Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tom Clancy's HAWX

I want to bet that the same development team, with an upgraded flight physics engine and a new graphics team, built HAWX as built Blazing Angels. From the moment I booted it up, it felt all too familiar. Of course, the surprise is that while Blazing Angels pretty much sucked, HAWX is pretty fun. A little shallow, but fun.

First off, the install time took forever. Forever enough that I saw it was going to take a while, so I made some cookies and put them in the oven. Then came back and looked. Then had a pipe and waited. Then the cookies were done right before the game installed itself. It was easily twenty five minutes or something like that. And, of course, it's installing and taking up your valuable time without actually getting you any sort of entertainment value. And there're still long-ass loading times before missions.

So, having gotten that out of the way, on to the meat.

The basic flight system is nearly identical to Blazing Angels. Your airplane will fly in the direction in which it's pointed, even if that's straight up. One of my friends complains about "airplanes in space" for games like Wing Commander. This flight system is "spaceships close to the ground". However, I'm far more willing to accept this trope on a jet than I was on a prop-plane. The ideal modern fighter would fly that way, and they get closer daily. Unlike a P-51, which should fly like a period aircraft.

They also solved a couple of problems from the previous game. First, they opened the ceiling way up--15km up, or something like that. I never found myself hitting it, and I also rarely found myself crashing during dogfights. Since they had an "in-game", motivated HUD to work with, they could justify marking the ceiling and map borders directly on the screen as red and blue walls.

There were no takeoffs or landings, which actually detracted greatly from Blazing Angels. With such unrealistic physics, there's no joy in taking off or landing. Likewise, there was absolutely nothing like the horribly broken emergency landing event from the older game.

There was however, the Obligatory Canyon Level. However, it was far less annoying and acted as the epilogue, not an integral mission.

And then there was the big addition to the game: Assistance OFF Mode. By double-clicking either of the throttle buttons, you switch to a new camera angle. In this angle, the throttle-down button allows you to brake to the point of stall and perform post stall maneuvers. To which my initial reaction was, "That's cool, but utter bullshit."

But, it turns out that the current generation of fighters are, for the most part, designed to stall with favorable properties. So, even without thrust vectoring, you can probably do most of the stunts with the modern aircraft. The 40 year old ones, not so much.

But, as a gameplay mechanic, it's pretty fun. Mainly, it's useful to be able to dodge missiles (without expending precious flares) and cut short otherwise tiresome dogfights--the bad guys don't seem to know how to do this OFF mode stuff.

The one complaint I've heard is that the plane controls are difficult in OFF mode. It is true that the camera goes to a cinematic view, putting your plane between your target and the camera. And it's also true that your controls continue to be relative to your plane. But, input-to-game motion is highly assisted unless you choose for complete manual control. And it's easier than flying an RC plane, which plenty of folks out there haven't found impossible. Suck it up and display some adaptability.

The developers also saw fit to include a feature that computes flightpaths for you. So, you lock on to a dude, press the button, and it indicates gates in the air through which you should fly to wind up on his tail. I almost totally ignored this option, as it takes forever to fly all of the gates. I could always get there faster myself. But, for a couple of ground-attack runs it was helpful. And it's mandatory in one mission.

HAWX is definitely an arcade-style fighter jet game. It's not a simulator by any stretch. Even putting aside the rather, uh, optimistic flight physics, it's nothing like flying a real fighter. All of the weapons work at roughly visual range. You carry about two hundred missiles. Which is good, because you'll be fighting a couple hundred targets every mission.

And some of those missions are fiendishly difficult. Not because they require any great precision flight or because they require advanced tactical reasoning. Just because there are a million fast-moving targets attacking your defense objective and only one of you. Well, and a couple of wingmen (whose planes invariably fly three times faster than yours for some reason).

It's in these missions that the online CO-OP really shines. Assuming you can find three other people who won't all stupidly go after the same flight of enemies, having some other humans in the mission radically improves your odds of success. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the moment the game is multiplayer, you respawn ten seconds after dying instead of dropping back to the last checkpoint.

My biggest gripe with the CO-OP mode is a technical one. Nowhere is there the option to turn off voice chat completely. No headset, and the incoherent echoes and feedback from everybody else's mic is pumped out your speakers at full-blast. Plug in a headset to end the noise, and you just contribute to the problem. The interplay between headsets and high-power hi-fi gear is complex, and the player should always be given the option to opt out.

My biggest gripe with the Versus mode is also a technical one: I think it's fucking busted, at least on the PS3. I tried to join a versus game several dozen times. I let it sit. I refreshed. I stopped trying to find a match, and restarted it. I twiddled with my modem and fiddled with my router.

It appeared to work once. But, when I got into the game, I couldn't target any of the other players. And there were a bunch of AI-controlled airplanes. Either it dumped me into a CO-OP game when I was looking for versus, or "versus" actually means "whoever shoots down the most AI targets wins". The former option is pretty lame, but the latter would be absolutely unforgivable. However, I was dropped from that game within about forty-five seconds, so I never got to find out. And this was after I brought the game home on launch day to find that there was already a patch available (v1.01).

The variety of planes is excellent. Lots of neat jets from the last forty years of military aviation, and a half dozen from the next fifteen years. All of them very well rendered, with plenty of attention to detail. Everything articulates nicely.

There's also a good selection of diverse weaponry. None of it's "name brand" weaponry, except the Joint Strike Missile (which is still in development IRL). For instance, it's not an AMRAAM it's just a "radar guided missile". But, there's plenty to choose from, with each available weapons package for each plane locked to your progress.

The graphics are quite decent. The terrain, derived from satellite photography, is detailed and varied. I do wish they'd gone with smaller HUD infographics, as it means you see only the infographic until you're a few hundred meters from another plane. But, there's not much else to complain about graphically. No slowdown.

Overall, I'd say that HAWX is, ehh, decent enough. I really wish it had been a simulator, but I see the market issues with releasing a realistic simulator. But, as a game, viewed on its own merits, HAWX is decent enough. Pretty short, with broken multiplayer, but fun for the week it interests you.


  1. When you say you had to install the game, is that because you're downloading it, or because it goes through some caching process when you first play?

  2. Hector:

    No, all the latest and greatest games cache huge swaths of shit to your harddrive.


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