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.
Unfortunately, these two new ideas are not quite enough to carry the entire game. Zipping about and shooting things is enjoyable, but that's really all there is to it. Fair enough, that's what fighter planes are supposed to do, but that's no excuse for the fact the whole thing feels decidedly shallow. You get a few different missiles to try, but the basic routine remains the same: swoop about, get a lock-on then blow them away. It's certainly enjoyable, but there's a distinct lack of depth or tactical variety. The game also does itself a considerable disservice by relying heavily on escort missions. The majority of the game's 19 levels feature some form of vulnerable unit or structure that must be defended, and looking after these can be a right old pain in the arse. You just want to get on with things and blow some stuff up while looking cool, but you can't because some braindead pilot is yammering in your ear about all the damage he's taking.
It doesn't help that your wingmen are largely incapable of acting on their own initiative. If you order them to do something (you have a simple choice of "attack" or "defend") they'll probably do it, but until then they're as much use as an inflatable dartboard. It's also worth mentioning that your buddies are just as loquacious as the guys you have to protect. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that that HAWX is the chattiest flight game I've ever played - there's always someone shouting about something. The actual voice-acting is fairly well done but the script is ridiculously cheesy. As I said earlier, I actually quite liked how overblown everything is - and there's something hilarious about the squeaky-clean personalities of your co-pilots. They rush to say how great you are after each and every kill, and at the end of one mission one of them started enthusing about how he couldn't wait to have a nice hot shower. Just wait until you play the mission where you defend Air Force One: the boys get so excited, you can practically hear them growing a stiffie.
If you get tired of your AI friends, there's always the option to play with your real-world chums. HAWX offers full drop-in/drop-out multiplayer support for its central campaign, so if one assignment is giving you bother you can rope in some help from Xbox LIVE or the PSN. Although this isn't the first game to offer such an option, it's still an excellent feature that other developers would do well to emulate. With extra human players the game ups the amount of enemies you have to deal with, but by working together you'll generally have a slightly easier time of things. It's great when you manage to build up some genuine camaraderie with another ace, and thanks to Ubisoft's inclusion of a kill-counter the game can also get quite competitive when played in this way. HAXX also has a separate deathmatch mode; like the main body of the game, this is quite enjoyable but feels a bit lacking. Still, messing around in assistance off mode is doubly satisfying when it's human opponents that you're trying to take down.
One thing I've not mentioned yet is the fact that HAWX offers over 50 aircraft to try out. These are unlocked through a mixture of campaign progression and a personal experience system that's not a million miles away from COD4: every action you take in the game - campaign and multiplayer - earns XP for your profile, and as you level up you'll be granted access to new planes and weapon load-outs (each aircraft eventually has a choice of two or three sets). A single play-through will only be enough to unlock about 50 to 60 percent of the game's planes, so there's plenty of incentive to go through again on a harder difficulty. Increasing the level of challenge also has a bearing on the way your craft handle, so it's more than just "same again but harder". Still, it's likely that only the hardcore will be truly bothered enough to unlock everything, since they'll be the only ones to appreciate the minor differences between the planes.
HAWX certainly has its moments. It's an utter joy to fly over Rio de Janeiro, swooping down to take out a few invading ships before soaring high to engage with a squad of fighters. It's even a joy to crash into the big Jesus statue, or to let yourself get carried along by the silly story - just as long as you don't really think about what you're doing. As soon as you start paying attention, you'll start to notice the flaws - the absence of variety, and the bizarre fact that your planes seem completely enormous when they fly close to buildings. Indeed, if you swoop down low you'll also see that the game's satellite-mapped landscapes are largely decorated with low-resolution scans that look a bit rubbish. It's tempting to see this as a metaphor for the game as a whole: beautiful from a distance, but disappointing when you really open your eyes. Still, I find that I have a certain affection for this game - one that I never expected to develop. If Ubisoft decide to make a HAWX 2, I'll certainly be in line to take a look.