.
ERS targeting also fails to make the transition, to any useful extent at least. While it does pop up at certain plot moments, you can no longer summon those on-screen indicators that perfectly ferry to the rear end of an enemy target. Instead you stick to the tried-and-true tactic of flying around in a circle until you hear the bleep-bleep of a lock-on, and fire away.
Crucially, the game often works better when skewed through the arbitrary, distinctly gamey restrictions of the arcade mode. Here you’re taken through completed campaign missions with a twist, usually in the form of weapon or time restrictions, and the extra edge offered in each scenario adds a surprising amount of variety to the proceedings. Ubisoft Romania has also added in a free flight sim mode to enjoy the scenery, and a typical wave-based survival mode.
While the game also supports campaign co-op (buried away within the Player Match part of Xbox Live), it’s with the regular adversarial modes that the studio has done the most to mix up the formula. H.A.W.X. 1’s mishmash of modes have been thrown out to make way for Team Battle, a standard time-based team deathmatch arena with additional NPC objectives thrown in for good measure. The wide open desert of Open Range has both teams vying to take out antennas, for instance, whereas Tokyo’s Last Stand features an aggressive collection of ground and air units to mess with your standard dogfighting.
Multiplayer works well, affording the game a structural backbone missing from much of the single-player campaign, although it was difficult to find enough active players to fill out a team. And that’s on the game’s opening weekend, so it’s highly unlikely the multiplayer mode will have the wings to compete in the long term.
As it stands, H.A.W.X. 2 is a well-produced sequel to the original that manages to repeat many of its problems. It’s still fun, but it’s a shame Ubisoft Romania feels little inclination to challenge its established mould – doing so could have yielded a far more interesting end product. The H.A.W.X certainly know how to fly, but they never really get a chance to soar.