Monday, February 16, 2009

Hello, Are We eXcited?

With a great sigh of oh, alright, I shelled out $20 bucks, bought a three-month subscription to Xbox Live and downloaded the Tom Clancy’s HAWX demo. HAWX stands for (brace yourself) High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron. Really, this should be HAWXS, but there apparently exists stupidity threshold at Ubisoft, however arbitrary. HAWX is an entry in the half-breed genre of flight-sim/shooters, currently ruled by the Ace Combat dynasty. The player tears ass across various scenic locales, dropping bombs of ungodly destruction with detached aplomb, and “splashing bandits” with one of the hundreds of all-purpose missiles their plane carries (somewhere). Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation was halfway between a French film and a soap opera; HAWX, by contrast, looked like Top Gun on speed, with an extra dollop of frat-boy douchebaggery.

The ridiculous name and officious attitude throw us off the scent, perhaps, and we forget that the Tom Clancy brand has a history of defining the tactical military genre, and we are surprised when HAWX turns out to be not only fun, but quite good as well.

A bit of background: The Tom Clancy brand kicked off in 1998 with Rainbow Six, a tactical shooter inspired by the novel of the same name. It introduced the one-bullet-kills philosophy, and required players to plan their assaults with surgical precision. The merciless, deliberate gameplay was a huge hit, and kicked off a label that would grow beyond its current daddy (Red Storm) and find a home in Ubisoft, where it would flourish. Rainbow Six: Vegas is still the premium for tactical action on the 360, along with Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, both the original and the sequel. Endwar, while ultimately flawed, scored points for an excellent voice-command system. Despite a few shake-and-bake duds – Vegas 2 was a shameless reproduction, and Ghost Recon 2 gawky and inferior – the brand’s reputation is sterling.

When I first caught a wiff of HAWX, I dismissed it as a testosterone-fueled boomfest with more adrenaline than intelligence. To be fair, that was my opinion of the genre at large, but HAWX seemed particularly unpromising (again, the name). After relishing AC6 I looked at HAWX differently. The genre wasn’t damned, and this game might even have potential. When early 2009 hands-on reports came back crackling with enthusiasm, my curiosity was certainly piqued. The sim/shooter genre is a small one, and it would take more than fancy flying to steal Ace Combat’s audience.

I won’t say that HAWX is better than Ace Combat 6, but I won’t say it’s worse – and so far as I’m concerned, that’s a smashing victory for the Clancy title.

HAWX puts you in the flight suit of some guy named Crenshaw. I didn’t get a feel for either him or his fratty wingmen during the demo, but I got a sense for his company – yeah, company. Crenshaw flies for Artemis, one of the many Private Military Corporations (PMCs) that broker the bush-league third-world wars of the future. The slick, cynical feeling of mercenary warfare is instilled by mission briefings referring to “contracts” and stock rates that rise and fall with the tides of war. Because real-world warfare is becoming more and more privatized, the concept of PMCs lends the game some much-needed credulity.

The sample mission, a defense of Rio de Janeiro, gives players a sampling of what they can expect from the campaign in terms of land, air and naval combat. At first glance it’s pretty textbook: players lock on to enemy aircraft, tanks or boats, and shove a missile up their ass. Dogfighting can still boil down to a series of concentric circles.

But HAWX plays unlike anything else currently offered in the genre, thanks to a few crucial bells and whistles. An Enhanced Reality System (ERS – they sure love their acronyms), when activated, throws a series of gates on the player’s HUD illuminating the most efficient path to get behind an enemy fighter. While I refuse to dogfight with the ERS – its attempts to “help” me fly are unappreciated – it’s absolutely necessary for striking certain ground targets. In Ace Combat 6, all ground targets were easy targets, being in the open or nestled between highly expendable huts, hangars, etc. In Rio, enemy tanks are tucked between skyscrapers, making them impossible to hit from a shallow trajectory. The ERS provided a steeply parabolic path, allowing me to drop a missile on the tank’s roof. Achieving a lock and firing a missile through a series of neon wickets into the heart of a bustling city? Awesome. ERS managed to prove itself to be more than a gimmick, or an easy button.

