Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Handheld Through the Danger Zone

Every gamer has a genre or franchise for which his or her standards go out the window. For Andrew, it’s Dragon Quest; for Craig it’s…something. Look, who cares: I’m a sucker for adrenaline-fueled pseudo-sims that strap me into the acceleration couch of a modern jet fighter and throw enough ordinance under my wings to level empires.

I loved Ace Combat 6, despite its perfectly absurd dialogue and stilted voice-acting. There’s something about the reassuring hum that issues through my controller when I trigger the afterburner that never gets old. Having beaten AC6’s campaign multiple times, I wanted something new, and turned naturally to Ubisoft’s entry in the franchise, HAWX.

When I could look past HAWX’s odious attitude and hack-job story, I found a competent, if shallow, shooter, capable of entertaining, but not quite fulfilling.

Grin and bear it, Kunzig: HAWX casts you as some crack Air Force fighter pilot, lured away from his squadron by the promise of fortune and glory with Artemis Inc., a military contractor with a small air wing. You’re with Artemis as it goes from pulling small escort jobs to acting as an army-in-full for nations like Brazil. Eventually, Artemis turns its guns on America, and you’re forced to chose a side – wait, no you’re not, the game chooses for you, and you go about your linear way to the game’s entirely predictable and unsatisfying conclusion. But we’re not here for the story, are we? We’re here to get our skull caved in by some serious positive G’s.

Summarizing HAWX’s flight model might be done best in contrast to that of Ace Combat 6, which does it right. In AC6, airflow is a real thing. Pull an aileron (corkscrew) roll, and the changing airflow over your fuselage forces your nose down; in order to pull this maneuver at a low altitude, the pilot must compensate. Likewise, pull a knife-edge – bank so that your wings are perpendicular to the horizon – and the airflow changes, again necessitating compensation.

Flying an F-16 in AC6, one learns to appreciate the nuances of individual aircraft, and be mindful of the hazards of flight – like, for instance, pulling negative G’s. The simple act of tilting your nose down at mach 1.5 will send blood rushing to your head, causing a “red-out.” While few games actually simulate the red-out, AC6 makes a negative-G maneuver more difficult, requiring instead an aileron roll and dive to decrease altitude.

In HAWX, such realism has been bulldozed in the name of accessibility. Going mach 2? Want to pitch down? Go ahead! It’s exactly the same as pushing up, and the game won’t impede you a bit. For that matter, do an aileron roll, pull a knife edge, fly inverted for as long as you wish without altering your flight path in the slightest. After playing AC6, the “accessibility” seems more like shallow gameplay. The act of flying simply isn’t as enjoyable – there isn’t the satisfaction of mastering a difficult mechanic.

HAWX does, however, add something entirely new to the pot with “Off Mode.” The idea behind Off Mode is it disables the safeties that, while protecting your foolish ass, also hinder you from pulling off totally sweet maneuvers (bro). With a double-tap of either trigger, your view jumps to a detached exterior view of your aircraft, which suddenly becomes more maneuverable – slam on the brakes, and you can flip about in the sky like a stunt kite, invulnerable to physics.

Off Mode is supposed to make dogfighting and missile evasion easier and more entertaining. Good news: for once, HAWX meets and exceeds expectations. When in Off Mode, the camera immediately trains on whatever threat is most immediate, giving the player the opportunity to pull a tight loop, dodge a missile and return fire in one deft maneuver. When it happens – and it happens often – it’s exhilarating and supremely satisfying. Strange, that HAWX is at its best when it pitches anything approximating realism and goes for pure action.

HAWX could have been saved by a varied and engaging spread of missions; what it serves instead is a predictable platter of escorts, strikes and interceptions across celebrity locales like Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. At no point will you be surprised during the HAWX campaign; very rarely will you be challenged. While the opportunity to engage in fairly entertaining combat across a beautiful landscape (and HAWX is nothing if not really, really pretty) is enough most of the time, I found myself wanting more.

For aircraft aficionados, HAWX is an unlikely goldmine – the list of flyable aircraft is astonishing not only in length but depth. Predictable models like the F-22 Raptor, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-14 Tomcat all show up to play, but so do some fairly eccentric choices. HAWX fully indulges my fetish for Vietnam-era aircraft, dusting off the all-but-forgotten A-7 Corsair, A-6 Intruder, F-4 Phantom, F-5 Tiger and MiG-21 Fishbed. The cockpits are recreated in loving fidelity, even if the flight models aren’t.

HAWX is pretty but dumb, to be enjoyed for what it is but with low expectations – despite the advantage of a late entry, this is not the best pseudo-sim of this generation, not even close. It can be brought new on Amazon for $30, which makes it worthwhile for curious parties – or weirdos with a fetish for third-world fighters, looking to take up and F-5 and make it flip around like a goddamned tossed coin.