Unfortunately, we’re going to have to start this preview on a downer, since HAWX’s departure to store shelves has been delayed into the next year. Of course, that’s no cause to stop reading, as Tom Clancy’s first entry into the genre of air combat is shaping up to be a formidable opponent against the competition (which is pretty much just the Ace Combat series). We won’t go into much detail regarding the single player, but the basic setting for the game is within the “Clancy-verse”, between the events of GRAW 2 and the upcoming EndWar, where an attack on the United States by private military corporations leads your mercenary of a character to revert his loyalty back to the good old USA.
Getting back to the multiplayer, our demo consisted of a one-on-one adversarial mode to get our feet wet with some dog fighting action (the full game will support up to eight players). That age old romantic relationship between enemy pilots is what Ubisoft wants to preserve, with the competitive multiplayer’s focus lying solely on team deathmatch. The only bird we had available for the demo was the F-16C, but Ubisoft promised that over 50 will be available in the final version, with about 20 different maps to majestically soar over.
Given the fact that Ubisoft is going up against other flight combat games, we asked if there was anything unique about HAWX’s environments besides being a pretty color palette. The answer we got was a resounding “hell yes!” as Ubisoft has implemented some of the most advanced satellite imagery available (or as they call it, "Google Maps on steroids") to realistically represent all of the real world locations in the game, such as the one in our demo, Cape Canaveral.
Another thing that makes HAWX’s environments different is the interaction your plane will have with ground units, some of which will be set within a city, requiring you to navigate through surrounding sky scrapers to destroy a target. The map we played on did indeed look gorgeous, containing city landscapes which actually do reach the sky rather than appearing as a flat surface, and bright sunlight that will have your reaching for your aviators.
Upon seizing the controls, HAWX feels fairly similar to most flight combat games: the left thumbstick controls the pitch and yaw of your craft, while the right and left triggers are acceleration and braking. Everything functions as expected, until you double tap the left trigger on the 360 and engage the Assistance Off mode. This places the camera at a distance from your aircraft to give you a larger field of view when in a dogfight, enabling you to dodge any incoming missiles that deployable flairs weren’t able to get rid of. The most important thing about Assistance Off, however, is not the camera change, but the ability to push the aircraft to its limits with more precise controls, giving the player a wider array of maneuvers than those found in the default mode, such as steep ascents and nearly 180-degree turns. Although it may take some time to adjust to the change in perspective, this mode is essential to dog fighting unless you want to end up as a painted icon on your opponent’s fuselage.
Also helping gamers pull off more aeronautical antics is the ERS (Enhanced Reality System). This HUD feature will paint a virtual path through the air that will assist you in intercepting a target, or dodging an incoming missile.
Although our demo match was a pretty small one, we received fairly informed impression of how the game’s multiplayer is shaping up. A ranking system will be included for players to unlock new fighters and weapons, but the system will not be restricted to multiplayer, as items can be gained in the single player campaign as well, possibly bringing in some balancing issues when it comes to who goes into the multiplayer flying what. Our only other gripe is that even with the co-op, one multiplayer mode alone seems a little weak, especially for a Tom Clancy title.
Nevertheless, we found HAWX to be fairly fresh fight combat experience. One thing it seems to be giving gamers that other titles aren’t is the inclusion of Assistance Off and ERS; these functionalities let players engaged advanced flying through the contextual options that only a videogame can provide, giving them more ways to truly feel like an ace pilot. The game’s scheduled arrival, as mentioned earlier, is somewhere within the first quarter of 2009 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.