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Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2
Graphics: 7.4
Gameplay: 7.3
Sound: 7.1
Control: 7
Replay Value: 7
Rating: 7.2

Flight games are few and far between these days (despite the recent announcement of a new Ace Combat), and it can be difficult to find a quality title if you’re a big fan of the genre. However, we have seen some pretty impressive installments this generation, including IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, and Ubisoft’s follow-up to last year’s Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. seemed quite promising. Therefore, we went into this review with high hopes, but while the game has its fair share of highlights and pluses, it falls shy of expectations. The diversity and variety does contribute to the experience, the view from above is almost always a pleasure to behold, and there are plenty of intense, fulfilling moments. On the other hand, there’s some annoying AI, a few small control issues, and not enough distinction between the available planes. In short, it’s not quite as smooth and engaging as one might hope.

Utilizing the fancy GeoEye technology, which allowed Ubisoft to realistically implement terrain via true-to-life satellite imagery, helps to add some flash and authenticity. As I just said, things really tend to look great from the sky, especially when flying through certain exotic locales. The only downside is that the cut-scenes and in-game detail isn’t exactly finely honed, as characters and planes are little more than average in terms of visual clarity and intricate design. The effects can be pretty damn sweet, though – getting up close and personal with any given explosion boosts adrenaline – and that very nice environment is always a bonus. It’s just that the entire graphical presentation isn’t consistent, and there are times when you get close to the landscape and cringe. In some ways, it’s one of the better-looking flight titles you’ve ever played; in others, it’s an incomplete, even somewhat bland production. Sorta like a dichotomy.

There’s inconsistency in the sound, too: when fighting in close, explosions and impacts are clear and even splendid, and the voice acting isn’t too bad, either. On the flip side, other effects fall well short: for instance, when taking damage, you would expect something pretty in-your-face. After all, your plane was just hit. But you barely notice any damage, which is definitely bizarre, and all in all, the effects aren’t brought to the forefront very often. The music works, though, as the soundtrack always kicks up a notch when things are about to go crazy, and we get some appreciated tunes that enhance the satisfying flight action. The voiceovers are hit or miss but that fits with the rest of the production, now doesn’t it? Much like the visuals, there are times when you’ll love most every aspect of the sound and others when the bare spots come through.

For starters, H.A.W.X. 2 is a cross between arcade-style and simulation flight. The mechanics are semi-realistic and quite accessible, but it will take time and patience to master such agile and extraordinarily complex machines. Here, you will take off, land, perform reconnaissance, escort allies, engage in massive dogfights, go after ground targets, and even refuel in midair. Most of it works pretty well but there are a few definite hiccups, especially in regards to that midair refueling. Like most titles in the genre, you will begin by learning the basics, which isn’t supposed to be super intense and only introduces you to the core mechanics. This is a little boring but then again, what training isn’t boring? Besides, you’ll quickly notice the solid frame rate and fluidity of the action, and you’ll soon be turning, banking, rolling, and aiming with relative ease. But dedication is key.

Ubisoft puts a lot of emphasis on the story, which I happen to like. You will continually rotate between three perspectives; that of the US, UK and Russia; there’s a huge nuclear threat and to top it all off, protagonist Colonel David Crenshaw has been taken captive. During your adventure, you’ll be able to fly 32 different types of planes including the F22 Raptor and various MiGs but really, there isn’t enough difference between each model. Most flying missions feel the same from a control standpoint, regardless of your high-powered flying machine. That’s a downside but at the same time, at least you don’t have to refine your technique every time you step into a new plane. Then there’s that variety I spoke of; it can be challenging to land, but you can take advantage of the ERS (Enhanced Reality System), which almost makes the process a little too easy. …but I kinda remember how hard it can be to land in other flight games, so I’m good with the help.

There are also other missions that don’t involve flying. You’ve got surveillance missions and you can even step behind the turrets of an AC-130, which gives you a break from the standard dogfighting. The only problem here is that such missions prove unexciting; the UAV missions don’t involve much of anything besides aiming the reticule over a certain piece of land, and although I applaud the attempt at more military variety, they probably should’ve stuck with the flying. Dogfighting is the game’s highlight: the controls are both accessible and responsive, and it can get super intense when trying to take down multiple foes. At first, the AI isn’t much of a challenge but as you move forward, you’ll come across more agile and aggressive enemies. This can cause a bit of an issue, though, as you’ll have limited ammunition and in many cases, limited time. This is where that “annoying” part comes into play.

You have three difficulty levels, which means even the more casual flight fans can probably have some fun winging about the dangerous skies, but the pacing might chafe. The non-flying missions just feel too bland and during the second half of the campaign, the AI spikes and things become much more difficult. It’s just not the type of game that warrants hours upon hours of nonstop play, although I can see hardcore flight aficionados reveling in the varied objectives and mission structures. From night raids to carrier landings to perfectly timed attacks, there’s always plenty to try. It doesn’t always work as seamlessly as you would want, but at least there’s a conscious effort to bring us something new. As for the online play, I didn’t notice many problems but then again, I didn’t find many people flying around, either. The system crashed once but beyond that, there wasn’t anything notable on the positive or negative side.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2 is a decent flight game that needed to be tighter but still retains some semblance of entertainment. The flying itself is what matters most and despite the drawbacks, you’ll still feel your palms getting sweaty during some of the more dynamic, challenging missions. That being said, the AI spikes halfway through, the control can be iffy during specific actions, the graphics are a little inconsistent, and the special non-flying objectives don’t quite cut the mustard. It might be a good option for the hardcore, though.

9/14/2010   Ben Dutka