Tom Clancy's HAWX takes Ubisoft's brand of near-future espionage into the wild blue yonder as you take on the role of a fighter pilot and fly combat missions in a decidedly Ace Combat-like fashion. There are some cool ideas in HAWX that can make the art of flying quite a bit easier for novice players, and an "assistance OFF" toggle that lets you flip and stall your plane with a camera angle designed to make dogfights more dynamic. The bulk of the game, though, is focused on you putting your targeting reticle onto a yellow box until the yellow box turns red. Then you push the fire button once or twice and move on to the next target. Add in an unhealthy obsession with defensive or escort objectives and you've got a game with a solid core that doesn't focus enough on its strengths to leave you feeling fully satisfied.
It also made a pretty awful first impression with me, at least on the 360. There's some sort of bug in the game that can cause it to crash at the title screen. I booted the game up five times and it crashed three of those five times, both when running off the disc and when installed to the hard drive. After asking around online, I was able to at least determine that I wasn't alone, but it doesn't seem to be happening to everyone. Some people claim that performing maintenance on the 360 hard drive (which is done via an undocumented code on the dashboard) clears it up. I didn't spend tons of time trying to troubleshoot the issue, and instead decided to just play and finish it in a couple of sittings on the occasions that I got it to boot up. Regardless, it's a pretty embarrassing issue for a shipping product to have.
Once I got past that, I dove into the campaign. It opens with you flying for the United States as a part of the HAWX squadron. For the record, that stands for "High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron," which is a pretty busted acronym. After a few missions with Uncle Sam, your squadron is disbanded and you sign up with Artemis, a private military company that takes on contracts and flies missions for the highest bidder. Because this is the same Tom Clancy universe that is constantly putting the USA in dangerous situations and portraying attacks on domestic soil, you can see the plot points unfolding about a mission or two before they actually happen. It all feels a little hokey, and unlike the other Clancy games, watching the intrigue play out in pre-mission briefings or from the relatively anonymous comfort of a fighter jet makes you feel completely detached from the goings-on. Yeah, you might be averting nuclear situations or covering a Ghost Recon squad, but it's all just yellow boxes and red boxes when you're in the cockpit.
The base level of action in HAWX is on-par with what you'd expect out of a modern flight combat game. You turn, you burn, and you blast targets using one of the hundreds of missiles you're issued. You'll also bomb ground targets in some cases, and the bombing interface is easy to get the hang of thanks to an incredibly friendly HUD. HAWX seems designed for people who don't want to learn about Immelmann turns, Split Ss, or other air combat maneuvers. At any point, you can hit a button to bring up a handy on-screen guide that, depending on your current situation, guides you to your next target, gets you in behind a targeted enemy jet, or guides you through evasive tactics designed to dodge incoming missiles. It's useful to the point of making the game a little too easy in spots. Either way, the on-screen indicator gates look pretty cool while they're at it.
The other part of HAWX that breaks rank with the typical air combat game is called OFF, or Assistance OFF mode. This mode turns off the safety protocols that keep your plane from stalling out, and with them disengaged, you can execute wicked drift turns that let you quickly change direction, making it useful for swinging around to get a missile lock on an enemy at your rear. If you brake too hard and turn too much, your plane will stall and start falling, but it's really easy to get it going again. The camera also pulls out to a dynamic, distance third-person view of your plane. This can make it sort of tough to line up shots on your opponents, but it also gives you a clear view of just how crazy your plane looks as it flips and whips around in the sky. It's just sort of a shame that there aren't many situations in the campaign that really demand this sort of technique. Overall, the control in HAWX is just fine. The game lets you employ some one-word voice commands to perform many basic tasks, but pressing a button beats saying "SHOOT" into your headset every time.
The campaign can also be played cooperatively by up to four players online, which makes things even easier. You can certainly raise the difficulty setting, but this just appears to play around with how much ammo you start a mission with and how much damage you can take, rather than making the enemy pilots more intense. There's also a versus mode that lets two teams of up to four players battle it out in a team dogfight. When you earn kills, you earn points that can be used to call in temporary support powers, like drones that can heal your team's planes, EMP pulses that cause the enemy to stall, jammers that prevent enemy missiles from locking on, and so on. If you're into dogfighting, it all works pretty well. But since that's the only mode available, all of those bombers and air-to-ground missile packages you keep unlocking in the single-player mode are totally worthless. The match filters have room for multiple game types, but the only available option is "Team Deathmatch," leaving the impression that they're going to try to get you to pay for more multiplayer modes down the line.
HAWX is pretty easy on the eyes, with good-looking plane models, solid in-air explosions when your missiles hit their mark, and decent-looking ground, though some of the textures you'll see when flying low are a little low-res. The HUD elements are numerous, but easy-to-understand. You'll occasionally get some polygonal dudes showing up in picture-in-picture windows to advance the story mid-mission. They look sort of bad if you stare at them, but considering you'll usually be focused on a sky full of yellow targeting boxes, they don't stand out too much.
HAWX is a little too short and a little too easy to recommend wholeheartedly, though if the thought of embarking on a cooperative jet-fighting mission or participating in high-powered dogfights is enough to get your pulse racing, you'll probably find enough going on to keep you occupied.