In AC6, evading missiles was half luck. An enemy lock would be alerted with a beeping tone, the beep becoming faster as the missile approached. When it became a trill, the player hit the brakes and juked left or right. In HAWX, a double-tap of the right or left triggers will dump you into “assist-off” mode, which positions the camera outside of the aircraft, towards the incoming missile. From this perspective, players can time their evasions. Watching a missile rend the air you previously occupied from assist-off mode is eminently cool. Off mode is also useful for some of hairier dogfights, when having one eye on an enemy jet is necessary to survive.

In the sim/shooter genre, realism suffers by necessity. AC6 compensated by providing surprisingly detailed and thoughtful flight models, which HAWX, well, giggles at. Case in point: when performing an aileron roll (commonly mistaken as a barrel roll), the changing air flow over the plane’s fuselage forces the nose down; in AC6, the player needed to compensate lest they wanted to eat dirt. In any event ,the maneuver was inadvisable at low altitudes. in HAWX, the attitude is a summary airflow, shmairflow – a steady hand can pull off an aileron roll at 250 feet, no sweat.

A graver concern: in HAWX, every jet appears to have thrust vectoring. Thrust vectoring is exactly what it sounds like – current-generation fighters like the F-22 can tilt their engines to allow incredibly sharp turns. This ability is limited to a small pool of fighters, including the F-22, the F-35B, and to some extent, the AV-8B harrier and other jump-jet fighters. In HAWX, any aircraft is capable of mid-air u-turns in “off” mode – hell, my F-16 fluttered around in the sky like a stunt kite, recovering from a flame-out flatspin stall with a brio that would shame Richard Simmons. HAWX unapologetically favors action over veracity. Anyone unable to stomach the simplified flight models should show themselves to the door.

But god, is this game gorgeous. Using the most accurate satellite mapping commercially available, HAWX lays the earth out before you in unprecedented detail. AC6 looked stunning from above, but turned into Google Earth at low altitudes – not so with HAWX. I crashed into buildings countless times simply because I was twiddling the right thumbstick, enjoying my jet from all angles. It raises the graphics bar not only for the genre, but for the console as well. Pitched battles rage in full glory, with a barely perceptible framerate dip.

A few things have yet to be determined. Will HAWX tease out the moral ambiguity of a cynical, war-for-profit system, and will it develop its characters beyond highly-trained apes?

If the flight models turn out to be roughly homogenous – i.e., if the A-10 flies like anything other than a brick shithouse – I won’t enjoy the game. I won’t be able to. The F-16 is fun because it’s fast and nimble, and the A-10 is fun because it’s a thick-skinned, heavy-assed attack jet. If the only difference between the two is a shape on the screen, why bother choosing? Why bother simulating flight at all? Half the fun of AC6 was the variety in flight models, down to handling differences in air superiority fighters.

Actually, a perfect illustration of the differences between Ace Combat 6 and HAWX lies in a side-by-side comparison of the demos. Both plop you in an F-16 and task you with defending a city. In AC6, chaos reigns as bridges fall, ships sink and armored companies fall one by one. In HAWX, your wingmates treat the siege of Rio like a kegger, joshing each other and booing the appearance of rival contractors. In AC6, your forces are routed and forced to retreat over the mountain as a foreign army occupies your city. In HAWX, you whoop the bad guys and fly home for a cold one. Hell, it isn’t even your city.

HAWX is not Ace Combat 6, and anyone wanting a slower, more thoughtful game, both in terms of gameplay and plot, would be advised to choose the latter. I’m looking forward to HAWX, both for its excellent gameplay and the brash diversity it brings to the genre. Ace Combat is no longer the only game in town - belive me, no one is more surprised.